Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos: Does Arizona have inside track?
Last Thursday, I scoffed at the prospect of Peyton Manning inking with Denver in a post headlined "Peyton Manning a future Bronco? And is that a pig I see flying?" But by the next day, when Manning met with John Elway and the team's brass, it was clear my instincts had been wrong, and that remains the case whether he signs here or not. So...what are the updated odds of that happening? Not bad, actually.
Widespread reports about at least a dozen teams inquiring about Manning have resulted in just two in-person visits at this writing: the one in Denver on Friday and a weekend trip to Arizona to powwow with the Cardinals' braintrust. And while the fact that he chose to drop in on Elway and company first hardly constitutes proof that the Broncos are his top choice, the order of his itinerary is at least a sign that the squad is a serious contender -- unlike, say, Kansas City, which was rumored to be a major player late last week but seems to have gotten the Heisman from PM.
The Broncos and Cardinals may not be the only contenders: Miami remains among the other possibilities, although the fact that Manning hasn't conducted a series of sit-downs with the Dolphins braintrust at this writing strikes me as telling, particularly given that he has a home in the area. And because ESPN is reporting that Peyton is now unlikely to make up his mind by tomorrow, as his representatives had previously implied, more dark horses may join the herd.
In the meantime, what are the pros and cons of the Broncos versus the Cardinals? Denver is in the AFC, the conference where Manning has spent his career, and one where he's unlikely to face off regularly against his brother Eli, who helms the NFC's New York Giants -- although the NFL schedule makers are likely to do whatever they can to contrive such a match-up no matter where he lands, at least in the preseason. He's also got quite a comfort level with Elway, and the fact that head coach John Fox is a defensive guy means he won't have to fight the main man to install an offense to his liking. Bonus: Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy is flexible, as witnessed by his willingness to take a flyer on the option last year.
In addition, the AFC West is hardly a murderer's row. Manning would have a considerable margin for error, with initial stumbles unlikely to nix the prospect of a division championship. (In contrast, the NFC West is led by the San Francisco 49ers, which experienced a renaissance last season under new coach Jim Harbaugh, and looks to be a new league power.) And Denver's defense is on the rise. The D is the real reason the squad made the playoffs last year, and even though it fell apart in several games (including that playoffs embarrassment against the New England Patriots), a lot of those problems can be traced to being stranded on the field for too long, not to mention the constant pressure to get stops due to the anemic offense -- an issue that is likely to vanish if Manning comes back at full strength.
Granted, the Cardinals have positive selling points, too. Arizona is a warm weather setting -- important for an aging quarterback who excels when he's out of the elements. Plus, Manning gets along well with head coach Ken Whisenhunt, and in Larry Fitzgerald, the Cards have a receiver for the ages. And although Arizona recently invested in Kevin Kolb, who was supposed to be the long-term answer at QB, his failure to solidify himself last season due to mediocre play and injury would make dumping him far less controversial than Denver's decision to sideline Tim Tebow in Manning's favor. Yes, Arizona has cap challenges -- for one thing, Kolb is owed a $7 million roster bonus later this month -- but they don't appear fatal.
Should Denver lose the Manning sweepstakes, the Tebow drama would ramp up yet again, with the team in a position of making amends (or not) to The Chosen One for appearing eager to set him aside. But I don't blame Elway and the ownership for taking this risk. Manning isn't just a Hall of Fame-caliber talent; he's in the conversation for greatest quarterback of all-time. A chance to land him even in the waning years of his career, and with question marks about his health, strikes me as a gamble worth taking. I give them credit for getting this far, and for proving doubters like myself wrong. Now if only they can just make this particular drive pay off....
Look below to see an ESPN report about Manning's visit to Arizona.
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