John Elway’s pursuit of Peyton Manning was always a high risk/high reward proposition. If Manning had decided to go elsewhere, the Broncos would have had few veteran quarterback options left and Elway would have taken even more heat than he already has for potentially alienating Tim Tebow.
Instead, Elway has earned a spectacular victory, acquiring for Denver the most accomplished free agent in NFL history and putting the Broncos back into the championship conversation for the first time since he retired as a player.
The Broncos had no official comment pending negotiation of a contract, but a club source confirmed that Manning notified the team this morning that he wants to be a Bronco. Assuming no snags working out the details of a five-year, $95 million deal, the parameters of which have already been discussed, the Broncos hope to introduce the four-time most valuable player at a press conference Tuesday.
As Broncos fans debated the merits of Elway’s long-distance courtship, the Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations never wavered. At various times, speculation favored San Francisco, deemed the closest to Super Bowl contention following its appearance in last season’s NFC championship game, and Tennessee, where Manning and his wife, Ashley, went to college.
In fact, one day before ESPN broke the news of Manning’s decision, CBS analyst and former Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe posted this on Twitter: “I believe Titans have won.” Sharpe indicated he had gotten the tip from a league source.
“I was hoping we would win out,” Titans owner Bud Adams told The Tennessean. “I thought we’d be ahead of Denver. I thought he’d want to stay in Tennessee.”
Throughout the Manning pursuit, Broncos fans wondered what would happen if Manning went elsewhere. The club’s other options among veteran quarterbacks were quickly disappearing from the free agent market. Matt Flynn, Jason Campbell, Kyle Orton, Brady Quinn, Josh McCown, Chad Henne, Rex Grossman and a host of even lesser lights had already found seats in the NFL’s off-season game of musical chairs.
Fans also worried about the effect on Tebow, the incumbent starter with whom the Broncos had no contact during the Manning courtship, waiting to see how it turned out. Now, according to ESPN, the club will look to trade Tebow. This process could be almost as interesting as the Manning pursuit itself.
Tebow is even more popular in Florida, where he’s from, than he is in Denver, so the early speculation will focus on Jacksonville and Miami, the two Florida teams without stable quarterback situations (Tampa Bay seems settled with Josh Freeman).
The Jaguars recently signed Henne to join Blaine Gabbert, their first-round draft pick (tenth overall) just 11 months ago. The Dolphins pursued both Manning and Flynn in free agency, to no avail. They hosted 49ers starter Alex Smith over the weekend, hoping to grab him if San Francisco won the Manning sweepstakes. Now the Niners can be expected to get serious about re-signing Smith.
So Miami might indeed be an option for Tebow. The Broncos and Dolphins tried to make a deal for another quarterback — Orton — last summer, but that fell apart when Orton and the Dolphins couldn’t agree on a new contract. Tebow signed a five-year deal after the Broncos drafted him in 2010, so that should be less of an issue in trade talks, although his representatives might well seek an upgrade on the $1.9 million salary he is due in 2012, well below market for an NFL starter.
Just how good Manning will make the Broncos in his first year in Denver is unknown, of course. They face a brutal first-place schedule this season after winning the AFC West on a tie-breaker following an 8-8 season.
Whether the Broncos will add any of his former teammates in Indianapolis is also unknown. Center Jeff Saturday and tight end Dallas Clark would appear to be the most likely possibilities if they do, but the Broncos have promising young players at both spots — J.D. Walton at center and Julius Thomas at tight end.
Strangely, Manning’s favorite target, wideout Reggie Wayne, re-signed with the rebuilding Colts rather than wait to see where the other half of their partnership ended up. He would be a natural to add to the Broncos’ young wide receiver corps — Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker — if he hadn’t. As it is, the Broncos might seek another veteran to replace Eddie Royal, who agreed to terms with the Chargers.
Getting Manning removes only one of the risks in courting him. He still must prove he’s back to being as durable as he was before the neck injury that kept him out all last season and required multiple surgeries to repair. And he must prove he can be as effective at 36, post-surgery, post-layoff, as he was before.
But what Elway has accomplished already should not be understated. With neither the familiarity of Tennessee nor the 13-3 record of San Francisco, Elway sold Manning on Denver in a way that only he could — one Hall of Fame quarterback to another. In the process, he won for the Broncos what Tom Jackson, the ESPN analyst and former Broncos linebacker, called “possibly the biggest free agent pickup in the history of football.”
The only outcome that will truly gratify either Elway or Manning is a Super Bowl championship in the relatively short window they will have together. As soon as the contract is signed, they’ll be getting to work on that.