So, why Denver?
After leaving the Indianapolis Colts this month, Peyton Manning literally had his pick of at least a half dozen teams and probably more. News reports Monday suggest he has chosen the Denver Broncos and that a deal is likely to be struck soon.
It's safe to say that we will not really know the reasons for choosing Denver until Manning tells us. If this past year – and these past two weeks – have taught us anything, it is that Manning is, in fact, much more valuable and smarter than we thought.
Manning an underachiever in the postseason? Take him away and the Colts can't win three games.
Miami the favorite to sign him? Miami doesn't even make the final shortlist.
In Indianapolis, Manning filled notebook after notebook with his film study. You think he didn't fill a notebook or two during his whirlwind tour of the past two weeks? Ten years from now, those loose-leafs could sell for millions of dollars – football's version of DaVinci's revolutionary scribblings.
Let's just say, he's thought about this more than anyone in the media has – maybe more than anyone who has ever gone through this process – and he surely has reasons that might not even occur to much of the media.
But there are certain factors that appear too compelling to ignore.
The Elway factor
Most obvious is that when Manning looks in the football mirror these days, the man he most wants to see is John Elway.
A little more than a decade ago, Elway was nearing the end of his career. He was considered one of the greatest quarterbacks of his generation – and perhaps ever – but there was a gigantic void in his résumé: he had never won a Super Bowl.
By 1999, he had retired having won two Super Bowls in his final two seasons. Now he's the Broncos general manager.
Manning, of course, has won a Super Bowl. But just one. When the assembled talking heads of football wisdom gather Sunday mornings to grant and withdraw immortality to today's players, Manning almost always comes second when talk turns to quarterbacks. Tom Brady has three Super Bowl wins, the argument inevitably goes. Even Manning's kid brother, Eli, now has two.
If Manning could pull an Elway, the entire conversation would change. Manning, of course, probably doesn't care much about "the conversation." He would, however, care deeply about the shiny trophy.
So, in the end, who understands better how to do what John Elway did than John Elway? In Denver, Manning is allying himself with perhaps the only person in pro football management who knows what it is like to be Peyton Manning.
The lunch-pail factor
There are other factors, too.
Manning is a lunch-pail football player – a fact often overshadowed by his cerebral take on the game. He is a worker, and likes a workplace filled with workers and lacking in drama. In Broncos head coach John Fox, he has one of pro football's wiser heads, who's been around, seen everything, and knows how to run a tight ship without becoming William Bligh.
Perhaps even more to the point, Fox has shown himself to be adaptable. Last season, the Broncos essentially keelhauled their entire offensive philosophy when Tim Tebow became the starting quarterback – designing a new system from scratch that would fit his skill set.
With Manning, the skill set will change again – and dramatically. Tebow's boiled down run-first system will have to change to a system of countless permutations that Manning can change at will – linemen, receivers, backs, and coaches, all waiting for Manning to marshal the offense moment by moment, conductor-like, from the pit that is his spot behind center.
That degree of influence some coaches might find threatening. In Denver, it will simply be the second time they've blown up the offense in two years.
The up-and-coming factor
The pieces of that offense will be intriguing to Manning, too. Take the fact that the Broncos were the top-rated rushing team in the league last year. Of course, that was with the mobile Tebow as quarterback. Without him, they would have been closer to the middle of the pack. Even so, Manning hasn't had a middle-of-the-pack – much less a top – rushing offense since Edgerrin James left the Colts in 2006.
Young and talented is the Broncos MO. On the other side of the ball, defensive end Elvis Dumervil and linebacker Vonn Miller can pressure opposing quarterbacks, while Champ Bailey is a shutdown cornerback better than any Manning had in his Colts career.
The weather factor
Just as interesting, though, is what did not dissuade Manning from choosing the Broncos.
Most obvious is that it is cold and windy in Denver. For a player who has played his entire professional career in a dome – and who is coming off a season lost to a neck injury – Denver might seem a terrible fit. But it is an indication of Manning's own confidence – both in his skills and his rehabilitation – that playing football a mile up and occasionally amid blizzards was not decisive.
After all this time, he probably deserves the benefit of the doubt.