I’ve talked to Peyton Manning one-on-one. I’ve seen him in the glow of ultimate victory after a Super Bowl and the pain of losing that same game three years later.
But I had never seen Manning, as cool a performer as you’ll find in sports, as emotional as he was at times during today’s farewell to the Indianapolis Colts press conference, 17 days shy of his 36th birthday.
Of course, we all suspected for weeks that this parting was coming because of the franchise’s collapse when Manning was hurt last year and because of the $28 million roster bonus he was due tomorrow.
But from a Washington perspective, today matters because after endless speculation, the lowly Redskins – who could be a leading contender to sign Manning — and the Hall of Fame lock quarterback will decide in the coming days whether they’re a good fit for each other.
Washington certainly needs an elite quarterback and has the cap room to also afford to sign Manning’s No. 1 receiver, Reggie Wayne, as well as fellow Colts wideout Pierre Garcon, who’s also headed to free agency on Tuesday. If Trent Williams stays away from illegal substances, the Redskins also gave a rising young left tackle to protect Manning’s blind side. Washington’s defense made serious strides last year. Coach Mike Shanahan has won two Super Bowls – albeit in 1997 and 1998 — and owner Dan Snyder won’t be outspent.
That’s all fine, but the Redskins have suffered through three straight double-digit loss seasons and aren’t as close to winning a title as the New York Jets, who have a a formidable defense and were .500 in 2011 after consecutive AFC Championship Game appearances.
The Jets also have defensive-minded head coach Rex Ryan who wouldn’t be as reluctant to hand the controls to Manning, whose hands-on style of quarterbacking could set up a serious war of wills with Shanahan and the coach’s son/coordinator Kyle as was the case in 2010 with the less-demanding Donovan McNabb.
However, New York is also the highest-octane media market, one that doesn’t suit Manning’s reserved nature and would prompt constant comparisons to his younger brother Eli, the two-time championship quarterback of the Giants, who share a stadium with the Jets. And what happens to young, incumbent New York quarterback Mark Sanchez? How would he and Manning co-exist?
Miami has been almost as bad lately as Washington, but Joe Philbin, the Dolphins’ rookie coach, isn’t nearly as set in his ways as Shanahan, who’s in his 19th season. Miami has a stud receiver Brandon Marshall, 1,000-yard scatback Reggie Bush and Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long.
The Dolphins allowed way fewer points than the Jets or Redskins last year and play in much better weather for an aching, aging quarterback who won his Super Bowl in their stadium and owns a condo in South Beach. Plus, fourth-year Dolphins owner Steve Ross wants to spend money in hopes of reviving a once-great franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since a 2001 victory over then-fourth-year quarterback Manning and the Colts.
Arizona, .500 last season, offers sunny practices, an indoor stadium and All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald as well as a team that won a division title in 2009 and came within 45 seconds of winning a Super Bowl the previous year under coach Ken Whisenhunt with now-retired transplanted veteran quarterback Kurt Warner.
What especially complicates this for the Redskins is that they’re the only one of the expected contenders for Manning who are also seriously considering going with a rookie quarterback, in particular trading with St. Louis to move from the sixth slot in next month’s draft to the second in order to select Baylor’s Robert Griffin III.
Griffin is the reigning winner of the Heisman Trophy, an award that eluded Manning when he was in college at Tennesee – he finished second to Charles Woodson as a senior in 1997.
Few goals have eluded Manning since he was drafted first overall by the Colts in 1998. He started all 208 games during his 13 healthy seasons, winning 141 of them (fourth all-time) as he led Indy to 11 playoff appearances, eight division titles, two AFC championships and that Super Bowl. He ranks third in passing yards, touchdowns and completions and is the only four-time MVP.
That’s all the past. As for the future, Manning had four neck surgeries in a 19-month period that ended last Sept. 8. Dr. Robert Watkins, who performed the last surgery, has said that Manning is cleared to return to the field.
“I’m throwing it pretty well,” Manning said today. “I’ve still got some work to do, but I’ve come a long way. … I’m feeling closer and closer (to full strength). It sure feels comfortable. It feels kinda like home being back out there. … I don’t want to retire, and, no, I don’t feel like I have anything to prove, but nobody loves their job more than I do. Nobody loves playing quarterback more than I do. And I still want to play.”
But in Washington, Peyton? The Redskins would be better off long-term finally building around a young, franchise quarterback like Griffin, but Shanahan’s pressure to win now and Snyder’s need to fill seats and sell jerseys could well prompt them to pursue Manning hard. Of course, the ball’s now in the quarterback’s hands, as it almost always has been.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.