What he's had since his four neck surgeries prior to joining the Denver Broncos is an arm that meets the definition of satisfactory. He can complete deep throws, and do so with precision. He can zip balls through tight windows too, with enough juice to get it past the flailing arms of defenders.
But now? When it mattered most this season he fell below even that adequate standard, and his physical deficiencies were glaring during a divisional-round loss to the Indianapolis Colts Sunday. Repeatedly there were receivers open deep and he failed to drive the ball accuracy. It sailed high or bounced low, rarely on target during key moments.
He finished the game with a yards per attempt average of only 4.6. A year ago during the regular season Manning established new single-season records for touchdown passes (55) and passing yards (5,477). His parts per attempt in 2013? 8.3.
Immediately the inevitable question for which there's no quick or easy answer was asked. Is Peyton Manning done? Should Peyton Manning be done? Well, let's ask Peyton Manning.
"I just can't give that simple answer," he said in his postgame press conference. "I'm processing it. I can't say that."
Then on Monday we were given a reason for his drained arm and body.
Manning had been playing through a torn quad since Week 15, which explains the utter lack of power generated from his lower body. Over those four games he threw only four touchdown passes, and he had a four-interception outing in Week 16. During that stretch he also averaged 257 passing yards per game, far lower than his 300.1 yards over the Broncos' other 13 games.
Adam Schefter's report echoed what CBS' Pete Prisco heard from his sources following the game. Broncos players told him that throughout the previous six weeks in practice Manning was throwing more interceptions than ever before.
Multiple scouts told NFL Network's Albert Breer they saw declining velocity and arm strength Sunday night. He was ailing, and it was painful to watch. The tragedy would be if the image we're left with after a legendary career is of a broken Manning.
It shouldn't end that way.
Players often do expire far too early because of injuries. This is football, after all, a sport that chews apart bodies until there's little choice but to surrender. That should have been Manning's fate already, as few quarterbacks have the passion and determination to still face a pass rush after multiple neck surgeries.
Barring catastrophic events (example: the hit that ended Steve Young's career) the end usually isn't quite this abrupt. Manning has been losing the fight against father time for several years, and gradually his arm is showing signs of fading. But the Manning we watched Sunday was an entirely different quarterback.
With rest the other Manning can return for one more season. The Manning with the sufficiently adequate arm can return, along with the Manning who can complete those deep throws when needed. The Manning who can identify holes in coverage and then still execute can come back, too.
I base that belief partly on his highly restrictive injury to end the season, and on the aforementioned statistical drop off. But mostly, I base it on the years of watching a man who's maniacal about football.
As long as his body is willing and able Manning won't choose to walk away. He'll choose to play football.
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 07: Steve Smith of Australia prepares to address his team during day two of the Fourth Test match between Australia and India at Sydney Cricket Ground on January 7, 2015 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Ryan Pierse - CA/Cricket Australia/Getty Images)
VAL THORENS, FRANCE - JANUARY 10: (FRANCE OUT) Sanna Luedi of Switzerland takes 4th place, Georgia Simmerling of Canada takes 5th place, Alizee Baron of France takes 6th place during the FIS Freestyle Skiing World Cup Ski Cross on January 10, 2015 in Val Thorens, France. (Photo by Laurent Salino/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
NEWARK, NJ - JANUARY 06: Mark Fraser #32 of the New Jersey Devils takes a punch from Chris Stewart #80 of the Buffalo Sabres during the first period at the Prudential Center on January 6, 2015 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
PERTH, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 10: Jerzy Janowicz and Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland pose with the Hopman Cup after defeating Serena Williams and John Isner of the United States in the final during day seven of the 2015 Hopman Cup at Perth Arena on January 10, 2015 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - JANUARY 10 : Competitors in the senior women's 6k race climb a hill during the Great Edinburgh X Country at Holyrood Park on January 10, 2015 in Edinburgh Scotland. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)
Roma's forward Francesco Totti celebrates by taking a 'selfie' with fans after scoring a second goal during the Italian Serie A football match on January 11, 2015 at Rome's Olympic stadium. AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 12: Roger Federer of Switzerland plays tennis with Lleyton Hewitt of Australia between speedboats on Sydney Harbour ahead of their Fast 4 Exhibition match on January 12, 2015 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 08: Nevin Brown of the USA trains ahead of the men's aerials event during the 2015 FIS Freestyle Ski World Cup at Deer Valley on January 8, 2015 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Marseille's supporters cheer under a screen displaying the words 'Je suis Charlie' in tribute to the victims of a deadly attack two days prior on the Paris headquarters of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, before the French L1 football match between Montpellier (MHSC) and Marseille (OM) on January 9, 2015 at the Mosson Stadium in Montpellier, southern France. AFP PHOTO / PASCAL GUYOT (Photo credit should read PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images)
EDMONTON, AB - JANUARY 6: Players of the Detroit Red Wings listen to coach Mike Babcock during a time out in a game against the Edmonton Oilers on January 6, 2015 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 10: Fans in fancy dress raise chairs above their heads during the Invitational Darts Challenge at Etihad Stadium on January 10, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
COPIAPO, CHILE - JANUARY 07: #23 Gerard Farres Guell of Spain for Gas Gas pont Grup Seguros Dakar team on the EC450 Rally GasGas competes during day 4 of the Dakar Rallly on January 7, 2015 between Chilecito in Argentina to Copiapo, Chile. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
HOBART, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 12: Heather Watson of Great Britain plays a forehand in her first round match against Magdelena Rybarikova of Slovakia during day two of the 2015 Hobart International at Domain Tennis Centre on January 12, 2015 in Hobart, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
CORVALLIS, OR - JANUARY 11 Forward Brandon Ashley #21 of the Arizona Wildcats and a Oregon State Beavers defender battle for a loose ball at Gill Coliseum on January 11, 2015 in Corvallis, Oregon. (Photo by Elizabeth Stowe/J and L Photography/Getty Images )
MILAN, ITALY - JANUARY 11: Head coach FC Internazionale Roberto Mancini falls to the ground after being struck by a ball on the touchline during the Serie A match between FC Internazionale Milano and Genoa CFC at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on January 11, 2015 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Claudio Villa - Inter/Getty Images)
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JANUARY 06: Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark serves against Julia Glushko of Israel during day two of the 2015 ASB Classic at ASB Tennis Centre on January 6, 2015 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
BAD KLEINKIRCHHEIM, AUSTRIA - JANUARY 09: (FRANCE OUT) Elena Curtoni of Italy competes during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Downhill Training on January 09, 2015 in Bad Kleinkirchheim, Austria. (Photo by Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
RYE, ENGLAND - JANUARY 09: Alex Howe tees off on the fifth hole against C.A.Smith during the third round matches of the 2015 Oxford and Cambridge Golf Society President's Putter at Ry Golf Club on January 9, 2015 in Rye, England. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - JANUARY 11: Wes Welker #83 of the Denver Broncos attempts to make a catch as Darius Butler #20 of the Indianapolis Colts defends during a 2015 AFC Divisional Playoff game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 11, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)