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Peyton Manning's difficult ending

INDIANAPOLIS -- And so, inevitably, the conversation about perfect endings comes careening back toward John Elway, circa 1999. That sounds about right, doesn't it?

Thirteen years later Elway's escape into the rainy South Florida night, at the far edge of Super Bowl XXXIII and his transcendent victory with the Broncos over the Falcons, remains the most staggering, elusive example of a guy going out on top. And those ensuing years have done nothing if not cement what a long shot such an act truly is.

Do we speak the truth, Peyton Manning?

The most desperately difficult achievement in professional sports, once you get past the part of actually making it to the top in the first place, is the clean getaway. It just never changes, that fact. It is a notion that the Manning imbroglio has brought back with abundant force here this week -- here of all places, of course. Here and right now.

The Manning conversation, with its back-and-forth and its rehab updates, with its weird, can't-stop-himself-from-responding Jim Irsay element, with Colts fans hanging on every development yet dreading that the result they fear is just around the corner -- all of it throws into bold relief how rarely even the greats among the greats get to audible out of their endings.

And of course no one knows how Manning's case will resolve. Maybe he doesn't play at all next season, or ever again. Maybe, as his personal progress report to ESPN on Tuesday suggested, he's on track to play in 2012, for whomever, under circumstances at which only the football gods might yet guess.

It could be riveting. It could be hideous, certainly. History hints that it's only rarely a great result. The examples of Hall of Famers for whom the end has been undignified, unplanned or just plain crappy is astoundingly long and varied.

You page through the annals of the NFL and you get John Unitas in San Diego, or Steve Young forced into retirement via concussion. You get Brett Favre's serial stops and starts, or Donovan McNabb's multi-team shuffle. You get Jerry Rice skipping around places like Oakland, Seattle, even a preseason stop in Denver. You've seen it play out a hundred times on dozens of stages, and it almost always feels wrong. Even for players who get to wind down with their original teams, a true walk-off moment rarely occurs.

That context serves to underscore the beauty and majesty of an ending done right. And for that, respect must be paid.

Maybe the closest thing to the truth is that Elway -- whatever else he may have been thinking about the subject of retirement as the 1998 NFL season drew to a close -- recognized a golden moment when he saw it. He certainly seized it as though he knew what was going on around him.

He got it right. His Broncos, a Mike Shanahan production, had stormed to the Super Bowl in Miami and were strongly favored over Atlanta. The Falcons were coached by Dan Reeves, the man with whom both Elway and Shanahan had feuded (as Denver's coach, Reeves had fired Shanahan years earlier because he thought Shanahan was trying to undermine him with Elway) and someone whom both would savor beating.

Elway was 38. The subject of his career arc already had been in full rotation for most of the season, but there was no doubt that he was looking for the right door. And so, after throwing for 336 yards and a touchdown and letting his defense do the rest in a 34-19 victory over Reeves' Falcons, Elway simply called his shot. He walked out of a Hall of Fame career with a Hall of Fame exit line, he and Shanahan having teamed to win two NFL championships in a row.

After a restive week in South Florida, it was a strangely calm night. The weather had been unpredictable, but at game time the wind fell to nothing and the rain declined to fall. The Falcons and Broncos had traded barbs during the media walk-up to kickoff, and Eugene Robinson's arrest the night before lent a vaguely sinister air, but the game itself was all Denver. It never felt remotely in doubt.

Elway savored it. He had enjoyed the week leading up to the game, and he played against the Falcons like a man who knew it wasn't going to get any better. He smiled. He hooked up with Rod Smith on a classic, over-the-top Elway throw for a touchdown. It was a vintage performance by a quarterback who was, by that point, vintage in his own right.

And that was that. Elway enjoyed the aftermath, watched the rain that ultimately did fall later in the night, got up the next day and proceeded into the next phase of his busy life. He got his ending.

In a perfect world, Peyton Manning gets a sendoff like that. Of course, in a perfect world Dan Marino gets another Super Bowl appearance, or Barry Sanders gets one at all -- you know the drill. It's no knock on a great career that it comes without a signature walk-off. Call it a bonus.

What Peyton Manning gets, instead, is what's happening right now. It's a lot of talk and not much action. It is speculation and forecasting and the occasional flare-up of ill will or just plain annoyance, either from Manning's camp or Irsay's. And there really are no great villains here. It's just the toughest thing in the world to do, to exit smiling.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His book "The Voodoo Wave" is in international release. His work "Six Good Innings" was named a Top 10 Sports Book by Booklist. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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