NASHVILLE, Tenn. — He might have spent only four years in the state, but Peyton Manning remains one of the most popular athletes in Tennessee sports history.
As quarterback at the University of Tennessee from 1994-97, the New Orleans native certainly captured the hearts of Volunteers fans. But there was then and still remains a polarity – love him or loathe him – throughout the state.
That’s what made the possibility of Manning becoming a Tennessee Titan so intriguing nearly two years ago when he was searching for a new team following the end of his Hall of Fame run with the Indianapolis Colts from 1998-2011 that included winning a Super Bowl.
“I’m not really into going back memory lane during the course of a game week,” said Manning, who eventually signed with the Broncos after also considering an offer from the 49ers.
But with the Titans (5-7) visiting the Broncos (10-2) to face Manning for the first time since their courtship, he took that stroll down earlier this week and likened the process to being recruited by colleges out of high school.
“I enjoyed my visit, enjoyed my time,” Manning said about coming here to hear the Titans’ pitch in March 2012. “Obviously, it was a very difficult decision for me. There was a part of you that kind of wanted to go to each team you were considering, kind of like when you’re choosing a college.”
After neck surgery, Manning worked out for several teams, including the Titans, in Knoxville, Tenn., and his visit to Nashville went very public, as if a rock star had come calling. The late Bud Adams, the Titans owner at the time, told then-vice president Mike Reinfeldt, general manager Ruston Webster and head coach Mike Munchak that money was not an option, reportedly offering as much as $25 million per year.
“That was such a whirlwind,” Manning said. “That process really was a very public process. It was hard to do things kind of in peace.”
But the lure of playing for Broncos president and Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, plus the fact the Broncos had just been to the playoffs and the Titans hadn’t since 2008, eventually swayed Manning to Denver.
“I’m not sure there’s any one perfect decision,” said Manning, who signed with the Broncos for $96 million for five years and then guided the Broncos to the playoffs.
This season, the Broncos are again considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender with Manning a leading candidate for league MVP.
“There’s a lot of great things about a lot of NFL teams,” Manning added, “and I enjoyed the time that I spent with the Titans organization. … Obviously, I had to pick one place. You can only go to one place, and I picked Denver. I’ve worked hard every day to try and make it a good choice.”
To say Manning has worked out in Denver is like saying actress Halle Berry is cute. No way is justice served by such an understatement.
Manning’s 41 touchdown passes are a dozen more than any other NFL quarterback, and he has completed 327 of 480 passes for a league-leading 4,125 yards. His passer rating of 115.3, if it holds up, would be second-best of his career.
“I think you go into this game knowing he’s going to make plays,” Munchak said of Manning, who has thrown at least seven TD passes to four different receivers. “That’s the biggest thing for the defense, not to get frustrated knowing that he might make some plays.
“You may feel like you’re doing a great job on him, you’re shutting him down, then all of a sudden he explodes a little bit for a couple of series.”
Munchak said the best defense against Manning is to keep the Broncos’ offense off the field by sustaining drives and time of possession on offense. That got more challenging this week with tight end Delanie Walker not practicing and probably not playing with concussion systems.
“We’re going to have to be consistent from start to finish knowing that they don’t have to be consistent,” Munchak said. “They’re a team that can come out hot or they can come out slow and they can get hot. For us, from start to finish, to give ourselves a chance to win this football game, we have to be at our best in all three phases.”
Compounding the tight end situation is that backup Craig Stevens is also suffering from a concussion that caused him to miss last week’s loss at Indianapolis.
Before the signing earlier this week of veteran tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, second-year Taylor Thompson was the only fully healthy tight end on the roster. The Titans have even worked tackle Mike Otto some as a possible emergency tight end.
“We still have (Saturday),” said Munchak about the status of Walker, who had yet to undergo the baseline testing for a concussion. “He’ll come in, and we can evaluate him to see where we think he’s at (Saturday).”
Also a factor Sunday will be the inclement weather that has hit Denver. According to the National Weather Service, the current forecast for Sunday calls for a 40 percent chance of snow with a high of 16 degrees.
“You can’t let it bother you,” Munchak said of the expected weather conditions. “These guys have played in the cold before. Whatever it is, it’ll be it for both teams. I think you just got to go there and play and not let it factor into it.”
On Sunday, Broncos head coach John Fox returns to coaching the team for the first time since missing the last four games while recovering from aortic valve replacement surgery. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio went 3-1 while taking over the role as interim coach in Fox’s absence.
“Upstairs, you get better view of the game,” Fox said Friday while confirming he will coach the game from the sideline. “You don’t have quite the emotion involved — it doesn’t matter really what coach you are. On the field, you have a little bit better feel for the players.
“You look right into their eyes — communication-wise, it’s direct, and you’re not going through somebody. There are probably cons for both, but I’m looking forward to getting back on the field with the team and business as usual.”