What was speculated about for months became official last week when the Colts officially parted ways with Peyton Manning, ending his 14-year tenure with the club. And so the question: What’s next for Manning?
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With the rampant media speculation about his future NFL home, it’s easier to list the teams that don’t have interest:
New England, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Diego, San Francisco, Detroit, Minnesota, Chicago, New Orleans, Carolina, St. Louis, Atlanta, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Buffalo, Oakland, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Washington, the New York Jets . . .
And, of course, Indianapolis and the New York Giants.
Don’t dismiss the possibility that a dark-horse candidate will surface trying to grab the soon-to-be-former Colt from the above group. For example, all bets are off in San Francisco if the 49ers can’t re-sign Alex Smith before the start of the free-agent signing period Tuesday.
There is another group of teams that would welcome a quarterback competition but faces financial restraints or other factors making them unlikely suitors. The Cleveland Browns have said they are not pursuing Manning and are linked more to Green Bay’s Matt Flynn. Flynn is better suited to play in a pure West Coast-style offense like the one run by Browns head coach Pat Shurmur and new offensive coordinator Brad Childress.
The Browns also seem to be realistic enough to know that Manning will consider only bona fide Super Bowl contenders at this point in his career. Cleveland is at least a year from being considered as such.
On the flip side, Manning is kryptonite to teams that don’t want to take the financial risk inherent in signing a big-money deal with a 35-year-old player (he turns 36 on March 24) who has undergone four neck surgeries in the past three years.
Timing is a factor, too. Any team waiting for a clean bill of health probably will miss out on vying for other top free-agent quarterbacks.
A leap of faith probably will be required. A similar decision was faced by the Miami Dolphins in 2006 with two other quarterbacks coming off significant injuries. Ex-head coach Nick Saban had to choose between signing Drew Brees (shoulder) in free agency or trading a second-round pick to Minnesota for Daunte Culpepper (knee).
Saban’s decision explains why he’s back in the college ranks.
Overall, there are five front-runners that appear willing to gamble that Manning can regain his previous form. Here is a breakdown of the pros and cons of those franchises:
Pros: If multiple media reports about Dolphins owner Stephen Ross are accurate, Manning can expect a boatload of money being thrown at him. Ross knows Manning would help sell season tickets for a franchise that has lost about 20,000 customers the past decade. Manning, who has a part-time residence in Miami Beach, knows the fall and winter weather in South Florida is far more pleasant than the sites of other interested suitors.
Cons: Miami has hired a new head coach (Joe Philbin) and offensive coordinator (Mike Sherman) with roots in a West Coast-style offense. Matt Flynn, who played under Philbin in Green Bay, would make better sense as a free-agent target. The lousy NFL track record of the bumbling Ross and three straight losing seasons under general manager Jeff Ireland don’t inspire confidence that this team knows how to make the playoffs, let alone win a Super Bowl.
Pros: Arizona was one of the NFL’s best teams in the second half of last season despite the quarterback-juggling between John Skelton and Kevin Kolb. With another year in coordinator Ray Horton’s system, Arizona should field an elite defense in 2012. The Cardinals also play in a domed stadium and have one of the NFL’s premier wide receivers, Larry Fitzgerald, who already is off-field friends with Manning. Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt already had success working with Kurt Warner, another former Super Bowl-winning passer who reinvented himself in the way Manning aspires.
Cons: If serious about the Cards, Manning would be wise to have assurances before signing that the offensive line, running game and tight end position will be significantly upgraded. The notoriously cheap Cardinals also might not be willing to splurge as much on Manning as other teams.
Skelton shows big-time promise, and Whisenhunt has said he looks forward to having a full offseason to work with Kolb, who had a disappointing, injury-marred debut season after being acquired in a trade with Philadelphia. The signing of Manning would lead to Kolb’s trade or release before he is set to earn a $7 million roster bonus later this month.
Pros: After literally hundreds of player transactions the past two seasons, general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll have constructed one of the NFL’s most promising rosters entering the offseason. The only glaring weakness is at quarterback. Tarvaris Jackson is a placeholder until a quality starter can be found.
Cons: As with the Dolphins, Manning would be working with an offensive coordinator (Darrell Bevell) whose roots are planted in a West Coast system. The Seahawks also play outside in what can sometimes be a chilly, rainy climate. Otherwise, there’s lots to like about a team that might be flying under the radar in the Manning sweepstakes.
4. Kansas City
Pros: The Chiefs field a stout defense and are chock with young skill-position players on offense, such as wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, tight end Tony Moeaki and running backs Jamaal Charles and Dexter McCluster. From his days working around Tom Brady in New England, new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll should know how to run an offense suited for a pocket passer such as Manning.
Manning still likely would receive plenty of autonomy in running the offense from Romeo Crennel. Kansas City’s new head coach incited media cries of illegal player tampering with his effusive praise of Manning at last month’s NFL Scouting Combine.
Cons: Of all the cold-weather cities in the Manning scramble, Kansas City provides the most challenging environment for passing success in late-season games. The offensive line needs bolstering, which means the Chiefs would need to make the kind of heavy investment in free agency that general manager Scott Pioli has resisted during his previous three years in Kansas City.
Pros: Manning’s first official free agent visit took place Friday with the Broncos. He would love working with head coach John Fox and John Elway, who is entering his second year as Denver’s executive vice president. Fox and Elway have shown the wisdom to take advantage of the strengths provided by other veteran acquisitions such as safety Brian Dawkins and running back Willis McGahee.
Tim Tebow is set to enter the 2012 campaign as Denver’s starter, but his inconsistent play doesn’t guarantee he will finish the season in that role.
Cons: The Broncos want to push Tebow with a veteran but probably not with someone who casts such a large shadow as Manning. The $20 million-plus Denver is expected to have in salary-cap space has spurred some of the public Manning conversation. It’s assuredly wishful thinking. Elway should know the team must dedicate the available cap room to upgrading the defense, especially at defensive tackle and the secondary.