It is entirely logical to believe that Peyton Manning was always going to be here, in this particular Super Bowl, and that it was just a matter of what uniform he’d wear and which team he’d drag here. Once, people back in Kansas City dreamed that team would be the Chiefs.
Two years ago next month, the Colts released Manning and NFL teams generally reacted like contestants on “The Bachelor,” elbowing each other out of the way to show off their goods. A dozen or more teams called the first day he was available. That’s more than a third of the league, and for good reason.
The only conference finalist this season who didn’t make a play for Manning already had Tom Brady. The Patriots were all set on Hall of Fame quarterbacks, but for everyone else, Manning was a turn-key franchise changer, a just-add-rehab MVP. So of course they lined up.
The Chiefs wanted Manning so badly that chairman Clark Hunt broke character and went on national television to talk about it. Romeo Crennel almost certainly violated league tampering rules. The Chiefs had ample salary-cap room, a talented young roster and an obsessed fan base. A lot to offer.
Manning interviewed or worked out for at least five teams. He gave the Chiefs what amounts to a courtesy, thanks-but-no-thanks phone call.
And with that, he altered the future of nearly half the league.
“I felt really good about our story,” says John Elway, Denver’s vice president for football operations. “I’m glad that he saw it the same way.”
The Broncos almost certainly would not be here right now without Peyton Manning. They would not have led the league in offense for the first time since Elway was the quarterback and won two Super Bowl titles, and would not have four different receivers with 10 touchdown catches, in part because Wes Welker would not have chosen the Broncos in free-agency without Manning.
The Broncos, actually, would’ve had to keep pretending that Tim Tebow could play, at least until they found someone else.
The Chiefs probably would’ve won the AFC West this season, which means they wouldn’t have had that playoff game in Indianapolis to choke away. They could’ve been at home.
Then again, Manning could’ve altered the Chiefs’ history even without going to Denver (or Kansas City).
Did you know the Eagles reached out? Think about that. If Manning went to Philadelphia to play with LeSean McCoy, the Eagles would not have finished 29th in points in 2012 and would not have gone 4-12. And Andy Reid would not have been fired and the Chiefs would’ve had to hire someone else. Chip Kelly, maybe?
Anywhere in the NFC would’ve been better for the Chiefs. The Cardinals were among Manning’s finalists. Good weather, he could’ve played indoors and thrown to Larry Fitzgerald. The Seahawks made a play, which means they could’ve been here in this game but without Russell Wilson.
“Word got out, and really he called me first,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll says of Manning. “He knew that we were interested. He gave me a call, woke me up one morning. (I) jumped out of bed and (said), ‘OK, let’s go. What’s up, Peyton?’ ”
Of course, the Seahawks probably wouldn’t be here if Manning chose the 49ers. That’s a move that made a lot of sense to a lot of football people. The roster was (and is) loaded, especially on defense. Good coach. One of the best tight ends in football. The 49ers made it within 5 yards of winning last year’s Super Bowl and 14 minutes within playing in this year’s Super Bowl, so imagine what they could’ve done with Manning. Colin Kaepernick would still be a backup.
What we know for sure is that the 49ers would not have signed Alex Smith to that three-year contract before the 2012 season, which means he would’ve been a free agent. Smith would’ve made sense for the Chiefs then, but that’s when Scott Pioli was still in charge, and he never showed a willingness to displace Matt Cassel.
So in that scenario, Smith would’ve been playing somewhere else in 2012, so Andy Reid and John Dorsey would’ve had to find their quarterback somewhere else in 2013, when the draft was empty and the free-agent class was highlighted by Matt Moore and Jason Campbell.
Manning held this year’s Chiefs back by being so darn good in Denver. Turns out he also could’ve held them back by going to San Francisco and pushing over some dominoes.
To say nothing of how much he could’ve pushed them forward by coming to Kansas City.
The Chiefs never had a chance. Maybe it would feel better if a detailed story existed about some grand courtship where Manning sat down with Clark Hunt over barbecue and saw a presentation about Tamba Hali and the crowd noise. Maybe it would be nice for Chiefs fans if Manning struggled with that decision.
It’s just that the Chiefs never got that far.
“You can only pick one team to play for,” Manning says.
Manning hates talking about the decision process, and even though he says he’s gone over it many times, his words are always professionally vague. The Chiefs have never fully detailed their end of the pursuit, either, but through conversations we know it was both simple and short. The Chiefs reached out, tried to tell him what they could offer in support (Manning made it clear to all teams to hold off on talking contract figures), and Manning said no thanks. It was as if your little brother asked a very polite supermodel out on a date.
The most obvious (and often cited) reason for Manning choosing the Broncos is Elway, and there is no question that’s a major factor. Elway says that he would like to have had a former quarterback with the same mind-set running the Broncos when he was playing.
“I have never really talked to him about exactly why he chose Denver, but I have a feeling that was part of the decision,” Elway says.
The sting on that part intensifies the more you think about it. Elway had always tortured the Chiefs as a player, and now he’s doing more of it in a suit. Plus, it’s one more tax the Chiefs must pay for never drafting their own star quarterback.
There was more. The Broncos’ roster was strong, with basically just the glaring need at quarterback. Manning’s offensive lines were always terrific in Indianapolis, so the presence of All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady had to help. So did the weak division (at the time). And Manning saw coach John Fox’s relaxed and steady style as a good fit.
The Chiefs had some pieces, but also an unstable front office, lots of questions on the offensive line, and no presence like Elway’s.
It’s easy to forget now, but there was some risk on the Broncos’ side. Nobody knew if all those neck surgeries had sapped all of Manning’s arm strength. The Broncos have gone with 2012 draft pick Brock Osweiler as the backup, with Elway somewhat famously saying there is no plan B.
That’s a risk plenty of other teams wanted to take, too, giving Manning all the choices in the world to alter the Chiefs and the rest of the NFL.