I was as excited as anyone in town when I first heard the rumblings that the Broncos were in the running to sign Peyton Manning. I had been shocked to hear that the Colts were cutting ties with the Hall-of-Fame quarterback who had burned Denver at will throughout the modern era and in awe that John Elway had been working behind the scenes in pursuit of his services.
Manning first arrived on a Friday morning, March 9th. I had several errands to run, so I was in my pickup (with access to sports radio) for the better part of that day. I worked the pre-sets on my stereo and made sure I didn’t miss a single development as that day unfolded.
The Denver media had been scrambled to spy a private jet landing at Front Range Airport carrying the most precious kind of cargo: two legendary quarterbacks and one John Fox. As flash bulbs popped and reporters climbed chain-link fences to gain a better view, the trio disembarked, piled into a Toyota Sequoia, and proceeded to get followed, OJ Simpson style, clear to Dove Valley.
After meeting with Elway, Fox and Pat Bowlen at team headquarters, Manning spent the weekend here. He had cocktails with John Elway at the Cherry Creek Country Club. The weather cooperated. He played catch with Brandon Stokely in a dog park in Castle Rock. All signs seemed to be pointing to his coming here. And then the waiting started.
Broncos Country was on pins and needles as Peyton went on his World tour. There were the multiple visits to Tennessee, side-trips to Miami and Arizona, flirtations with Seattle, and the shocking eleventh-hour involvement of the Superbowl-ready San Francisco 49ers. We were all glued to Sports Center and constantly checking Twitter for the latest whispers. Media talking heads struggled to interpret Manning’s every twitch. Speculation was rampant, to say the very least.
Then after what seemed like a month of Sundays, the news finally broke that he had chosen to become one of us. The City and County exploded with glee. The press conference to end all press conferences was finally held on March 21st. A glowing John Elway let us know that “there is no plan B” as a brand new orange number 18 jersey became the most photographed garment since the Shroud of Turin.
Summer passed and now Peyton Manning is in camp with the Broncos, having already appeared in his first pre-season game. Fans have begun to adjust to seeing the former Colt donning the Orange and Blue. Optimism runs high and there’s a presumption that Denver will win the AFC West. If they could do it with Tebow, they can certainly do it with Manning. And they will. Assuming Manning doesn’t get injured, the division should belong to the Broncos. And that means they’ll be in the Playoffs. Anything can happen once they get there. Still, something doesn’t feel quite right.
This feeling began to nag me not long after the famous presser. Somehow signing Peyton Manning feels like cheating – as though the Broncos are taking a short cut the likes of which has never worked before. No QB has won a Super Bowl with one team and gone on to lead another to the promised land.
Joe Montana tried to bring his Championship legacy to the Kansas City Chiefs back in the nineties and it didn’t work. He went to the Pro Bowl in his first season there, but retired after two having not fulfilled his promise. Brett Favre tried it, too. He took the Vikings to a Conference Championship game but fell short of returning to the big dance. Kurt Warner got there with the Cardinals, but lost to the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
Football historians will remember Montana as a ‘Niner, Favre as a Packer and Warner as part of St. Louis’ “Greatest Show on Turf”. The teams they later played for are mere footnotes. And, unless Peyton Manning somehow wins multiple rings in the next four years, he will go into Canton as a Colt.
Indianapolis fans grew up with Peyton Manning. They were thrilled when he was drafted number one overall. They cringed when he struggled as a rookie. They watched as he developed into one of the finest signal callers ever to play the game. And now they’ll do the same with Andrew Luck, much like Broncos fans did with John Elway. Number seven was ours from the shaky beginning to the glorious end. He’s a Denver legend. Manning’s not even ours.
The situation feels a bit like dating someone who already has a couple teenaged kids from a previous marriage. They had been through a lot before they ever met me. I might really enjoy them, even love them, but I’m not their Daddy. They refer to me as Mom’s “friend”. My role in their lives will never be what it would have been had I been around since the beginning.
For Peyton Manning, Denver is a final stop on the road to retirement. Had he any choice in the matter he would still be suiting up with blue stripes on his shoulders and a horse shoe on the side of his Riddell. Leaving Indy was never Peyton’s choice. If he had his druthers he would win one more ring and walk off into the Indiana sunset, much like John Elway did in Colorado. In fact, once he does decide he’s taken his final snap, he’s far more likely to return to the Midwest or to move back to New Orleans than he is to remain part of this community.
He’s a rental. Or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that the Broncos leased him. They won’t be able to put too many miles on Manning before it’s time to turn him in. Where will they go while they’ve got him? That’s the ultimate question. History tells us that they’ll get close, but not quite there, before Peyton reaches the end of his road.
Perhaps the best Broncos fans can hope for is that Manning takes time to influence Denver’s rookie QB from ASU, Brock Osweiler, who possesses the physical skills to be great. If the youngster is astute enough to absorb Manning’s instruction (and early indications are that he will), Peyton’s real legacy in Denver could be that of the guy who helped along the next John Elway.