Peyton’s Next Stop: Where Will He Go, and Will It Be Awkward?

Well…it’s done. One of the most intriguing will-they-won’t-they dramas professional sports has ever seen has finally come to an end: the Indianapolis Colts have officially released Peyton Manning.

But though this split has been a foregone conclusion for some time, processing the reality, at least for me, is proving to be an entirely different beast. As a football romantic, I’ll have a difficult time closing the book on Manning’s career in Indy, one of the finest chapters in NFL history. It was the kind of story every football player (and professional athlete for the matter) wants to be a part of and every fan loves to follow: Manning, a blue-collar guy from Louisiana, not only wins but single-handedly transforms a franchise and shapes a culture. His presence made the Colts a force to be reckoned with year in, year out for 13 seasons, and under his leadership, the team became a model of professionalism, discipline, and consistent execution.

So, yes, it’ll be a little strange to see Manning don another jersey next season. And I need to figure out what to say when the footage of #18 dropping back in Colt blue shows up on the highlight reel I plan to show extraterrestrials when they land on earth and demand to know what American football is. Anyway, if it’s going to be weird for me, I imagine it’ll be extremely weird for Manning, who has spent his entire career with one team.

Will it be awkward?

Will Manning nostalgically click through old Facebook photos of him and Dallas Clark?

Will Manning call Jim Irsay in the middle of the night just to hear his voice?

Will Peyton accidentally say “Colts” during an impassioned speech in his new locker room?

Will Peyton freak out and start ranting about how the new team never does X and the Colts always did Y?

Will Peyton think about the Colts during…you know…?

Sigh.

(original image courtesy of jokideo.com) 

But in all seriousness, I know this is just business and that Peyton’s departure was the best move for both sides. It’s time for everyone/me to get it together and move on. Why don’t we start by engaging in a little prediction analysis?

Now I know exactly what you’re going to say: football writers everywhere have a massive boner over this and have already been mercilessly hammering the Manning destination speculation. In response, I politely request that you suck it. Let me have my guilty pleasure. It’ll be therapeutic.

So where will Manning land? Before we break down what various teams have and don’t have to offer, let’s think about what Manning wants. First and foremost, Manning wants to win. And winning for Manning doesn’t mean a 10-6 season with a 2nd-round exit from the playoffs. Manning wants another ring and will go to a team he feels is just a quarterback away from making a legitimate title run. Second, in order to win, Manning needs weapons. Every quarterback wants smart, capable receivers, running backs that can effectively complement the passing game, and a strong defense. But the teams that will pursue Manning vary in strength in each of those categories, and Manning will want the best mix possible across the board, as he had a rich personnel around him in Indianapolis. Third, the environment has to be right for Manning. We’ve already discussed the culture Manning helped shape in Indianapolis, and he’ll want to play in a similar atmosphere. Finally, weather and stadium will be factors. I have to imagine that, with his health issues, Manning will want to play indoors or in a warm-weather city.

Given those criteria, we can eliminate a few teams that frankly don’t make sense. The New York Jets will undoubtedly make a play for the future hall of famer, but New York is too much of a loaded hotbed of distractions for Manning: it’s a media circus, Eli Manning has just won another Super Bowl with the New York Giants, Rex Ryan is a loudmouth, and the Jets are a PR mess right now. I also don’t know if the time has come for the Jets to give up on Mark Sanchez. The Washington Redskins have the cap room, and Dan Snyder is aggressive. But I’m not sure they offer the slate of supporting playmakers Manning is looking for. Also, Manning might not be the best fit for Mike Shanahan‘s offense, and again, in the NFC East, it would be a little too close to Eli. The San Francisco 49ers are an attractive option for Manning, but it’s hard to believe the front office will break up Alex Smith and Jim Harbaugh after what they were able to accomplish last season. And remember the playing conditions during the NFC Championship Game? Gross.

Now to the contenders. The Miami Dolphins seem to be the front-runners at this point and for good reason. Offensively, they have an all-pro left tackle in Jake Long, a dynamic running corps with Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas, and a top-notch receiver in Brandon Marshall. Defensively, in 2011, the Dolphins allowed 19.6 PPG, good for 6th in the NFL. They were also dominant against the rush, only allowing 95.6 YPG, good for 3rd in the NFL. The Dolphins finished 6-10 with underwhelming quarterback play from Matt Moore and Chad Henne, so Manning stepping in and leading this franchise to the playoffs and perhaps a Super Bowl is no stretch of the imagination. The Dolphins would need to do some financial footwork to make room for the high-profile free agent, but owner Stephen Ross is salivating over Manning and wants to make it happen. Throw in Miami’s weather, and you almost have a perfect match. However, the one negative Miami has is that it plays in the AFC East with the Jets and New England Patriots, meaning Manning would have formidable opposition when it comes to both a division title and an AFC Wild Card spot. But this be may less of a concern considering the current state of the Jets, who are coming off a disappointing 8-8 effort.

Personally, I like the chances of the Arizona Cardinals. Manning has a good relationship with head coach Ken Whisenhunt, who got championship production and mileage out of another great quarterback in the late stages of his career: Kurt Warner. Larry Fitzgerald is an elite receiver and upstanding member of the NFL community — a guy Manning could really gel with. Manning would also have Early Doucet and Todd Heap, who is a decent receiving tight end. In the backfield, running back Beanie Wells showed promise last season, recording 1,047 rushing yards and 10 rushing TDs. And while Arizona’s defense was average-to-below-average in 2011, overall, the team went 8-8, losing 3 games by 3 points or less and a few other contests by very close margins. Arizona also plays in the NFC West, the weakest division in the NFL. The 49ers put together a stellar campaign last year, but can the much-maligned Alex Smith and second-year coach Jim Harbaugh repeat? San Francisco is certainly not a dynasty or established, perennial playoff threat. The road to the postseason and the Super Bowl would be much easier in Arizona, which also offers Manning plenty of sunshine, than it would be in Miami. The issue here is that quarterback Kevin Kolb, who so far has been a bust, is due a $7 million bonus payment on March 17. Hmm, Kolb…Manning…Kolb…Manning…

Larry Fitzgerald

Finally, we have the Seattle Seahawks, who, to me, have the least compelling case. Seattle reportedly has deep pockets and will go after Manning very hard. If Tarvaris “Pac Sun necklace” Jackson was your starting quarterback, you would too. Seattle has a ferocious running back in Marshawn Lynch and one of the better defenses in the league. However, their receiving squad leaves something to be desired, and they’d likely have to bring a free agent pass catcher, like Reggie Wayne, to entice Manning. Manning would likely work well with Pete Carroll, and Seattle, like Arizona, plays in the flaccid NFC West. However, they also play outdoors in the Northwest. Blech.

The teams mentioned have dominated the discussion so far, but inevitably, the mix of organizations wanting Manning’s services will be in constant flux while the legendary quarterback entertains offers in free agency. However, ultimately, we just hope that Manning and the Colts can still be friends, that Manning finds happiness again, and that his new team isn’t too jealous of his ex.

 

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