ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — Peyton Manning flew to New York this spring to pay his respects to Derek Jeter and David Letterman, two much-admired superstars in the middle of their long goodbyes.
“I’m sad to see some of these guys retiring,” the Broncos quarterback said at the time. “I’m not far behind.”
Yet retirement really isn’t on Manning’s radar as he prepares for his 17th NFL season, his third in Denver. Coming off the best two-year stretch of his career, Manning is keeping tacklers, tedium and time itself at bay.
At 38, Manning said he’ll keep playing as long as he’s still productive and loves the game.
That passion and productivity were on full display last season when he won his fifth MVP award and set single-season records by passing for 55 touchdowns and more than 5,500 yards.
There are no signs of his affection or efficiency ebbing anytime soon, either.
“You see it in how he prepares every day,” center Manny Ramirez said. “We’re here in the offseason and he’s still putting the same amount of focus as he does in-season, preparing, trying to get better every day, trying to pick apart the defenses.”
“I still enjoy the work and preparation,” said Manning, who lost wide receiver Eric Decker to the Jets but gained coveted free agent Emmanuel Sanders and prized rookie Cody Latimer.
That turnover actually helps keep Manning young at heart, coach John Fox suggested.
“There’s so much change in the NFL nowadays that I think that keeps the juices flowing, whether that’s getting Emmanuel Sanders up to speed or last year, Wes Welker. Anytime you put a new cog in there, that’s an adjustment,” Fox said. “I think he takes pride in that and he attacks that. He seems to me to be having a great time.”
Manning would like to play out his contract, which runs through 2016. Yet, while he’s not pondering retirement, he said in an interview with The Associated Press that he has certainly contemplated what it will be like.
“Sometimes I sort of kick back and I pause and I think what sorts of things would I miss the most if I wasn’t playing,” Manning said.
The answer hits him like one of those teeth-rattling sacks by Robert Mathis.
“Being in the huddle,” Manning said. “That’s what I missed most when I was injured, I’ll say that. I mean, there’s no other type of unity or bond that I think any other job can provide. I know there are meetings, there are video conferences. But that huddle, because of where it takes place: it’s often on the road, in the middle of the field, in front of 80,000 people, it’s unique.”
It’s what excites him even at an age when many quarterbacks have retired to the broadcast booth or are hitting the links instead of the weights.
“When you don’t play football anymore, you can broadcast, you can coach, you can be in management, whatever, but you are not allowed to go into the huddle anymore,” Manning said. “That huddle is just for players. You can go into the locker room after the game and you can speak to the team, but I think any retired player would probably tell you they miss the huddle.”
The way Manning has guided the Broncos to a 28-8 record over the last two years belies how far he had fallen when he was forced to sit out the 2011 season in Indianapolis and even had to look in a mirror to relearn his release point after a series of neck surgeries weakened his throwing arm to the point he could hardly grip, much less throw, a football.
Manning’s reboot has turned into a blessing.
“Yeah, although I have to say, some guys might need a year off to whatever, relight to fire, whatever it may be. I didn’t need a year off to remind me of how much I love football,” Manning said. “But when you have it, it sure does reinforce what you kind of always thought, that I do love it.”
Working with play-caller Adam Gase and new teammates has revitalized Manning.
“Sometimes it, the monotonous routine, the boredom, that pushes guys out, not the physical part of it,” Manning said. “And I have been stimulated the past two years working with Adam and working with different teammates, so it does sort of keep the bounce in you, I think.”
Manning doesn’t view himself so much as a 17-year NFL veteran but as Denver’s third-year quarterback.
“I really feel because it’s a new team, post-injury, it’s kind of a new me. That’s how I have to look at it,” Manning said. “I’m a different player from before I was injured. I’m not saying better, worse, whatever, just a different player. And so what I can compare myself most accurately to is my first season here in Denver and kind of how I am physically and how I am with my teammates and with Adam and so it’s helped to have now two years to build off that baseline.”
He no longer feels like a visitor in his own locker room.
“And I like going into that huddle,” Manning said. “I like the guys that I get to work with. I like lifting weights, working with Wes Welker, doing a set of bench press with Jacob Tamme, I like working with the guys that I play with and I still like learning. I like being challenged by Adam every day to be a better football player. There are a lot of things that I still enjoy about it.
“And I look forward to driving over here every day. I think as soon as you go, ‘Golly, I do not want to go over there today,’ that’s when you’ve got to get out.”