Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Peyton Manning Saga Begins

The old adage “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” has become a shared viewpoint for all fans of professional football with regards to Peyton Manning.  The 2011 NFL season, while littered with parody and newfound success for some organizations, was certainly incomplete.  The league was without its most iconic player – it’s best player.

It didn’t take long for us to know Peyton Manning’s time in Indianapolis had reached the final chapter.  For some, myself included, the news that Manning would miss a chunk of regular season games all but notarized what would inevitably be a horribly disappointing season.  Once we learned he was done for the year, there was little doubt as to which team would be the frontrunner in the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. 

I spent a good deal of time writing about how the financial burden of picking up Manning’s option and signing Luck with the first overall pick would be more than worth it.  Allowing Luck to develop would have created an even more seamless Favre-Rodgers-like transition.  But, I am not a professional sports team owner nor general manager and my view on the situation would have probably led to a similar situation as what the Miami Heat had in 2010-11; almost everyone else would be hovering around minimum salaries.  The Indi situation would have been even more precarious.

Over the course of the coming weeks and months (and probably years), many will have good reason to reflect on what Manning meant to the city of Indianapolis.  For the sake of brevity and avoiding the obvious, suffice to say that there is no Lucas Oil Stadium without Peyton.  There is no Super Bowl.  There may not even be a team.  Optimistic Colts fans will say that Andrew Luck can get the Colts back on their winning ways quickly enough but even the most cheery of supporters knows he cannot be Peyton Manning.  It took Peyton two years to ascend to elite quarterback status.  Fans should be satisfied if Luck can do it in twice as long. 

We know who will be the Indianapolis quarterback in 2012.  The question is, who will be willing to sign the 35-year-old legend?

The first question for any team interested will be, obviously, Peyton’s health.  Since brother Eli’s Super Bowl became old news, and before New Orleans became the new villains of the NFL, the only relevant football storyline concerned Peyton.  During this time frame, we heard reports than ran the gamut of retirement, to far-from-game-ready, to medically cleared to play, to throwing like his old self.  Surely it now seems that Manning will be ready to go come September.  There’s simply no way he will allow Indianapolis’ decision pushed him out of the game.  Thankfully, this is not and will not be another Favre-esque bitter departure, but if you don’t think Manning will enter next season with something to prove, then you are simply failing to comprehend his intensely competitive nature. 
Peyton Manning's classy, tasteful departure from Indianapolis was about
as surprising as finding water to be wet.  
Maybe it’s premature or maybe it’s an indication of want rather than reality, but it seems to me that Manning will be 100% by the start of the upcoming season.  I do not mean to say that he will necessarily be capable of doing the things he did during his time in Indianapolis – what 35-year-old athlete is the same player he was at 33, 30, or 28?  But, I do think that by his second or third game (once he shakes of the dust), Peyton will be capable of doing the things at 35 that he would have been doing without the missed season.  You could even argue that a year away from the contact of a NFL calendar year added a season to his football lifetime.       

If for no other reason than fulfilling his affinity for Southern locale, Miami must be the frontrunner at this junction.  When you add in their respectable offensive line, the scenario begins to make even more sense.  When you add Brandon Marshall, the odds that Miami will reach less than 10 wins with a healthy Manning seems near impossible.  When you add in guaranteed bi-annual battles with Brady, the prospect is enough to send John Gruden into hyperbole. 

There is a certain amount of adjusting that must occur whenever a player goes to a new team.  It’s hard to think of a player in any sport that carries with him such unique methods.  This is in reference to, of course, the no huddle offense.  Brees, Brady, and Rodgers might object when people talk about Manning as the best QB in the league, but none of them come within a planet of Peyton’s beautifully precise and integral game management.  He is a general on the field and the no-huddle offense is his more important weapon. 
How will Peyton’s new coaching staff adapt to his no huddle approach?  Well, if the landing team has any sense at all (which, considering they made a move to sign Peyton Manning, they probably do), they must put the offense in the hands of Peyton.  There can be questions about him physically, but he certainly didn’t lose a blip of his football mind.  Revoking any of Manning’s offensive play calling liberties would be like asking T-Pain to sing sans auto tune.    

Peyton orchestrated the offense for a decade in Indianapolis, but there is no denying that the success he had in 2009 was built upon things he did back in 2004.  An offseason of modification should be sufficient time to get the offense of his new home up and running, but there’s no Harrison, Wayne, or Clark in Miami or anywhere else.  The adjustment will take time, but nobody will work harder than Manning to make it work.  

Staying in Miami, newly appoint head coach Joe Philbin, who this past season served as Aaron Rodgers’ offensive coordinator, was obviously brought in to revitalize a organization whose offense has been dormant for too long.  At first glace, the Philbin-Manning marriage seems like it could be a very amiable and successful one.  Rodgers is beginning to do some of the intangible things that make Manning so great and, now that Philbin has the responsibilities of the head coach, he will certainly need to give at least some of the offensive play calling responsibilities over to his coordinator and, of course, Manning.  Stubbornness and/or arrogance could catalyze conflict, but even Mike Martz would put the offense in the hands of Manning.  No player is infallible, but any type of battle over offensive responsibilities will fall on the coaching staff.
Philbin clearly understand NFL quarterbacks; he coached Rodgers to
his MVP award.  But, it will be his ability to take a step back that will
determine if Manning could hypothetically work in Miami.   
As great as Peyton is, there has always been at least a whisper of criticism surrounding him.  To bet against Manning is a bad move a majority of the time, but it does seem near impossible that he will reach Brady’s three Super Bowl rings or five Super Bowl appearances.  When all is said and done, will Brady be regarded as the player of the decade?  It’s still too early to tell, but the Super Bowl disparity is hard to ignore. 

Then again, let’s pretend Manning does win another Super Bowl and dare I say an unprecedented 5th MVP award.  Two Super Bowls with two different maligned franchises (Manning will not be joining a 2011 playoff contender) in the salary cap, holdout-big-salary-big-pressure era would trump the achievements of almost anyone.  No quarterback has ever won a Super Bowl with two different organizations.  Coming back from a spinal injury and bringing a Super Bowl to Miami or wherever he chooses to go will have to make him the greatest quarterback ever, right?  Even if he doesn’t reach the Super Bowl but is able to eclipse the 10 win mark for each of, say, the next three seasons, is that not compelling evidence for at least best of the era?  Has the situation ever existed where we can so easily equate a staggering win contribution from one player to his team? 

In the coming months the Peyton Manning free-agency spectacular will be something the likes of which we have never seen in professional football.  Whoever snags the perennial all-pro will become an immediate Super Bowl contender regardless of the other 50 guys on the roster.  If that is not a measure of greatness I don’t know what is.


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