Image by Greg Trott/Associated press
DENVER, Co --- Peyton Manning, the most prominent free agent in NFL history, finally made his big decision on Monday.
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And the Denver Broncos won the prize of lofty new expectations.
Manning, who turns 36 on Saturday, instantly pushes Tim Tebow out of a starting job and assumes his quest to win a second Super Bowl with the franchise hoping to repeat the glory it achieved more than 13 years ago with John Elway.
Manning informed the Broncos early Monday that they could begin negotiations with his agent, Tom Condon, according to ESPN, citing multiple people, and the Associated Press based on a person with knowledge of the discussions. Manning also phoned representatives of other finalists, the Tennessee Titans and San Francisco 49ers, with his decision.
Manning, Condon and Broncos decision-makers were unavailable Monday, but that did not prevent the news from traveling fast.
"I think it's a great place for him," Broncos defensive end Robert Ayers told reporters who had gathered outside the team's headquarters. "I don't think that he made a bad decision. I think he made a great decision. Hopefully, we can prove him right."
When the Indianapolis Colts released Manning after 14 seasons March 7, the Broncos were considered a "mystery" team in the equation. Yet Manning began his methodical tour, which included meetings with at least five teams, in Denver.
Manning also met with the Arizona Cardinals and Miami Dolphins, and worked out for the Broncos, Titans and 49ers to show the teams where he stands after missing last season recovering from three neck surgeries.
According to the Denver Post, the Broncos were prepared to offer a deal similar to Manning's last pact with the Colts, a five-year, $90 million contract.
In Denver, he stays in the AFC and takes over a unit that had an 8-8 record in winning the AFC West crown last season behind Tebow.
"Basically, he can really take us to another level," Broncos running back Willis McGahee said during a radio interview. "We were young and I think those guys got the jitters out of them last year, even though we did go to the playoffs. It was a certain something that we were missing. We were missing that general to take charge in tough situations and I think he brings that to the table.
"And once those guys see him out there I think they're going to rise to the occasion and just have a breakout year."
Still, questions persist. Among them:
How good of a fit will Manning be with the Broncos' coaching staff?
If it's good enough for the savvy Manning, it is tough to argue that he won't mesh well with head coach John Fox, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and the rest of the staff.
There may not be a more coachable player in the NFL than Manning, even as he heads into his 15th season. Tony Dungy recently recalled what Manning told him on his first day as Colts coach: "I want to be coached."
That said, Manning is used to essentially being a coach on the field, having called plays at the line of scrimmage for years. That mental edge is crucial to his greatness, and something the Broncos coaches will have to factor into their system.
It's also worth noting that Fox, who did a wonderful job last season figuring out how to get the best out of Tebow, has a history of adapting well and quickly preparing new and young players.
Was Elway a key factor?
If anybody could convince Manning that he can finish his career as a champion, it would be Elway - the Hall of Fame quarterback who won Super Bowls at ages 37 and 38 in his final two seasons.
Elway and Manning have maintained a strong relationship, and it probably wasn't difficult for Elway to sell Manning on the benefit of an aging quarterback playing for a balanced team.
As great as Elway was, he never won a championship until running back Terrell Davis came to town. Now, with Manning positioned to write his final chapters, the support he can get from a rushing attack that ranked No. 1 in the league last year and a stout defense could make the quest for another ring a bit easier.
Is Tebow destined to wind up in Jacksonville or Miami?
First Coast News contacted the Jaguars about any possibility Tebow could up on their roster.
Dan Edwards, Senior Vice President for the Jaguars said, "We don't comment about players who are on other teams, nor do we comment about speculation."
Of all the teams that were bypassed in the Manning sweepstakes, the Dolphins might be the biggest losers.
The Titans still have Matt Hasselbeck, arguably the best free agent acquisition last season, and a quarterback-of-the-future in Jake Locker. And the Cardinals have Kevin Kolb, who has the benefit of a full offseason after last year's lockout limited his ability to prepare.
Yet the Dolphins are visiting with Jacksonville Jaguars castoff David Garrard, which is quite the drop off from Manning. Maybe Miami can make a splash yet by trying to swing a trade that would pave the way for the magnetic Tebow to return to his home state.
Remember where Tebow's rise began last season? Miami. It was the Dolphins' first sellout of the season. Bring him back, and Tebow would surely sell tickets and appeal to Dolphins owner Stephen Ross' celebrity factor.
But Tebow will still need to continue to develop as a passer. Stay put, and there's an excellent tutor in Manning. Either way, so much for the contention expressed by Elway after the playoff loss that Tebow had earned the opportunity to enter training camp as the starter.
When can Manning get to work with his new teammates?
There used to be a time when a big free agent addition could sign his deal and promptly proceed to camp out at his new team's headquarters, immersing himself in the playbook. Not anymore.
With the new collective bargaining agreement, Manning can't begin having meetings with the Broncos' coaching staff until April 16, when the team's offseason program begins. Because he's rehabbing from an injury, he can't hit the field until May 2.
Instead, Manning will have to organize workouts away from the supervision of coaches for a few weeks. That probably won't be too difficult as players will want to make a statement about where the team is headed.
What are some of the challenges awaiting Manning?
After all those years of playing home games in domed stadiums, Manning will have to deal with the elements in Denver, where it has snowed as early as September.
Then again, Manning won his only Super Bowl in a steady rain in Miami. The thin air will undoubtedly increase the velocity of Manning's throws, which can't be a bad thing as questions surround his arm strength following the neck injury.
But the real issue might be who is on the other end of those passes. Denver's receiving corps is thin with very little in the way of proven talent beyond former first-round pick Demaryius Thomas. The leading receiver last season, Eric Decker, caught just 44 passes for 612 yards. And Eddie Royal just signed with San Diego.
Beyond the task of establishing his rhythm in a new environment with new teammates, an intriguing set of challenges rests with the schedule. By winning their division, the Broncos earned a "first-place" schedule, which means Manning will face some of his old friends with the New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans, in addition to a matchup with the New Orleans Saints. And an opponent that used to be such a pain to Manning - the San Diego Chargers, whom he is 4-5 against in his career - now comes twice a year in the AFC West.
Are the Broncos the team to beat in the AFC West?
A double-digit victory season with a healthy Manning would seem to be at the low end of expectations.
Manning guided the Colts to at least 10 victories in 11 seasons. Whether he can produce that type of consistency in a new environment is part of the challenge.
In any event, Chargers general manager A.J. Smith - no big fan of the Mannings after Eli snubbed his franchise coming out of college - and coach Norv Turner can't be thrilled about the signing. San Diego owned the division for a few years but could never get over the hump. Now comes Peyton.
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