Between Manning's visits, Rams' trade, it was quite a weekend
Recapping the most eventful non-draft offseason weekend in recent NFL history
A few things that helped the Rams pull off the blockbuster trade with Washington
Thoughts on Mark Sanchez's extension, NCAA tourney; more things I Think I Think
PHOENIX -- Caught your breath yet?
I was in Phoenix over the weekend, trying to break away to watch three spring training games in paradise. And I think the weirdest part of the weekend came shortly after I heard about the Rams-Redskins trade, which was about six hours after the news broke Friday night that Peyton Manning was headed to town Saturday on his free-agency tour. I pulled over to the side of a road to talk to an NFL team's executive about the trade and was taking a couple of notes when I got a call-waiting signal. "Jets just announced a contract extension with Sanchez,'' someone told me.
This has to have been the most eventful non-draft offseason weekend in recent NFL history. The various happenings:
Manning touring America AS AN UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, with helicopters and reporters following him like the O.J. Simpson white Bronco chase, first in Miami and then in Denver and then, a little less insanely, in Phoenix. I never thought I'd see Manning as a free-agent one day -- maybe the same day I'd see him use a walker -- and evidently I wasn't the only one. "I still am trying to get my brain around the thought that one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time is a street free agent -- and was in our building talking about playing for our team,'' said one official of a team in the running this weekend.
Something happened for the first time in league history, apparently, in the trade of the second pick in the 2012 draft from the Rams to the Redskins for three first-rounders and a No. 2. (I say apparently because league PR people believe no draft choice has been traded for three first-round picks, and certainly not for three first-rounders and a second-round pick. But the league Sunday couldn't say for sure, so I'll say apparently it's the first time a pick got traded for such a haul.)
A book written by Boston writer and talk-show host Michael Holley is at least partially the reason, with an assist from the Carmelo Anthony trade. More about that later. The Patriots got three ones for Jim Plunkett in 1976, and the Rams got three ones for Eric Dickerson in 1987, but for a pick? File not found. The Redskins have a quarterback for the next generation, they hope. The Rams have the picks -- three in the top 40 this year, two first-rounders in both 2013 and 2014 -- to control the next three drafts, they hope.
As soon as the Jets knew they weren't going to be in the Manning Sweepstakes, they announced a contract extension with Mark Sanchez. The deal, which at first appeared mystifyingly outrageous because he might be just another guy, is actually a good deal for the team -- if you hold out much hope he's going to be a franchise quarterback. The Jets added three reasonably priced seasons to his contract in 2014 through 2016 in exchange for guaranteeing his money this year and next, and adding $2.75 million to it. If you assume he's not getting cut in either of the next two years, GM Mike Tannenbaum did a smart thing, because he lowered Sanchez's cap number in the process -- $6.4 million of it, according to Profootballtalk.com.
The Colts cut half their roster. Sort of. Much of the backbone of a team that averaged 12.5 wins a year from 2005 to 2010 has disappeared in the last five days: The wrecking ball taken to the passing game is like nothing in recent history. Manning, Anthony Gonzalez and Dallas Clark were told they wouldn't be retained. Three more receivers -- wideouts Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon, and tight end Jacob Tamme -- will leave in free agency, almost certainly. Think of the Colts' opening-camp receiving corps in July 2010: The top two quarterbacks (including Curtis Painter) are now gone. The top two tight ends, gone. Three of the top four wideouts (excepting Austin Collie), gone. And the defense? Captain and leader Gary Brackett, cut. As Adam Schefter reported Friday, Dwight Freeney is on the trading block. Andrew Luck has to be thinking, "What am I walking into? The '76 Bucs?''
And Sunday night in a hotel in Santa Clara, Calif., one of the best receivers of all time, Randy Moss, got some rest, preparing for a strange tryout with the 49ers this morning. Strange because Moss is trying to come back after not playing in 2011. Strange because the man throwing passes to him this morning won't be Niner quarterback Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick. It'll be coach Jim Harbaugh. "I talked to Jim tonight,'' club president Jed York told me late Sunday night. "He's excited, and a little nervous. He's a competitive guy. He doesn't want to look bad.'' Harbaugh's throwing because the league doesn't want a team's quarterbacks, or a free-agent quarterback who last played for the team, to throw in a private workout for the team before the start of the league year.
Free agency opens tomorrow. The NFL appears ready to hand down the biggest sanctions in Roger Goodell's reign -- over the Saints' bounty scandal; he might suspend a Super Bowl-winning coach and defensive coordinator. And there's a quarterback named Matt Flynn out there who threw for six touchdowns in the last game of the season -- more than Starr, Favre or Rodgers ever did in a game -- and you can have him to run your offense.
Opening weekend 2012 is exactly six months away. But isn't this action more non-stop than the regular season?
Assessing the field for Manning.
So now Manning is back at his Miami Beach apartment, by all indications, full of information and who knows what else from his time with the Broncos and Cardinals. The one thing he has to be thinking of is the advantage of an AFC team over an NFC team. He knows the AFC better, naturally, having played in it for his 13 active seasons. He knows it's an easier path to the Super Bowl in the AFC than the NFC. He knows the AFC West is a division there to be had.
We'd be na´ve to think he hasn't thought to himself: What's the clearest path to the Super Bowl in the next two years? If I'm him, I think of three teams when it comes to competitive opportunity: Houston, Denver and Kansas City. I don't think Houston's interested. The Texans have been in the top 10 in the NFL in scoring in each of the last three seasons, and even if Manning led them to 75 more points than Matt Schaub or Matt Leinart could in 2012, would that put the team over the top? Not to say the Texans couldn't change their minds and get involved this week. But if they don't, that leaves the AFC West.
San Diego and Oakland have quarterbacks and/or no cap room to go get Manning. I am surprised he views Denver clearly better than the Chiefs, which apparently he does. Kansas City has better backs, if Jamaal Charles returns whole this year, and comparable if not better receivers. The Chiefs had a better defense last year, by three points and 24 yards allowed per game.
The pros and cons of the two teams leading the pack:
DENVER: Remember the skepticism of John Elway being the football majordomo of an NFL team? Well, the Broncos wouldn't be the favorite in this without Elway. Manning likes him a lot, and they meshed well Friday ... John Fox is a good coach, and Mike McCoy a good coordinator, for Manning because they'll allow him to hold sway over much of the offense ...
Brandon Stokley's a factor here. Manning once told me Stokley was the best slot receiver he'd ever seen -- and he's also one of Manning's best friends, and he lives in Denver. Stokley caught 139 passes from Manning in four seasons as a Colt. He's a free agent, and though he may want to play in 2012, he may be finished too; he turns 36 in June. Manning turns 36 this month. Stokley was part of the Denver welcoming committee when Manning came to town, and it didn't hurt ...
Manning has to take a leap of faith with Fox, hoping he can fix the defense, which allowed 40 points or more five times in 18 games last season ... And then there's the matter of the weather. Manning played half of every pro season in a dome. Denver has one dome game next year, at Atlanta ...
Regarding the fixes of the current lineup on offense and defense, Denver will be in good shape to go shopping in free agency. The Broncos are $44.7 million under the league's $120.6 million salary cap, Profootballtalk.com reported Sunday night. That's far better than the Cards, who will have some cuts to make to get under the cap by Tuesday afternoon.
ARIZONA: Eleven games in a dome this year -- and the eight home games are on grass, not artificial turf. For a quarterback like Manning, who loves playing when weather's not a factor (what quarterback doesn't?), that's a big edge. Arizona's home field has a retractable roof, but it's likely the team would keep it closed as a nod to Manning, even on lovely days ... Won seven of the last nine in 2011, never allowing more than 23 points in the nine games ... Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald would be attractive for any quarterback, obviously, and the Cards used him in their recruiting efforts over the weekend ...
Malleable offense, with low-ego head coach Ken Whisenhunt and coordinator Mike Miller ... Knows Whisenhunt from when Whisenhunt was a Steeler assistant coaching Manning in the Pro Bowl ... Has played golf with Whisenhunt at Whisper Rock in Scottsdale, and they're close enough so that when Manning flew into Phoenix Saturday night, he had dinner at Whisenhunt's home ... Offensive line needs work ...
Lots of athletes live in greater Phoenix and say the locals don't bother them, which would appeal to Manning ... Though the Bidwill family has gotten ripped for not spending, that's a little misleading. Fitzgerald's $120 million deal, signed last year, is the biggest non-quarterback contract in NFL history ... Cards have a formidable foe in the division in San Francisco to see twice a year. but split with the Niners last year. San Francisco is a better team than any Denver would have to beat in the AFC West.
Miami? Time is short for Manning. Not sure he wants to have to try to hop over the Patriots and Jets; Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are one thing, but Manning lost two of three to Rex Ryan after Ryan took over the Jets, including the 17-16 home stunner in the playoffs in Manning's last game as a Colt (as it turned out). Stephen Ross would throw whatever millions at Manning he had to, but as one club official from an interested team told me Sunday: "It's pretty apparent (Manning's) making this decision on football factors far more than money.''
Keep one very important thing in mind: Manning may be open to considering other teams. Don't think it's going to come down to Denver and Arizona only. You get the feeling watching Manning that he's an open book and may take today and re-evaluate, and consider another team or two. This is a fluid situation.
Now about Manning's physical condition. He didn't take his agent, Tom Condon, with him on his weekend trips. He wanted the trip to be all football, to see where he'd best fit. No one's talking about his physical condition now, but in due time they'll have to. Manning will likely make it easy on a team and not demand the kind of huge $28 million option bonus he had on the table when the Colts cut him last week. But his new team will have to trust the medical reports from Manning's doctors that say, despite having four neck procedures in two years, he should be fit enough to play in 2012.
But I don't think Manning needs a great arm to kill you. For a 2009 story on Manning's great season for SI, I phoned Qadry Ismail, who played one season for the Colts, in 2002. He told me about a ball that traveled 17 yards in the air, in the first game he ever played with Manning. The point here is, even if Manning's arm isn't the same as it was -- and there is no indication that by opening day he will be diminished in arm strength -- he'll still be dangerous. Ismail's story, which he called a "CIA, burn-after-reading secret'' from the Colts playbook in the 2002 opener at Jacksonville:
When Manning gave Ismail a shoveling motion or said the words "Crane! Crane!" Ismail would run a dig route -- a curl in which the receiver goes downfield a certain distance, plants his foot suddenly and turns to face the quarterback. Having seen the signal a couple of times early in the game, Jacksonville corner Jason Craft then taunted Ismail. "I know what y'all are doing!" Craft hollered. "Every time he gives that [shoveling] signal, you run that little in route!" Ismail could have said, "Are you seriously challenging Peyton Manning?" Instead he told the cornerback he didn't know what he was talking about, then told Manning and offensive coordinator Tom Moore on the sideline, "He's bragging like he knows what we're doing. He's going to jump that route!"
Manning filed the information and talked with Moore about using it later in the game. Sure enough, with the ball at the Jaguars' 12 in the third quarter, Manning told Ismail that "Crane!" would be a dummy call, and instead of the dig he should run a hitch-and-go (basically a dig, stop and sprint back upfield into the end zone). "I made a living off double moves," says Ismail, "and that was the easiest one I ever ran. Peyton gave me the crane sign at the line. I pushed upfield five yards and stuck my foot in the ground as hard as I could. The DB made a beeline to that five-yard spot and looked for the ball, but I just ran into the end zone, all alone. What a simple TD."
Said Ismail, "When I was there, he told me, 'Hey, I'm just a gym rat. This is what I'm about. I love the game.' He wants to squeeze out every ounce of talent he has and pour it into the art of quarterbacking, being the absolute best quarterback who has ever played."
Another factor is Manning will play hurt. And has. On July 31, 2008, at 6 a.m., Manning was told it'd take about 30 minutes to sew about 20 sutures in the knee, the second surgery to fix a staph infection in his knee from a burst bursa sac. But there weren't 20 sutures implanted. Doctors had to use 80. Surgery didn't take 30 minutes. It took three hours. Four days later, Colts director of rehabilitation Erin Barill came to Manning's house to check on how the knee was healing. "He warned me the knee does not look good,'' Manning said."I looked down, and my knee looked like a brain after surgery. You know how they show you pictures of a brain in science class? That's what this was -- swollen, ugly. I kind of got my hopes up, but it was disgusting. Mangled, in layers, dimples all over it. It didn't look good at all. My heart just sank. I was nervous and scared.''
He rushed and rehabbed and broke in a new center because of an injury to Jeff Saturday, but he was weak for the opening game, a 29-13 loss to Chicago. They came back to beat Minnesota, then lost to Jacksonville, and were staring 1-3 in the face when Houston built a 27-10 lead on the Colts midway through the fourth quarter. "I throw a touchdown pass to Tom Santi that looks like a stat-padder. Then [Gary] Brackett takes a fumble back for a touchdown.'' The Colts finished with nine wins in a row. Five months after recoiling in shock at the sight of his grotesque knee, he finished his most unlikely great season in the NFL. "This has been my most rewarding regular season, because of what we've all been faced with here,'' Manning said."I've been proud to be on this team. Guys dug deep. I dug deep.''
He will again, if his physical condition calls for it. That and the throw to Ismail are two good reasons why I'd pull out all the stops to sign Manning if my team medics tell me he's healthy enough to play.
I regret not taking more time here to talk about the Colts' split with Manning. Few people in sports history have made the mark Manning has in Indiana. He donated money for the construction of a children's hospital. Scores of Indianans named children after the beloved Manning. He gave away millions through his foundation to charities in Indiana, Tennessee and New Orleans, three places he's put down roots.
He doesn't have long to play. A year, two, three, maybe four at the outside. You get the feeling he knows if he only has a season or two, he wants to be somewhere that gives him the best chance right away to get to the Super Bowl. That said, I wouldn't expect a decision by Manning before Wednesday.
Manning scheduling note of the day:
Denver, Arizona and Miami all play at New England in 2012, with the dates yet to be announced.
Manning just can't get away from Belichick and Brady, can he?
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