It came down to Arizona, Tennessee and Denver. Those three teams, sans Miami, that everyone expected to be on Peyton Manning's radar were the three finalists in Manning's search for a new team. Manning wanted a chance to win, but more than that, he wanted to go where he would have friends. Ken Whisenhunt, the old golfing buddy. Mike Munchak, Archie Manning's old teammate. But in the end the Broncos were able to trot out their unmatchable weapon: John Elway.
In this week's Sports Ilustrated, Peter King has the tick-tock of Manning's brief but busy free agency, and though neither side will say it, it sounds for all the world like Manning had Denver on his mind from the beginning. It was the first team he spoke to, and each succeeding visit was just a chance for other teams to wow him. Sufficient wowwing never came.
The 49ers tried, flying in to Raleigh and donning disguises to watch a Manning workout—Manning had already expressed irritation with the amount of coverage his trek had received, specifically the coptercam greeting him in Florida.
That night 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman came to see Manning throw on a lighted field at Duke. First they watched from a car by the side of the field, then, to get a better view, they came onto the field, hoodies pulled over their heads so as not to be recognized by some nosy iPhoner. Manning texted his mother, Olivia: "You'll never guess who I just worked out for. He was wearing a hoodie."
"Bill Belichick?" she responded.
The Titans tried, hastily arranging a secret throwing session after news vans staked out the UT practice field where Manning's workout was supposed to have been held.
"The facility's packed with media," Manning said.
"I didn't tell anyone!" Munchak replied.
"Don't worry," said Manning. "Just keep driving, and when you get close, call me, and I'll tell you where to go."
Roger Frazier, Manning's old equipment manager with the Vols, found a field at the private Webb School in Knoxville. Manning called Munchak and told him that when he got off the highway at the appointed exit, he should look for a black car at the end of the ramp and follow it. Munchak did. After a few blocks they pulled up behind another car-Manning's. No media in sight. Manning led them to the field. Though it was raining and water was pooling in one spot, Manning said, "I'm fine." Undisturbed, he threw 55 passes. Then they all went for cheeseburgers.
Even the Seahawks tried, flying Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider to Colorado. From there they called Manning unannounced and told him they'd be around to talk whenever he was free. Writes King, "Peyton Manning does not like surprises." He declined and the Seattle contingent flew home without a meeting.
But it was Denver that seemed prepared for every question and every eventuality. John Elway texted Mike Shanahan while Shanahan was meeting with Manning, jokingly telling him to "put in a good word for us with Peyton." John Fox texted both Manning and his wife on their anniversary. When he left the team's complex, the Broncos sent seven different vehicles in seven different directions to throw media off Manning's trail. And they threw a bunch of dubious stats at him that sound good but don't particularly mean anything:
"Do you realize that the Broncos have played 519 home games, and the average temperature at kickoff has been 60.1 degrees?"
"In your 14 years in Indianapolis, the Colts averaged 26 points per game. In my 10 years as a head coach, when our teams scored 26 points or more, our record is 39-3."
And, Elway. King puts forward the theory that Manning, at 36, was able to identify with a guy who won two Super Bowls after everyone said his best days were behind him. And Elway was able to identify with Manning:
When the Hall of Fame quarterback sat with Manning alone at the club, Elway saw a person "in shock" over being cut and imagined what it would have been like if the Broncos, for whom he played his entire career, had released him after 13 or 14 seasons. "There's got to be a dagger in your gut right now," Elway told Manning. "Take your time. Be thorough. Make the right decision, whether it's us or someone else."
"I put myself in Peyton's shoes," Elway told SI on Sunday night. "No pressure. Don't give the hard sell. Let the organization speak for itself. I told him that as much as I wanted him to play for the Broncos, I knew it would be stupid if we forced him and it wasn't a good fit. That's how I'd feel."
Before making his final decision, Manning called Bill Parcells and Tony Dungy for advice, but by then he was already leaning toward Denver. Perhaps they had more money to offer. Perhaps they had the best receiving corps or offensive line. But at Manning's age, he's just looking for a few more years. If 2012 went horrible in Nashville or Glendale, the grumbling for Jake Locker or Kevin Kolb would begin. But the Broncos has shown a willingness to stick by the old guy and let him see what he's got left—and the last old guy they gave that chance is the one in charge of personnel moves. If he's remotely healthy, Manning has at least three more years to do his thing. That's all he could ask for.
Peyton Manning's Long Game [Sports Illustrated]