I'm going to start the week off with some non-MMO related news. If you've been reading the blog for a while, you know I follow NFL football fairly regularly and have commented on it from time to time here. Well if you follow the NFL at all you already know that the biggest free agent since Reggie White is on the market right now, and his name is Peyton Manning. Now I've said before, I dislike ALL things Manning, but to be fair that has more to do with brother Eli's "John Elway" stunt at the draft and pouting his way to New York when he didn't want to play in San Diego. That and I am a huge Tom Brady fan and you can't really be a fan of both Tom and Peyton. But (assuming he is healthy) Peyton's final destination will have repercussions across the entire league. So just like all the other "armchair quarterbacks" out there, I feel compelled to offer my own opinion on where Peyton will be playing next year. We'll start with the three teams generally agreed upon as the "front runners" and then get to my own pick.
The Miami Dolphins
Most people seem to think the Dolphins are in the driver's seat in terms of signing Manning. Peyton's long time teammate (and fellow free agent) Reggie Wayne indicated he would want to play with Peyton in Miami. That scenario sounds familiar somehow. Where have I heard that before? "I'm taking my talents to South Beach..." Owner Stephen Ross is supposedly pulling out all the stops to convince Manning to come to Miami. And legendary Dolphin Dan Marino has endorsed the idea as well. From a football perspective, it does make some sense. Miami has decent offensive weapons in Brandon Marshall and Reggie Bush. If you add Reggie Wayne to that mix you get a pretty potent attack for Manning to manage. Throw in new head coach Joe Philbin, who directed Green Bay's offense and Aaron Rodgers, and you can see why lots of people like Miami as Peyton's final destination.
But here's why it isn't going to happen. Peyton Manning is going to go where he has the most reasonable chance to go to the Super Bowl and win. He's not in this for the money. He's not in this for the records. He can retire right now and be set for life as a first ballot Hall of Famer. The Miami Dolphins are not going to the Super Bowl anytime soon, not even with Peyton Manning under center. Miami plays in the AFC East where another team you may have heard of plays, the New England Patriots. Now I am not suggesting that Peyton would "duck" Tom Brady. Hell, they've played each other every single year for what seems like forever. But in terms of "path to the Super Bowl?" Picking the division where he has to play Brady twice a year (and always once in Foxboro) is not the proverbial path of least resistance.
In addition, playing in Miami would force Manning to play many, many more games outdoors. It would involve road trips to New England, New York, and Buffalo every year. None of those three locales are known for their lovely weather. Manning is a much better quarterback indoors than out. He played in a dome in Indianapolis and thrived there. He is not going to want to go to a team that plays all its home games outdoors, plus in a division with no domed stadiums. At this point in his career, that is just not an adjustment he is going to want to make. Overall I just see no compelling reason Peyton picks Miami. It just makes no sense for him to go there.
The Arizona Cardinals
Like Miami, there are some good football reasons to see Peyton in Arizona next year. The first and most obvious is the Cardinals can offer the single most potent offensive weapon of any of the front runners, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. The idea of Manning-to-Fitzgerald alone would be enough to keep half the defensive coordinators in the NFC awake at night. Throw in Reggie Wayne or Pierre Garcon (both former Colts and free agents) and again, you have a very powerful offensive attack for Manning to lead. And while the Arizona defense is no "world beater," if the Colts of the last decade proved anything, it is that a Manning led offense piling points on the board and letting the defense play with a lead can make a mediocre defense look much better. We already saw this to a degree when Kurt Warner was quarterbacking the Cardinals and took them all the way to the Super Bowl. Finally, Arizona plays in a retractable roof stadium, and you can bet that if Mr. Manning wants that roof closed, it will be. Plus St. Louis plays in a dome, and while Seattle and San Francisco are far from the warmest cities on earth, they don't get snow storms either.
But like Miami, there are some big negatives here that lead me to believe this isn't where Peyton ends up either. The most obvious flaw is Arizona's offensive line. The Cardinals gave up the second most sacks in the league last year, and incumbent starter Kevin Kolb missed half the season to injury, four games of which was with a concussion. Manning was never a very mobile quarterback to begin with, and one has to believe that after his recovery from neck surgery, he will be even more "statuesque" than before. So I can't see him signing up to play behind this offensive line. Then there is the whole "path to the Super Bowl" issue. Prior to last season, the NFC West would have been regarded as the weakest division in football, and rightfully so. But going into the 2012 season, that is far from the case. San Fran is legitimate and will be back as a contender next year, and the Rams are going to make a lot more noise. Their trade with the Redskins for a pile of picks is going to pay dividends and I believe Sam Bradford will rebound from his "sophomore slump." So again, some tantalizing pluses, but I don't see him in Arizona.
The Denver Broncos
Sorry Tebowites, but of the three agreed upon front runners, Denver actually makes the most sense. Let's put aside for the moment whether Denver keeps or trades Tebow if they sign Manning. Initial indications are that they trade him, but that's a different question. Tebow's presence or absence on the team really doesn't change much for the Broncos themselves with Manning under center. So why is this the best fit of the three? First off Denver offers the most complete TEAM of any of the three. The offense has good skill position players such as Willis McGahee, Demariyus Thomas, and Eric Decker. If Tebow could make Thomas and Decker look good, imagine what Manning could do for them. Additionally, Denver has the best defense of these three teams by far. Many argued it was actually Denver's defense that made "Tebow Time" possible and was responsible for the team's success. A solid defense generating turnovers and short fields for Manning is a scary proposition. And finally, Denver's offensive line is solid. The aren't the "Hogs," but they keep their QB cleaner than most, a big factor for the immobile Manning.
In terms of the "path to the Super Bowl," Denver's AFC West is a bit of an enigma. On the one hand you could suggest it is the weakest division in football and easiest to win. San Diego, Oakland, and Kansas City all underachieved to varying degrees last year and each have glaring deficiencies. But at the same time, one could also argue it is the most balanced division in football and the least predictable. Any one of those teams could have a break out season next year and it really wouldn't be a surprise. They all have playoff potential. Manning instantly makes the Broncos the favorites in the division, but all the other teams in the division have the potential to cause trouble. I'm not sure that is the kind of "roll of the dice" Peyton may want to take.
Which brings us to the two reasons why Manning won't go to Denver. The first is the aforementioned Tebow. Whether you like him as a player (or as a person) or not, his status as a "phenomenon" cannot be ignored. Now I don't think for one second that John Elway would hesitate at all to sign Manning if he agreed, nor do I think Manning would be "intimidated" replacing Tebow. But the city of Denver, its fans, and players on the team all rallied around Tebow and (for better or worse) believe in him. I know it sounds absurd to suggest that a future Hall of Famer like Manning could not generate the same belief and support, but stranger things have happened in sports. Does Peyton want to put himself in that situation? That I can't answer. The other major factor is again, the indoor/outdoor question. Denver plays outdoors and inclement weather is a common sight late in the season. Kansas City is one of the loudest places to play in the league, and similarly can be cold and nasty late in the year. San Diego and Oakland are among the most temperate locales in the game however, but I can't see Manning signing up to play half his games at Mile High every year.
And the Winner Is...
So of those three teams I would rank the likelihood of Manning signing as:
1) Denver Broncos
2) Arizona Cardinals
3) Miami Dolphins
There are many other destinations being floated for Manning, from the absurd (Buffalo?) to the almost unthinkable (Baltimore.) But here's my "dark horse" to sweep in and steal the Manning Sweepstakes... the Houston Texans. It sounds crazy, and on some levels it is, but it's so crazy that it makes a world of sense. Let's start with the positives. First, this team is already a legitimate Super Bowl contender. If not for Matt Schaub's injury last year, I firmly believe Houston would have made the AFC Championship Game. I don't think they could have gotten past New England or Baltimore for the Super Bowl, but they would have come close. A healthy Manning could easily put them over the top and definitely puts them in that upper echelon with the Pats, Ravens, and Steelers. Houston has potent offensive weapons, a solid running game with Arian Foster, and one of the best receivers in the league in Andre Johnson. Houston's offensive line is one of the better groups in the league, already good at plowing the road for Foster. Manning being able to work the play action behind that line? Scary good. On the defensive side of the ball, this is one of the best units in the game. Even with Mario Williams presumably leaving in free agency, this will still be a defense to be reckoned with. And as mentioned before, even an average defense looks better playing with a two or three touchdown lead, as Manning gave the Colts for many years. The Houston defense is much better than "average."
On top of that there are some big non-football factors in Houston's favor. The first is again the "path to the Super Bowl" issue. The Texans play in the AFC South, a division Manning is very familiar with as is contains his old team, the Colts. His old team that is now a shadow of itself and anything but a contender. The other members of the division, the Titans and Jaguars, are little better. This is a very winnable division and provides a clear path to the playoffs. Additionally the Texans play in a domed stadium, as do the Colts, and Tennessee and Jacksonville are not exactly known for their bad weather. So with Houston, Peyton plays more than half his games indoors, and most of the others in (fairly) good locales. This just feels like a winner all the way around to me.
So why wouldn't it happen? Two major hold ups. The first is that there is no indication that the Texans are interested. Presumably they are convinced they can get to the next level with Schaub under center and don't see the benefit of taking a risk on the veteran Manning returning to form. And I suppose that is fair. The other potential problem is, does Manning want to stick it to his old team twice a year? Let's be blunt, the Texans are about to start repaying the Colts for all those years of beatings by Manning. Even with T.J. Yeats under center the Texans will kill the Colts right now. So does Manning really want to be a part of that? Does he feel a need to rub it in to the Colts that they shouldn't have let him go? Does he want to embarrass them on a yearly basis? Hard to say from that final press conference. I think Peyton legitimately loves the city of Indianapolis and its fans. The team and the ownership? That I don't know.
So where does Peyton finally end up? As much as I like the fit of Manning in Houston, if you forced me to bet on it... I'd go with Denver. But we'll see how it all plays out. Indications are that Manning wants to make his decision quickly and will likely know by Tuesday where he wants to go. So any other football fans out there, let me know what your guesses are in the comments and we'll see how we all did.