The question was simple: Are you coming back next year?
As was the case with almost everything Sunday, Peyton Manning didn’t have much of an answer. Or at least not the ones Broncos fans were looking for.
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A few minutes after Denver’s 24-13 loss to Indianapolis in the AFC divisional playoffs, the 38-year-old quarterback was noncommittal about returning for the 2015 season, which would be his fourth in the Mile High City.
Asked in his postgame news conference where his mindset is for next season, Manning reiterated what he had said earlier to Broncos play-by-play voice Dave Logan: "I didn’t have a great answer for him."
Asked again, directly, if he could say "I’m coming back," Manning didn’t budge, saying he was more focused on the disappointment of the loss to his former team.
"I can’t give a simple answer without processing it," he said. "I can’t say that. I could not say that."
A marked contrast from last year at the Super Bowl, when Manning committed to coming back for 2014, or as recently as two weeks ago, when he said he "certainly" planned on being back for 2015 if the Broncos would have him.
Until the middle of November, that never looked as if it was in doubt.
Then, came the 22-7 loss to the Rams that motivated the Broncos to revamp their entire offense, turning a unit that broke NFL records for scoring and passing in 2013 into a grind-it-out operation.
Around then, questions percolated about the health of the 17th-year quarterback. In the aftermath of his 26-for-46, 211-yard performance against his former team — his second home playoff loss in the AFC divisional round in three seasons in Denver — Manning was forthcoming about a thigh bruise he suffered in a Dec. 14 game at San Diego. Yes, it lingered, but it wasn’t bad enough to keep him out of this one.
"Nothing more to it than that," he said. "And I … felt good with it coming into the day."
If he’s not injured, that leaves only one obvious explanation for the deterioration of his game.
He’s getting old. Fast.
Stats tell part of the story. Since the Rams game, his quarterback rating has been 84.6, about 13 points below his career average.
Pictures do, too. Even for a quarterback who can’t run, it was hard watching him roll out in the third quarter, then pass up the run and instead throw an incompletion despite a 20-yard gap between him and any defender on a third-and-5.
"Didn’t play well enough today and didn’t play well enough consistently in the second half of the season, especially in the games we lost," Manning said.
His unwillingness to commit made coach John Fox’s same stance behind the same podium a few minutes earlier seem more understandable.
Asked about a pregame report that he could be available if the Broncos suffered a loss Sunday, Fox hardly shot it down.
"I don’t make those decisions," he said. "I don’t control that. My intentions are to be a Denver Bronco and have been since I got here."
It should make Monday, and Tuesday and beyond interesting at Broncos headquarters, where executive vice president John Elway will be meeting with everyone, figuring out whether he needs to go to the "Plan B" that he readily admitted he didn’t have when he threw all his chips in with Manning in the 2012 offseason.
The goal was Super Bowl titles. Instead, Manning is 2-3 in the playoffs with Denver.
Because of uncertainty about his comeback from multiple neck surgeries, Manning didn’t receive a signing bonus when he came to Denver, so the cost of him leaving would be negligible and would free up the $38 million he stands to make over the next two seasons.
Still, Elway spent $60 million in guaranteed money last offseason on long-term contracts to upgrade his defense, which he said was the missing piece after Denver’s 43-8 loss to the Seahawks last season in the Super Bowl.
The idea — one Elway reiterated to Manning at midseason when things started going south — was that the quarterback shouldn’t have to do it all himself.
But the Broncos can’t do it when he’s not playing well, either. And so, it’s time for some soul searching, which for Manning will begin Monday.
It may not be pretty.
"I’ve always taken a pretty accurate look and fair evaluation of myself," he said. "I think I’m as honest with myself as anybody else is and probably as critical of myself as anybody else is."