O'Connor: Peyton Manning calls the smartest audible of his career

Peyton Manning always had the best eyes in the business, right? He would carefully approach the line of scrimmage, survey the defense side to side and up and down, and then start flailing his arms about as if he had gotten really carried away conducting the New York Philharmonic in Lincoln Center.

Only this time he wasn’t looking across the way at some vile defensive matrix installed by Bill Belichick. Manning was staring down his future, or the potential future he had next fall with the Los Angeles Rams or Houston Texans or somebody else other than the Denver Broncos, and in the end it did not seem like anything his 40-year-old body or mind could handle.

His own mother said it Super Bowl night as the confetti rained down on her near her son’s championship stage. “I would like for Peyton to retire, I would,” Olivia Manning told two reporters. Asked to explain why, she said, “Well, we’re on top, and physically I just don’t think it’s worth going on. You won a Super Bowl. That’s the best way to go out.”

Deep down, Peyton had to see exactly what his mother saw, and what his boss John Elway saw, too. When he retired following a second consecutive Super Bowl victory, Elway said he physically couldn’t do it anymore. Manning’s body spent most of the 2015 season telling him the same thing.

But this wasn’t only about the pounding Manning would’ve surely absorbed next season from pass-rushers, almost certainly while playing for a different, lesser team. As much as he weighed suiting up one more season for the love of the game and for a shot to perform at a higher level in one last Super Bowl, Manning knew he would face more questions about the HGH allegations made in the Al Jazeera report and the resurfacing of a 1996 incident at the University of Tennessee. In the latter, a female athletic trainer alleged he had placed his exposed genitals on her face; the quarterback claimed he was merely “mooning” another male athlete in the room.

Manning angrily and immediately denounced the Al Jazeera story. He’s yet to do the same in the Tennessee incident, now part of a Title IX lawsuit filed by a group of women against the university for allegedly creating “a hostile sexual environment” and a culture of “deliberate indifference” when it came to sexual assault. Manning is said to be bound by a 1997 confidentiality agreement as part of a university settlement that paid a reported $ 300,000 to his alleged victim, Jamie Naughright, who later sued Manning for defamation on a claim he violated their agreement by addressing the incident and criticizing her in a book he wrote with his father, Archie.

Manning likely will be asked about both cases in his Monday news conference in Denver and about whether they played a role in his decision to retire. The guess here is Manning will again vehemently deny he ever used HGH, and he will again slam the report for citing his wife, Ashley, who allegedly received the HGH shipment from an anti-aging clinic. The guess here is Manning will decline to discuss details of the Tennessee case and hope they will ultimately fade to black while he pursues a second career in broadcasting, front-office work or ownership.

Manning knew it would be harder to dodge the questions next season while back behind center, wearing No. 18, than it would be to dodge them as a game analyst or executive. If he says in his news conference these two cases had nothing to do with his retirement, frankly it would be tough to believe him.

The NFL should continue investigating whether Manning or any other players used HGH and shouldn’t view the quarterback’s retirement as an excuse to quietly put it to bed. The public has a right to know whether any player, retired or not, used performance-enhancing drugs, and the league needs to enthusiastically pursue the truth.

The Tennessee/Naughright case is a bit more complicated, and it is framed by witnesses who have given conflicting published accounts about something that happened two decades ago.

In an ESPN.com piece last spring detailing why I thought Jameis Winston represented the biggest gamble in modern draft history, I wrote of the Ryan Leaf gamble avoided by Bill Polian at the top of the draft in 1998, when the Colts GM selected Peyton Manning instead. When I asked Polian if the Naughright allegation gave him reason to pause on Manning, he said everyone he interviewed in and around the quarterback’s life offered up nothing but glowing recommendations.

“Everybody does stupid things at that age,” Polian said last year, “and that’s not an indication of character. It’s how you live your life that’s an indication of character, and Peyton’s was fine.”

Truth is, superstar athletes are never exactly what their sponsors want you to believe they are. They’re just as flawed as the rest of us, sometimes more so, and we shouldn’t be so shocked when their human imperfections are revealed.

Manning knows in his heart what is true and what isn’t, and this is all the rest of us know: He is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, and he is a guy who knew how to read the opposition like nobody else.

This time around, Manning saw a lot of ominous noise and traffic on the other side of the line in the form of younger, faster defenders and storylines that did him no favors. Though his perfect Super Bowl ending was dented by injuries and allegations old and new, Manning called an audible on the temptation to give it one more crack.

It was the smartest call of a career that was smarter than most.

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