John Elway doesn't see Peyton Manning riding off into that orange Rocky Mountain sunset the way Elway did 15 years ago if the Denver Broncos quarterback caps his record-setting season with a second Super Bowl ring.
Elway's body was breaking down, having been sacked 516 times — 244 more than Manning has been in about the same number of games.
"I still think he's young and he's playing well," Elway, now the Broncos' executive vice president, said Thursday of his quarterback, who's coming off his best statistical season just two years removed from neck problems that weakened his throwing arm. "That's going to come down to Peyton. It's going to come down to what he wants to do."
Manning has given no indication that he's anywhere near calling it quits at age 37, although he has dropped phrases lately like "light at the end of the tunnel" when talking about his career.
Elway takes that to mean Manning knows that whenever he does walk away, these are the days he'll look back on.
Manning is preparing to lead the Broncos (14-3) against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots (13-4) Sunday in the AFC championship.
Elway said he'll meet with Manning after the season to talk about his future. But the four-time MVP who will likely have No. 5 soon certainly doesn't seem to be wringing the last Sundays out of his battered body like Elway was doing back in 1998. After all, Manning has thrown for 97 touchdowns in his two seasons in Denver, including an NFL-record 55 this season.
"When you leave this game, you want to leave it on your last leg and try not to leave anything on the table. ... I was just fortunate to be able to be on two great football teams and be able to win world championships when my 'last leg' broke," said Elway, who retired after leading the Broncos to their second straight Super Bowl title on Jan. 31, 1999.
"I missed four games my last year. So, could I have gotten through another year? Sure, I could have," Elway said. "But would it have been at the level I want? ... Was I enjoying the game as much as I had enjoyed it? No, because it took me so long to heal. It was kind of the beginning of the body breaking down. So the combination of both — and being able to run off into the sunset — made it easier for me."
Elway said running the Broncos' front office has proven much different from running the team from the huddle.
"It takes some getting used to," he said. "I enjoy watching the regular season games, but I was absolutely miserable last week watching this game. I mean, it took me four hours to get the pit out of my stomach after the game was over."
Elway has hit the jackpot less in the draft than in free agency, none bigger than when he lured Manning to Denver after his release by the Indianapolis Colts.
Together, the two great quarterbacks are one win from returning to the Super Bowl.
"He has been a great resource," Manning said. "He doesn't come to our quarterback meetings and he is not on the phones with me during the game. I think he wants to make that clear. It's his job to hire good people to communicate with me on those. At the same time, I think you would be crazy not to ask a quarterback with his experience questions.
"And it was kind of the same way growing up. My dad was never my coach by any means. But when you enjoy playing quarterback and you want to learn about the position, you try to use resources around you and so I have asked John a number of questions and he's provided me with knowledge or tidbits from experiences that he's had and he's been very helpful that way."
Elway said his conversations with Manning are less X's and O's and more philosophical.
"There is a fraternity and there is a closeness among quarterbacks," Elway said. "I enjoy those conversations and we've had a lot of good ones."
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