Peyton Manning of La Mancha

Only professional athletes die twice. The first time when they retire.

Which brings us to Peyton Manning and the various states of his being. Like Schrödinger's Cat, any prediction of Manning's future depends entirely upon the observer -- of whom there were many millions last week. And lost in their chorus of "Where does Peyton Manning go from here?" is the more important question, "Why does Peyton Manning go from here?"

One of the best quarterbacks ever, Manning is soon to be 36 years old and is coming off a series of surgeries. Stiff-necked but still ambitious, he might or might not be up to the further rigors of big football. He might or might not be able to pass even a slipshod team physical. So why not walk away while he can still walk? Why not retire and start writing that Hall of Fame speech? He must, by definition, have something left to prove. To himself. To us. But what has he left undone?

Has Peyton Manning's career been a disappointment to Peyton Manning?

Is a move to Denver or Arizona or Miami a matter of purpose unfulfilled? Of potential unrealized? Of numbers un-posted? Super Bowls un-won? Or is it simple stubbornness? The usual failure of jock imagination to picture a life outside the game?

Impossible to know until he figures it out himself and tells us. But we all got a preview of the alternative last week: the little death of goodbye at his news conference. You'd have thought he was two days dead. Stand at a podium, shed a tear on behalf of loyalty and you call down every masthead elegizer and freelance eulogizer in America. Go back and reread my colleagues. All those sporting laurels and upbeat obituaries! The whole thing lacked only a giant floral horseshoe and an open bar.

Meanwhile, like your grandparents, a lively Manning has been touring the American West looking for the right assisted living facility.

Has he been a disappointment? If we're honest, yes. What does it mean to be the best regular-season quarterback in NFL history? He should have won more in the playoffs. He should have won more when it counted; when it mattered most. Pick a quote. Clearly, he agrees, because he feels he has work yet to do.

Even the low comedy of late-career Brett Favre hid some high hopes and higher purpose. That we can keep winning. That we can play on. That we can leave on our own terms.

We tolerated the shtick in search of the symbolism, and chased Br'er Favre through all those briars and thickets hoping for confirmation that we might somehow persist in the face of the inevitable.

One way and another, we did the same with Montana and Layne and Stabler, too. Namath among the worst of them. Gone but not forgotten, forgotten but not gone, out there somewhere on a cold Sunday taking a stranger's beating in the wrong uniform.

And it isn't just football. Our absurd hopes sent Maravich to the Celtics and Boggs to Tampa Bay. Put Schumacher in a Mercedes.

Deep inside this human brain of ours, we hope to postpone the worst of things. If only one of these guys would lead us to the Fountain of Youth!

Manning seems nice, good, decent. I'll see him forever in every quarterback who steps to the line and chops out his audibles in hand jive. So we wish for him a happy rebirth in a new uniform. Another championship, like Norm Van Brocklin when he went from the Rams to the Eagles. Success remade, doubled down on a long shot.

But Van Brocklin was younger.

Johnny Unitas was older, 40; and 40 years later, Unitas is still cautionary, the benchmark for our sadness, still ridiculous in that Chargers uniform.

Remember, the NFL is a business. It is unsentimental -- except when selling sentiment. Some team has to be the last team Peyton Manning ever plays for. Or at least the last to sell a licensed Peyton Manning jersey. Maybe it was the Colts. Maybe not. So it ends in failure or it ends in glory or it ends in an unremarkable passage from one thing to the next. But it ends.

Whether or not there's something left to do, it ends.

Peyton Manning believes he can play a couple of more years. Or a couple of more months. Or a couple of more downs. Maybe he's right.

Free-agent signings start at 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday.