The Fast (and Unusual) Decline of Peyton Manning

November 16, 2015 Updated: November 16, 2015

This is not the Peyton Manning we’re used to seeing.

The NFL’s five-time MVP, who is considered by most to be the best ever at his position, just endured a 5/20 passing for 35 yards and 4 interception performance at the hands of the Chiefs.

It’s just the latest—and worst—in a series of subpar performances this year that we’re not used to seeing from NFL’s all-time leader in TD passes, passing yards, and a whole host of other categories. Of course, injury (it was just revealed that he has a partially torn plantar fascia) would appear to be the reason for his demise this season.

The 39-year-old Manning, who has a career quarterback rating of 96.5, has posted a 67.6 rating—the worst of his career—through nine games this year, which ranks him 32nd out of 33 qualifiers this season. That’s a far cry from the days when he was an annual Pro Bowl attendee—like as recently as last year.

If this proves to be his final season, it’ll be a sad end to a first-ballot Hall-of-Fame career.

While some players have retired well past their expiration dates (Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice come to mind), there have been a few who hung it up while still in their primes—think Barry Sanders and the great Jim Brown.

But while both Smith, who finished his career with Arizona averaging 3.5 yards per carry, and Rice, who caught just 30 passes for two different teams in his farewell season, had clearly lost a step, Manning’s career has taken a different path. Until suffering a quad injury late in 2014, he was in the running for his sixth MVP award—at age 38. In other words, there was no real sign of a decline last year that would have his fans clamoring for him to retire. He was still on top.

Unfortunately, this year it’s been his willingness to play through a foot injury—not his relatively advanced age—that has clearly cost him some zip on his passes.

Quarterbacks typically have the longest shelf life of any position in the NFL—foot speed isn’t so important in their crafts—and so it’s not impossible for them to keep going into their late 30s. But to still be among the best players in the game at such an advanced age is a testament to the hard work that Manning—quite possibly the game’s most talented overachiever ever—has put in over the years. It would seem cruel for it to end this way.