A year or two ago, it was unfathomable to picture Peyton Manning in anything but the Indianapolis Colts’ blue and white. But it’s happened: The Colts have cut one of the best quarterbacks of a generation, a man who brought 14 seasons of dominant play, four MVP awards, one Super Bowl Championship, and a new stadium to the city of Indianapolis. Manning will probably be donning a helmet next season, but it won’t have a horseshoe on it.
"I've been a Colt for almost all of my adult life," a tearful Manning said Wednesday at the noon press conference announcing that he and the Colts would be parting ways. "I haven't thought yet about where I'll play."
Still, Manning stressed that he was "confident" he'd play in the fall, and that he doesn't want to retire. "I still want to play. There's no other team I've wanted to play for, but I've loved playing, quarterback."
Painful? Yes, but far from a surprise. For months, all signs have indicated that the Colts wouldn’t pick up the remaining four years on Manning’s contract, after he sat out the entire season due to a neck injury that required four surgical procedures. A dismal 2 and 14 season followed for the Colts, resulting in a top-to-bottom restructuring of the organization – head coach Jim Caldwell, general manager Bill Poilan, and vice chairman Chris Poilan were fired, and the club has set its sights on building a team around quarterback Andrew Luck, the top draft prospect out of Stanford.
That left little room for Manning, or the $28 million he was due by the end of this week, if the Colts had decided to keep him.
The 35-year-old veteran could retire, having accomplished everything one could wish from an NFL career. However, it’s more likely he’ll play with another team – and there are plenty that would be glad to have him. Since it became clear that Manning’s departure from the Colts was imminent, the Internet has been humming with football fans and local sports reporters across the country weighing the likelihood of Manning joining their teams.
True, Manning, who turns 36 on March 24, is past his peak playing days, and with his neck issues, some consider him damaged goods. But a past-peak Peyton Manning is still a potent offensive weapon; as became crystal clear in Indianapolis, his intelligence, skill, and game management can make up for a lack of talent elsewhere on the field. So, given that Manning plays next season, where will he be suiting up?
Every team without a very, very good quarterback (think Drew Brees, Tom Brady, or brother Eli Manning) will be in the conversation. As a result, Manning will have a decent set of options, and will likely pick the team that can pony up the money to cover his contract without sacrificing the infrastructure necessary to make a championship run. That excludes some of the more sad sack hopefuls, like the Cleveland Browns and the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Houston Texans have been tossed around as a possibility – the Texans are a well-rounded team that made a playoff run last year, and they could use a franchise quarterback to complete the package. But they may not have the money for Manning, and their offense is more optimally designed for a quarterback who can move around and scramble, not a pocket deep-thrower in the Manning mold.
Manning’s most likely destinations, then, include the Washington Redskins, the Miami Dolphins, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Seattle Seahawks. Each team has the talent, money, and dearth of quarterback talent to make the relationship work.
Some put the early money on the Dolphins – Manning has a home in south Florida, and the Miami Herald reports that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has made it clear to his organization that he “covets” Manning. The Dolphins fan base, too, would give the former Colt an enthusiastic welcome. One group of fans even bought a billboard in the area depicting Manning decked out in a Dolphins uniform and directing passers-by to manningtomiami.com, where they can sign an online petition supporting the Dolphins organization in its efforts to land “the most cerebral quarterback of all time.”
Manning won't make his decision lightly, and he’s expected to have in-depth discussions and possibly workout sessions with the teams in contention. But it may have to come quickly, because where Manning ends up will determine the fate of other top quarterback prospects, including Packers back-up Matt Flynn and Robert Griffin III, the second quarterback likely to be drafted, coming out of Baylor.