DENVER – The Pro Football Hall of Fame will recognize Sunday as the day Peyton Manning surpassed Brett Favre to become the NFL’s all-time passing yardage leader.
But ultimately, NFL history will remember this day differently, because this was the day Manning got benched.
The moment came with 6:34 remaining in the third quarter, after Manning threw his fourth interception of the game, as the Broncos trailed the Kansas City Chiefs 22-0 in a game they would ultimately lose 29-13. He had been booed off the field after nearly every previous possession, and the crowd at Sports Authority Field roared as backup Brock Osweiler jogged to the huddle.
That Osweiler led two fourth-quarter touchdown will only ignite controversy in Denver as the Broncos prepare for a road game against the Chicago Bears next week, against former head coach John Fox.
When will be the right time to go back to Manning?
There is no simple answer, even if players and coaches were united after the game that Manning is still their man.
“Peyton is our quarterback,” head coach Gary Kubiak said. “If he’s healthy and ready to go, he’s our quarterback.”
Manning has always said he’d continue playing as long as he enjoyed the grind of practices and meetings and as long as he could help his team win. The first issue, that’s up to Manning, and he was as sullen Sunday night as he’s been after a regular-season loss in years.
The latter is up to Kubiak and general manager John Elway to decide.
On Sunday, the shocking decision to bench Manning was the right one – even if it came two and a half quarters too late, Kubiak admitted -- because it was clear Manning had become a liability.
It started from the first series, when Manning sailed his first pass attempt down the seam, into double coverage, where it was intercepted by Chiefs rookie cornerback Marcus Peters. He was sacked and fumbled on the next possession – one play before his four-yard completion that broke Favre’s record – and by halftime had thrown two more picks. A fourth came midway through the third quarter.
He completed just five of his 20 attempts, for 35 yards, and was benched with a passer rating of 0.0.
Manning and Kubiak agree that it was an unacceptable performance from any quarterback, let alone one of Manning’s stature. But the quarterback and his coach differ on how much Manning’s health was a factor.
Listen to Kubiak and he’ll say it was because he had to protect Manning, who had already been sacked twice and was visibly uncomfortable when he tried to step into his throws, a likely effect of the sore foot that limited his practice time during the week.
Still, Manning told his coaches and team doctors and trainers that he felt good enough to play effectively. Manning has never missed a start due to injury, aside from the 2011 season in which he was sidelined all year after neck surgery.
“Maybe that was wrong,” Manning said. “I was going in there trying to help the team, I ended up hurting the team. I'm disappointed about that."
Manning said that blaming his poor play on his feet or ribs would be “taking the easy way out” and refused to use it as an excuse. But he had no excuses for what he called “poor decision-making” that led to his four interceptions.
“I made some really bad plays and put our team in a bad spot,” Manning said.
But unlike in some of his other poor performances earlier this season, Sunday looked and felt far more like the end. There were no flashes of Manning’s former greatness, no near-misses on deep balls and few instances where you could reasonably say teammates had failed to help their quarterback.
And this time, there was no defensive magic to bail him out.
Follow Lindsay H. Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones.