It's a telling sign when people are writing more stories about where Peyton Manning will play next year then they are articles about what the Colts can do to get better with him as their starting quarterback in 2012. Regardless of whether or not the Colts retain Jim Caldwell as head coach next year (and if they do, it's going to make this 'New Era' chatter fall on deaf ears), the prospect of Peyton Manning under center next year for the Indianapolis Colts doesn't make any sense. I've written about this, as has my colleague Bomani Jones, but at some point the Colts and their fans need to let go of Peyton and move on.
The question now is, Move on to where?
Peyton Manning is old. Football old. Some would say just plain old-old, but 36-years-of-age in the NFL is pretty geriatric. Thus, any suggestion that Peyton has time to fiddle around with a mediocre team is a waste of breath. Where Peyton goes will depend on three key factors: Location, cap space, and opportunity.
Location is important because Peyton will probably not want to play in the Colts division. In fact, the further away from Indianapolis, and the AFC in general, the better. Peyton's legacy will always be with the Colts, but neither he nor owner Jim Irsay want to do anything to potentially hurt that legacy, and seeing Peyton in a Titans uniform would certainly piss off a lot of loyal fans. Both sides do NOT want to mirror the mistakes made by Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers in 2008.
Cap space is equally critical. Peyton isn't going to play for the 'vet minimum.' If any team wants Peyton, they will need to fork over roughly $28 million to get him, which is what the Colts will owe him if they keep him after March 9th. No discounts. No cap-friendly deals with incentives. Peyton will only play for top-tier asking price, or he simply won't play. Money equals status in the NFL. If you get paid a lot, you are considered good in the eyes of the players. Peyton is a leader among the players and their union. Don't look for him to slash his asking price for anyone.
Finally, there is opportunity. The Colts are rebuilding, and are probably looking at another 2-14 season next year. If they are lucky, six wins. This team is old, lacking talent, and unsure of its direction. Wherever Peyton goes, the destination team pretty much needs to be a quarterback away from contending. Anything less isn't a consideration.
Factoring in these criteria, I've isolated the four teams most likely to land a presumably healthy No. 18 in 2012. And don't worry Colts fans, none are in the AFC South.
Mike Shanahan has spent the last fourteen years of his career desperately searching for the next John Elway. It was Elway that transformed Shanahan from disgraced in Los Angeles to Super Bowl-winning demigod in Denver. Since the Broncos defeated the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, which was Peyton Manning's rookie year in the league, Shanahan was won only one playoff game as a head coach.
I repeat, one.
In fact, he hasn't even been back to the playoffs since 2005.
Needless to say, the Bronco nipple that Shanahan has been milking from his days in Denver has run dry. In many ways, the last fourteen years have exposed him for being a bit less of a demigod and a bit more like a mediocre coach (which was what people thought of him with the Raiders).
Like Elway in 1997, Manning could revitalize Shanahan's career, which took a hit in 2011 when he threw his support (and reputation) behind quarterbacks Rex Grossman and John Beck. Both threw a combined 18 TDs and 24 INTs. The Redskins had a 5-12 record, and look worse than they did under infamous head coach Jim Zorn.
Location: They are in the NFC and do not play the Colts in the regular season in 2012. Both are big pluses. However, they do play in the NFC East, which is also the division Peyton's brother, Eli Manning, plays in. While it would be a HUGE ratings boom to have Manning v. Manning twice a year, I personally don't see Peyton wanting to go anywhere that would undermine the success of his brother. The only way Mr. Peyton goes to Washington is if Eli gives his blessing. Rank: Fair
Cap space: Washington was at $11 million under the cap in August 2011. They've dumped Albert Haynesworth's bloated contract, and the only key free agent they need to re-sign is safety LaRon Landry. Owner Daniel Snyder is notorious for over-spending on players. So, regardless of the cap ramifications, if the Redskins have a chance to grab a healthy Peyton Manning, Snyder will toss mountains of cash in his direction to get him. Rank: Good
Opportunity: The Redskins are an odd enigma. On on hand, their defense is pretty good with young pass rushers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan consistently terrorizing quarterbacks. DVOA has the Skins o-line ranked high, and Fred Davis is a pretty good tight end that probably should be re-signed in 2012. But, when your best receiver is Jabbar Gaffney, you have problems. Washington's WRs are putrid. They're worse than the Colts. Tough to sell Manning on winning a ring in the Beltway if he has scrubs to throw the ball to. Rank: Fair
Evaluation: Fair probability to land Manning
K.C. has a quarterback problem. Interestingly, they have a quarterback on their roster (Kyle Orton) that the Denver Broncos dumped mid-season to go whole hog with a mythical centaur under center in 2011. Orton, unlike Tim Tebow, can throw the football. He just doesn't have the skills to impose his will on a defense. Notice how I don't even factor Matt Cassel into the equation. Cassel is a glorified back-up who was WAYYYYYYYYYYYY overpaid by general manager Scott Pioli when both left New England for K.C. in 2009.
Again, like Denver, the Chiefs have a strong defense and a potent running game. Ryan Lilja, Peyton's teammate for seven years in Indianapolis, is on the Chiefs roster. Newly promoted head coach Romeo Crennel was once the defensive coordinator for the Patriots back when they used to frustrate the hell out of Peyton. Both Crennel and Manning respect each other and both love the chess game offenses and defenses play against one another on Sundays.
Also, Peyton has never shied away from praising Scott Pioli. When former-Chargers runningback LaDainian Tomlinson was complaining to the media about the Patriots organization following San Diego's choke job in the 2006 playoffs, Peyton made it a point to speak up for Pioli (then the G.M. in New England) prior to the Colts playing the Pats in the AFC Championship the following week.
Location: In the AFC, but (again, like Denver) far away from Indy. However, they are scheduled to play the Colts in Arrowhead next year. Not good, especially if it is early in the season. Rank: Fair
Cap space: Chiefs have a ton of cap room. $32,984,542 worth of room, as of last August. Rank: Great
Opportunity: The Chiefs aren't as talented as Denver, but their coaching staff and front office is familiar to Peyton, as is Arrowhead Stadium. Peyton has never lost there. Ever. It's a fact I enjoy bringing that little factoid up with Joel Thorman, editor at Arrowhead Pride and SBNation.com's football hub, repeatedly. Should the Chiefs add Peyton, they will need to do more to boost their o-line and the tight end position. In terms of wide outs, the Chiefs have two young, budding stars in Dwayne Bowe and Jonathan Baldwin that might just need a vet like Manning to get the most out of them. Rank: Good
Evaluation: Good probability to land Manning
The Cardinals gave away a ton of talent to get Kevin Kolb from the Eagles in 2011. The results were a 2-6 with Kolb under center, and questions about his health involving concussions. There is also the fact that Kolb simply doesn't fit with what head coach Ken Whisenhunt likes to do. Kolb excels on throwing on the run, which was the offense in Philadelphia. Whisenhunt's offense is tailored around pocket throwing, which was why Kurt Warner (who was about as mobile as a beached whale) revitalized his career in Arizona.
Adding Manning would certainly make the Kolb deal look like egg on the face of Whisenhunt, who pushed for the deal, but at this point the Cards have to be desperate. Whisenhunt is likely fighting for his job in 2012, and if the Cards fail to make the post-season again, he's probably fired. At least with Manning, Whisenhunt has a chance.
Location: In the NFC, and far away from Indianapolis. They do not play the Colts in the regular season in 2012. Edgerrin James, onetime teammate and close friend of Peyton's, left the Colts in 2006 to sign with Arizona, and it didn't do anything to hurt his legacy in Indy or his popularity with Colts fans. Rank: Great
Cap space: The Cards had $13 mill in space last August. However, they gave Kolb a $10 million dollar signing bonus as part of his five-year extension. That $13 mill was there BEFORE G.M. Rod Graves re-signed wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald to an eight-year, $120 million dollar deal. The website NFLTradeRumors.com has the Cards at $37 mill under the cap for 2012. If that number is accurate, Arizona is perfectly capable to signing Manning. If it's closer to what they had in August 2011, or less, then chances don't look good. Rank: Fair
Opportunity: The fact that Arizona has Fitzgerald locked up is a big selling point for any pitch play for Manning. Fitzgerald is, arguably, the best WR in football. Peyton set NFL records when he had healthy receivers like Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne in their heyday. Pairing Manning with Fitzgerald in a traditionally weak NFC West division seems criminal. Rank: Great
Evaluation: Good probability to land Manning
Tim Tebow stinks as a quarterback. I don't care that religious fundamentalists like to screech about how he's touched by god, or some such nonsense. I deal in reality, not 'superstitious hocus pocus,' as the great philosopher Indiana Jones once said before he saw a Nazi with glasses get his face melted off by the Angel of Death!
Incidentally, that's the same face I make when stupid people tell me that Tim Tebow is a good quarterback.
The reality is Tebow can't throw. He can't make the throws that pro quarterbacks need to make in this league to win. Maybe someday he will. Maybe. Right now, it's not there. That simple. I know it. You know it. More importantly, Broncos G.M. John Elway knows it, which is why he's been noncommittal on Tebow's future with the team all season long.
Should Elway bench Tebow for Brady Quinn, or should he trade a bounty of picks to move up in the draft and get Robert Griffin III, there will be a fan revolt in Denver. A bad one. What better way to stem the Tebow Fan Club stupidity then for Elway to rope in Peyton Manning? Is anyone going to question benching Tebow for Manning? No, of course not. If they did, they'd be justifiably ignored, picked on, and then fed to a pack of hungry lions at halftime of a pre-season game.
The situation is perfect in that Elway would be doing for Peyton what Mike Shanahan did for Elway late in his playing career: Build a team that uses the skills of an aging quarterback in compliment to a great running game and defense.
Location: They are in the AFC, but far away from Indy. They don't play the Colts in the regular season next year, which is, again, a big plus. Also, their logo is a horse, which, on some level, will make it less weird for Colts fans to see Peyton playing for someone else. Rank: Good
Cap space: Elway has managed the cap well. Last August, they had $24,302,469 in space. Considering they didn't go nuts in free agency in 2011, that space would give them the ability to sign Peyton and his $28 million dollar price tag to a flexible deal for both sides. Rank: Great
Opportunity: Denver's offensive line is solid. Their wide outs show promise. Their defense was lights out all season long. All they need is a tight end, and the team seems perfectly suited for Peyton. John Fox is a defensive-minded guy, and will allow Peyton and coordinator Mike McKoy to craft and create the offense. McCoy has shown brilliant adaptability in the way he changed Denver's offense mid-season to suit Tebow's limitations. With Peyton, they'll be able to open things up. Rank: Great
Evaluation: Strong probability of landing Manning
Any finally, the New York Jets. I'm not going to waste your time, or mine, doing an evaluation on Peyton-to-Gang-Green because it won't happen. The Jets are too dysfunctional, too immature to lure Peyton. The moment Bart Scott flipped-off reporters during the Jets media wrap-up the day after their season ended, any serious discussion of Peyton in New York ended.
The Jets are a circus act. Peyton's a field general, not a ring leader. No way he touches that mess.
When it's all said and done, the reality facing fans, and Manning himself, is that if he is healthy enough to play again, the best place to succeed is somewhere other than Indianapolis. As we've said time and again, no 'New Era' begins with a 36-year-old as your starting quarterback. Consider that Manning is only four years younger than his new boss, Colts G.M. Ryan Grigson.
For Peyton, and for all of us, it's time to move on. Part of me hopes he lands in Denver. He'd be appreciated there, and he'd have the best team around him to win a ring. In the end, that's what fans all want to see, right? Peyton win another one. Think of how great a story that would be!
He can do that somewhere else, but not in Indy. Not now.