The San Francisco 49ers fielded the most talented overall roster.
The Tennessee Titans offered the chance to play in a familiar area as well as a post-football job “for life.”
The Arizona Cardinals have a staunch defense, an elite wide receiver (Larry Fitzgerald) and an offensive-minded head coach who reached a Super Bowl with another quarterback in his mid-30s (Kurt Warner).
In the end, none of this could compare to what Peyton Manning saw in the Denver Broncos.
A combination of factors swayed Manning to snub those franchises and the Miami Dolphins — a semi-serious contender whose main selling point was little more than sunshine — for the chance to make his new NFL home in the Rocky Mountains. The Broncos provided:
The opportunity to play for John Fox. He’s a proven veteran head coach who is willing to let Manning run the type of up-tempo offense he adroitly orchestrated during his 14 seasons in Indianapolis.
The chance to work with John Elway, the Hall of Fame quarterback-turned-Broncos executive vice president. More so than any other NFL front-office member, Elway can relate on the same level as Manning when it comes to running an offense and all the trappings that come with being the face of a franchise.
And, of course, money. FOXSports.com NFL insider Jay Glazer says the Broncos are set to give Manning a five-year contract in the $90 million range. Such figures will be nearly identical to the extension Manning signed last summer with Indianapolis. The Broncos also will have salary cap space to sign complementary talent, including the possible addition of former Indianapolis teammates like center Jeff Saturday and tight end Dallas Clark.
The 49ers, Titans and Dolphins were not only negatively affected by Manning’s decision but the time it took to make it. San Francisco runs the risk of losing quarterback Alex Smith, who visited with the Dolphins after the 49ers went all-in on Manning. Even if he returns, Smith and the 49ers will have to mend some tall fences.
Because of the demands Titans owner Bud Adams made on his front office to pursue Manning, Tennessee was forced to delay the pursuit of defensive linemen — a major weakness — to keep cap space available.
The Dolphins continued to look inept by barely becoming a blip on Manning’s radar. They then lost out on signing free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn, who instead signed Sunday with Seattle.
The biggest loser, though? Tim Tebow.
The Manning signing is a damning indictment of what the Broncos think about their current starting quarterback. Elway told FOXSports.com in December that he couldn’t wait for the opportunity to participate in offseason workouts designed to make Tebow a more traditional NFL-style passer.
That assuredly will now become someone else’s concern.
The possibility Tebow remains on Denver’s roster for the 2012 season are as remote as the odds at this time last year that Manning wouldn’t be playing for the Colts. Elway knows firsthand how a quarterback controversy can wreck a franchise. The Broncos would run the risk of doing that by keeping a player as popular as Tebow in the fold as a backup should Manning have a hiccup in his comeback attempt. Plus, even the most ardent Tebow supporters must admit the idea of a healthy Manning under center is far more appealing than a long-term project who couldn’t complete 50 percent of his throws in 2011.
The fact Manning isn’t completely healed makes his signing a significant risk. Those who say they would take Manning at “90 percent” are fooling themselves. The extra 10 percent lost in velocity can spell the difference between a completion and interception. There also is a concern that Manning may be more susceptible to injury after four neck surgeries.
But if Manning regains his prior form, Denver could be winning its first Lombardi Trophy since Elway quarterbacked the club to victories in Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII. That would make the sting of losing out on Manning’s services even more painful to those who failed to sign him.