Since Peyton Manning has already taken the pre-emptive step of allowing for the idea of an incentive-laden contract with his next team (once the Indianapolis Colts almost assuredly bail on his $28 million roster bonus next week), it's a good time to look at how the addition of Manning to any NFL roster might affect the future of that franchise.
Assuming that Manning comes back to the league healthy enough to play and do at least most of what he's done before, the risk/reward equation would seem to fall heavily on the "reward" side. You're taking a shot on one of the best players in NFL history, the quarterbacks you have on your current roster are not as good unless you're one of a lucky few teams, and if you're stacked at other positions, Manning's abilities might just put your franchise over the top in an era that is more driven by quarterbacks than any other.
However, as former Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick pointed out at this year's scouting combine, acquiring Manning could come with some pretty serious strings -- especially for a younger team trying to develop talent at the same time Manning might be pushing them to some deep playoff runs. Billick never had a great quarterback during his time in Baltimore, and the gambles he took -- letting Trent Dilfer go in favor of Elvis Grbac and pushing his chips to the middle on Cal washout Kyle Boller -- led to his demise after the 2007 season. The Ravens drafted Joe Flacco before the 2008 season, closing one door and opening another.
On a media conference call soon after the Ravens let him go, I asked Billick about the science of quarterback evaluation. His response? "If I had the answer to that, I'd still have a job in the NFL!"
So, as complex and risky as it is to introduce a variable element to the game's most important position, you'd think that Billick would espouse the idea of Manning as the sure thing to any unsure team, as long as the medical stuff measures up. Posed the question last week in Indianapolis, the current analyst for Fox Sports and NFL Network said that it's not quite that simple. Bringing Manning on board means mortgaging the future to a certain inevitable degree.
"When you bring in Peyton Manning, it's 'OK, Peyton -- bring me your playbook,'" Billick said. "Because that's what we're going to put in. Why would you not put Peyton Manning in an environment that he's most comfortable? So you're going to wrap your entire offense around what he wants to do. And then, for whatever time you've rented him — whether it's two years or three years, hopefully very productive — you then have to go back and start over. Because believe me, what Peyton Manning does is unique to Peyton Manning, and I'm not [just] talking about what he does on the field.
"If anybody's watched Peyton Manning practice, he runs that entire practice. He'll be in the offensive line drills, telling Jeff Saturday and the line coach, 'Now if you make that call then I'm going to do this. No, I'm going to verbalize it that way.' He's in the running back drills saying, 'No, you've got to take this approach. No, be sitting down here once I've gone into my check over here -- I'm going to come back there.' So, you've got to buy into that hook, line and sinker. And if he's physically OK ... great, you've got a great upside."
The Miami Dolphins, with new head coach Joe Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, have been rumored to be a prime landing spot for Manning, because the team's ongoing need for a true franchise quarterback since Dan Marino's retirement remains unfed. And hey, since Philbin didn't call plays when he served under Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, it should be a gimme for a quarterback who wants things very much his way.
Right? Well, maybe not.
"It would be hard for me to imagine for coach Philbin, who has a very specific idea of what he wants to begin with and how he wants to progress in his offense, to kind of put that on the back burner," Billick said. "I can't say it won't happen, and obviously you do what your players do best. It would be interesting to hear what those conversations are like. That has to be an organizational decision. It's not just Miami. It's all the other teams considering him. That has to be part of the process. And where Miami is particularly with a new head coach, yeah, there's a huge upside, but there's got to be a part of you that says you're anxious to get on with what it is you want to do and the structure you want to put together."
The Minnesota Vikings certainly learned that with Brett Favre when they brought him on board for the 2009 season. The Vikings were that "one player away," or so they thought, and they banked on the idea that Favre and a talented but aging roster would be enough to bring the first Lombardi trophy to the Twin Cities. It almost worked that first year -- the Vikings lost to the New Orleans Saints in overtime of the NFC championship game, and the Saints went on to beat Manning's Colts in Super Bowl XLIII. Beset by injuries in 2010, Favre looked done before he even started, and the Vikings saw their win total cut in half in each of the next two seasons -- from 12 to 6 to 3. Now in the middle of a multi-year rebuilding process, the Vikings will be paying for that gamble through the prime years of some very good young players.
Basically, the lesson is this -- if you put everything on the historically great quarterback who made his bones elsewhere, the strategy had damned well better work. Vikings head coach Brad Childress learned that through his own unemployment as Favre faded away, just as Billick did after trying to apply whatever spackle Steve McNair might provide for his offense once the Boller thing was seen to be the failure it was.
So, Billick understands one thing better than most -- if the veteran experiment fails, the blame falls on one head.
"First off, when you bring him in, if it doesn't work, it's not Peyton's fault," Billick said. "There's going to be somebody's butt in somebody's briefcase at the end of the day and it's not going to be Peyton's, OK? Because that guy's got a Super Bowl, [and] he's walking into the Hall of Fame. So yeah, there is a little bit of pressure that it's not going to be Peyton's fault if it doesn't work. So how do I orchestrate that? Anytime you make that transition.
"Keep in mind when Joe Montana -- that seems to be the bell cow now when we go to for the analogy -- he took his own coordinator [from one team to another]. He ran what he ran in San Francisco in Kansas City and it was successful. A little different. And I give [Chiefs head coach] Marty Schottenheimer a great deal of credit. That wasn't Martyball now [the conservative, run-based attack Schottenheimer generally preferred]. That was Joe Montana's offense and they had some success.
"Ultimately it wasn't the ultimate success, but they made the playoffs and they did a nice job. But then they had to transition [after Montana retired]. And then what did they transition to? When you look at Marty's progression in Kansas City? What happened after Joe Montana left? It set back the progression that I imagine Marty — and you'd have to ask Marty — but I can't imagine that wasn't a bit of a detour as to what Marty wanted to put together, and then ultimately he ended up leaving Kansas City. So I think there are some analogies to draw from there."
Like the Dolphins after Marino, the post-Montana Chiefs have been looking for another franchise quarterback ever since. Trent Green was close, but he didn't have that Super Bowl cache, and he's now best remembered as Drew Bledsoe to Kurt Warner's Tom Brady. Who's to say what the Chiefs might have done with their quarterback situation if they were forced to develop their own franchise guy a bit earlier?
That's the question for the Dolphins, the Seahawks, the Redskins and yes -- the Chiefs (all teams seen to be in the hunt for Manning if he's cut). Are you really one healthy Peyton Manning away from a Super Bowl? It's a difficult question to answer, and a career-killer to answer incorrectly.
The Colts have no such problems. The worst team in football in 2011 without Manning, they have a bead on Andrew Luck, who is virtually guaranteed to be the first pick in this year's draft. And in future tense, Luck is more of a sure thing than the man he'll replace.
Andrew Lucks don't grow on trees, and neither do Peyton Mannings. Great quarterbacks are as hard to buy as they are to develop. All teams can do when weighing the now-versus-later argument is to consider the past, take a deep breath, dive in, and hope that luck meets design halfway.
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