Peyton Manning: Destination Unknown
Peyton Manning: Destination Unknown
One of the most protracted sagas over a player being cut is done. The widely anticipated move marks end of an era in Indianapolis with the franchise’s best quarterback since Johnny Unitas being let loose as the Colts continue to clean house and look to the future. It’s increasingly rare for players to spend their entire career with a single franchise and Manning can now add himself to the list that includes Joe Montana, Brett Favre and even Unitas himself among the great quarterbacks who finished their career away from the franchise with which they made their name.
Much like those other quarterbacks, Manning is moving on with his former franchise looking to perfectly time the severance as their star dwindles and fades. Manning is probably closer to his former glories than any other quarterback on that list–only one season removed from dragging, what was proven to be, a bad Colts team to a division title. Clearly his neck injury raises large question marks, but assuming he can recover full health Manning may just be the best free agent to hit the open market in the history of the NFL. At age 35 he still has a few years left in the tank and, if he can recover his best form, Manning immediately comes on to the radar for the majority of NFL teams just to show due diligence and kick the tires. Manning is a difference maker, he took the Colts to nine successive playoff appearances irrespective of the quality around him and if a team can put anything resembling a good team, even competent, around him he immediately makes them a threat to go deep in the playoffs. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the clubs that should be looking at Manning and who would benefit most from his presence.
The Front Runners
Biggest Selling Point: Arguably the best WR in the league, Larry Fitzgerald
Greatest Hindrance: Money spent on Kevin Kolb last summer
Ever since stories first surfaced of discontent between Manning and the Colts, it seems that the media has been linking Manning to the Cardinals when he finally shook free from Indianapolis. This has been contrasted by other reports suggesting that Bill Bidwell would be unwilling to sign a big check on a quarterback for a second offseason in a row. It certainly makes sense for the Cardinals to be interested. With Kurt Warner they have recent experience of success with a quarterback reaching the end of his career and Manning is in that bracket of quarterback. Much like Warner, if they were to sign Manning they would be getting a quarterback who could be a success in spite of the fact that their offensive line is still not up to scratch in pass protection. With Larry Fitzgerald he would have a better receiver than he ever had in Indianapolis, even better than Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne. That quarterback and receiver pairing alone would make the Cardinals a playoff team but is the supporting cast there to take the Cardinals further?
Kansas City Chiefs
Biggest Selling Point: Trio of Dwayne Bowe, Jamaal Charles and Tony Moeaki
Greatest Hindrance: Are the Chiefs ready to give up on Matt Cassel?
Ludicrous allegations of tampering by Romeo Crennel already link the Chiefs with Manning, but for both parties that interest makes a great deal of sense. The Chiefs are a well balanced team who faltered in 2011 on the back of injuries which unsettled the team on the field and the coaching staff off of it. With those young players back from injury in 2012 the Chiefs are ready to compete in the weak AFC West with or without Manning. With Manning the Chiefs would likely be favorites for the division and with the triplets on offense and a young core to a defense which can rush the passer and cover receivers down field they would be a real challenger in the AFC.
Biggest Selling Point: Potentially a Super Bowl-ready team with Manning at QB
Greatest Hindrance: Brandon Marshall has a massive issue with drops and the depth behind him is lacking
Miami has been the team most linked with Manning along with the Cardinals ever since rumors of his divorce with the Colts first surfaced during the 2011 season. Ever since Chad Henne’s last chance in Miami was curtailed by injury the Dolphins have been in a holding pattern planning their next move at quarterback. Matt Moore put in a solid performance rallying the Dolphins’ season but he is no long term option. The Dolphins have the cash and have the ownership have a clear desire to make the big moves to make the team relevant again in the NFL, not just the AFC East. After striking out on big name coaches why not lure Manning with dollars, warm weather and a new offensive minded head coach?
Biggest Selling Point: Strong running game led by Marshawn Lynch
Greatest Hindrance: Can Manning be successful in an outdoor, cold and wet weather stadium?
Much like the Redskins, Seattle have chosen an understated path at quarterback under new head coach Pete Carroll, biding their time waiting for the right man. The team around Matt Hasselbeck, Charlie Whitehurst and Tarvaris Jackson has yielded solid seasons, including a playoff win that you might remember, but with Manning on board that team would be primed for a big run in the NFC West going toe to toe with the re-energized San Francisco 49ers. A school of thought has grown up that Manning cannot play outside in inclement weather, if he wanted to put that theory to rest where better than the dank and wet environs of Seattle to prove that he is a quarterback for all weathers?
The Chasing Pack
Biggest Selling Point: Franchise LT in the shape of Joe Thomas
Greatest Hindrance: No team on this list is further away from Super Bowl success
The Browns appear here on the list largely because they are so clearly in the market for a quarterback this offseason and whether it is Matt Flynn, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill or Peyton Manning they have to carry out due diligence on them all. In Pat Shurmur they have a well-respected head coach but is any team league wide further from Super Bowl success? Manning isn’t just coming back to play, he wants to be part of a successful team and he surely wants a shot at winning it all. Joe Thomas provides him with a better left tackle than he ever had in Indianapolis and turning around the Browns would be a spectacular achievement, but is it really likely?
New York Jets
Biggest Selling Point: The chance to face off with and beat Tom Brady twice a year
Greatest Hindrance: Dysfunctional locker room
The last game Manning played in Indianapolis was a defeat to the Jets and no team has been more open, through unnamed sources and unnamed players, in their overtures and desire to sign Manning. Whenever Manning hits the NFL headlines, the New York media is seemingly filled with stories of unnamed players saying that the Jets must sign Manning, that he is what they need to challenge the Patriots. Certainly Manning would be a great boon to the Jets, they have the receivers and they have the defense that Manning would doubtless be a great success in his brother’s new home city. However, is Manning really ready to jump into bed with a team that is seemingly on the brink of self-destruction?
Biggest Selling Point: Strong, offensive minded coach with Mike Shanahan
Greatest Hindrance: Potential scheme conflict between Manning and Shanahan
Dan Snyder’s propensity for flashing the cash has been tempered since Mike Shanahan’s arrival in Washington as the Redskins instead are seemingly trying to put together a team on a budget looking for a series of shrewd signings. But can a leopard really change its spots? At the end of the day Snyder is a big spender and one way or another it would seem that Shanahan’s search for a quarterback will reach an end game with some colossal investment seemingly inevitable in the draft either by way of a high pick, giving up draft picks or both. So with Manning on the market why not get a sure thing without having to give up draft picks? Shanahan’s offensive grounding is likely to be appealing to Manning but at the same time is he ready to learn and execute Shanahan’s offense or would he be hoping to bring “his” offense with him for immediate success? By drafting a player such as Robert Griffin III or Ryan Tannehill, Shanahan and the Redskins can continue to mold the team in his image and that may be a more attractive prospect than trying to place Manning in the system.
The Dark Horses
Biggest Selling Point: The defense he never had in Indianapolis
Greatest Hindrance: No going back with Joe Flacco if the Ravens make this move
One of Manning’s greatest playoff foes, his line of scrimmage encounters with Ray Lewis have been amongst the most intriguing playoff games of the century. Much like the Jets, this team would go far with Manning at the helm, but will the Ravens give up on Joe Flacco?
Biggest Selling Point: The chance to take America’s team back to the top
Greatest Hindrance: Would Jerry Jones give up on Tony Romo?
The Cowboys have been quiet in terms of big signings and success for a number of years, much like their rivals in Washington. The Redskins are ready to make a big splash at the quarterback position this offseason and there’s only one way the Cowboys can trump them–sign Manning. Manning is four years older than Romo; do the Cowboys think Romo can win them a Super Bowl in the four extra years he could give them?
Biggest Selling Point: Team has shown willingness to completely change their offense to suit the QB
Greatest Hindrance: HC John Fox would be reneging on Tim Tebow entering camp as QB1
The Broncos are a real outsider, and potential non-runner, in this with the public affection that Tim Tebow has at the moment how would Bronco fans react to Tebow being planted firmly as the back up? John Fox assured fans and the media that Tebow would enter training camp as number one on the depth chart, but that was before the best quarterback of this generation became available.
Biggest Selling Point: Potentially brilliant inside receiver pairing with Percy Harvin and Kyle Rudolph
Greatest Hindrance: Derails Christian Ponder’s development on a team not just a QB away from challenging the Packers
One year too late? The Vikings set a finite timeframe on their “Super Bowl Window” by going with Brett Favre three seasons ago so going for Manning if they felt that window was still open wouldn’t be out of the question. However this team has evolved since their NFC Championship season and bringing in Manning would derail the rebuilding mode that they are in and would also raise serious questions over their commitment to Christian Ponder.
San Francisco 49ers
Biggest Selling Point: Young and hungry head coach and defense ready to take the next step
Greatest Hindrance: Jim Harbaugh molded Alex Smith into his offense last season, is he ready to start again when he is so close to the ultimate goal?
In terms of a logical fit where better than a storied franchise on the up like San Francisco? Alex Smith is out of contract so there is only a slight issue there with having to move on from him after he finally proved himself able to lead a winning team. The 49ers have two quality receiving weapons in the shape of Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis and the defense, much like his options in Baltimore and New York, is of the caliber that with a Manning offense could make this team nigh on unbeatable. If Manning would work with Jim Harbaugh and vice versa this could be a match made in heaven, but does Manning fit the vision this team is being built in?
There are two questions in play here; where will Manning end up and where should he go? The answers to those two questions are different in my opinion. If I were a betting man, I would say that Manning will wind up in Miami with the Dolphins. The new ownership tried their hardest to lure a big name head coach with a big paycheck, but struck out at every turn. What better way to move past that then roll out the red carpet and splash the cash on the best free agent ever to hit the market. They are in a division with one of the best quarterbacks in history, what better way to beat him than by signing the best quarterback of the current generation? With the team around him Manning would immediately make the Dolphins a playoff team and would give them a real chance at what would be their first Super Bowl in thirty years.
However, if I were Manning the place I would be taking the longest, hardest look at and most likely to sign with would be Kansas City with the Chiefs. They are a team who should be in the running for Manning as Matt Cassel has not proven to be good enough that you want to build around him for the next decade and Manning would give them a better chance of winning in the next five years. They have a true No. 1 wide receiver in the shape of Dwayne Bowe along with a quality running back and receiving tight end returning from injuries, Jamaal Charles and Tony Moeaki. Along with that, they have a young defense that is building and with Romeo Crennel one of the best defensive minds in the league, the man who masterminded (along with Bill Belicheck) Manning’s own playoff nightmares earlier this century. This is a team only one year removed from a division title in arguably the weakest division in the league with only the inconsistent Chargers looking like an obvious threat in the short term.
The saga is almost over and the Colts have made their decision and move on to drafting their third “once in a generation quarterback” in the last thirty years. Manning now has the toughest decision of his professional career to make. One that will define whether he merely sits on a list with Montana, Unitas and Favre as quarterbacks who moved on from “their” franchise without having great success at their second stop. Or whether he can elevate his new team to the heights of the Colts and write himself a place in history for winning a Super Bowl with two different franchises.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.