John Fox didn’t wait long to grab the phone. Three minutes after Peyton Manning cleared waivers and was no longer property of the Indianapolis Colts, the Denver Broncos head coach speed-dialed the most celebrated NFL free agent since Reggie White.
What set the Broncos apart from the other teams vying for Manning, including the hard-charging Titans and 49ers with their aggressive sales pitches? A more subtle approach to NFL courtship, including liberal doses of patience and nurturing.
While Fox and team vice president John Elway desperately wanted Manning — they always couch this admission, by the way, with gushing praise for departed icon Tim Tebow — the Broncos were shrewd enough not to smother a player overwhelmed by NFL freedom after 14 seasons spent with the team that drafted him out of Tennessee.
Fox had known Manning and his famous football family for years. He called upon that relationship and dove in very softly.
“Obviously it was a very emotional day for him, and I knew that. And sometimes, it’s just nice to hear a friendly voice,” Fox said this week, recounting how he soft-peddled his franchise to Manning in that initial phone call. “We talked. We gave him some time.
“The next day, we talked again and set something up very quickly.”
That would be the trip to Durham, N.C. with Elway to watch Manning throw the ball.
Fox didn’t just call once. He and Elway offered themselves as the Dr. Phil of NFL brain trusts. They were virtual Manning counselors. They would ease the four-time NFL MVP through this awkward but exciting shopping trip across the NFL. But in the end, they were determined to land the big one.
The rest of the NFL would do well to examine the Broncos’ methods for reeling in such a monster free-agent catch. One of the most prominent franchises to lose Manning off the hook early: the Miami Dolphins.
While Fox gushed like a lottery winner during the NFL owners meetings in Palm Beach, the loser’s perspective on Manning’s free agency was on full display across the room.
New Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, who spent the past four seasons tutoring Matt Flynn in Green Bay, pushed so hard to sign Flynn as a free agent that his former protégé, very unimpressed, instead fled to Seattle.
Even worse, the Dolphins’ bumbling, overly aggressive push to get Manning — who owns a home in South Florida — also failed miserably. And very publicly.
So while Fox was giddily describing the moment Manning told him he was choosing the Broncos as his new team — “I guess I attempted a vertical (leap), but you could have slid a paper underneath it,” Fox said with a laugh — Philbin was left to describe the relative merits of Miami’s quarterback inventory to a throng of frustrated South Florida media.
Free-agent pickup David Garrard? “I think he throws a real catchable ball,” Philbin said.
Returning starter Matt Moore? “He managed the games very well.”
In response, collective groans could be heard across South Florida.
Conversely, what was Fox saying about his new starting quarterback?
“Like anything, Peyton is like a coach on the field,” Fox said excitedly. “He paints a great picture. He’s going to direct traffic as well as maybe anybody in the league. That’s that experience I was talking about.”
While Titans owner Bud Adams chased Manning by offering the possibility of lifetime employment with the franchise and the 49ers tried to sweeten their position by signing wide receiver targets such as Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, the Broncos may have offered the best incentive of all.
Even while they were quietly making plans to ship Tebow out of town if Manning chose their team, Fox and his coaching staff could point to their experience with the athletic, talented but unorthodox passer as a selling point.
The Kyle Orton playbook was scrapped in Week 7 for a spread option attack that would better suit Tebow’s strengths. That proved to Manning that Fox and the Broncos were creative, flexible and they would accommodate him, not rein him in.
In many ways, Denver’s willingness to adapt its offensive scheme to the quarterback set it apart from Tennessee and San Francisco. Both teams wanted Manning to adjust to their existing offensive strategies.
The Broncos offered total control on the field.
And anyone who has watched Manning conduct his unique NFL symphony behind center knows he plays the game his way, on his terms, with his own calls, line changes and audibles.
“He’s done it one way for 14 years,” Fox said. “So it’s going to be an adjustment. We’re going to try to make that as smooth as possible, give him as much input as possible. I think he deserves that at this point in his career.
“I’m just looking forward to being able to get involved in the process.”
The new Collective Bargaining Agreement stipulates the Broncos can’t work directly with Manning or any players until April 16 at the earliest and on-field drills must wait until May. That delay in being hands-on with Manning seems like an eternity to the Broncos, who want to unwrap this present as soon as possible.
Considering some of the quarterbacks Fox has worked with in his two decades in the league — he employed a cast in Carolina that included Chris Weinke, Randy Fasani, and a middle-aged Vinny Testaverde — the coach is willing to be patient.
“Having been in recruiting a long, long time ago, you’ve been on that side of it, so it’s all exciting when you get a player of that caliber,” Fox said of Manning. “He’ll raise all boats on our offense.”
And Manning will raise Super Bowl expectations to obscene levels in Denver. But that’s what the Broncos were after all along. It’s what made the pursuit of Manning so important, and the triumph of signing him that much more satisfying.