The Peyton Manning free-agent firestorm could end up burning some front-office officials

As Peyton Manning fought back tears at his farewell news conference in Indianapolis, at least one high-ranking NFL executive had to fight off his owner.

“We were sitting there watching and [the owner] called as soon as they wrapped up and Peyton was walking off the stage with [Indianapolis Colts owner Jim] Irsay,” said a junior executive with one of the many teams rumored to be interested in Manning. “[Our general manager] kept assuring him, ‘We’re going to get a meeting with Manning and we’re going to do all our homework.’

“But I’ll tell you, if we left it up to the owner, he might sign the guy, sight unseen.”

Welcome to the upcoming firestorm of Manning’s foray into free agency.

“Just think about the trap you’re in. If you sign the guy and he’s bad, it’s probably going to cost you your job,” an AFC general manager said. “Or, if you don’t sign him and he’s great, it’s probably going to cost you your job. This situation is a potential nightmare.”

[ Marshall Faulk: Peyton Manning will stay away from NFC teams ]

This is reminiscent of the 2006 offseason, when the Miami Dolphins had to decide between signing Drew Brees as a free agent or trading for Daunte Culpepper. The Dolphins passed on Brees, who was recovering from a serious shoulder injury. The move gave New Orleans an unfettered path to a Super Bowl win. As for the Dolphins, they just hired their fourth coach since that fateful decision.

Given that four or five teams can’t sign Manning, that’s four or five executives who will watch him play with great anxiety for the next season or two. Assuming Manning is healthy.

From a football perspective, that’s a huge assumption. From a short-term marketing side, it may not matter much.

As Manning choked back tears Wednesday in a surprising display of emotion after Irsay announced the team wouldn’t keep him, he talked about the uncertainty of what was next for his career.

“This is the only team I’ve ever known, and I’ve always known what the month of March is for an offseason getting ready to go play for the Colts the next season,” Manning said. “This is kind of uncharted territory for me, so we’ll see how all that plays out.”

[ Related: Free agency scouting report of Peyton Manning ]

It could be uncharted for some teams, too. As Manning acknowledged, he still has “some work to do and some progress to make” with his arm. After one national reporter said that the video from last week of Manning throwing at Duke University “answered all the questions” about the quarterback’s arm, two football executives scoffed.

One of them, an NFC executive, said, “[The video] was nice to see, but you have to be kidding me if you think I’m taking that as my evidence that he’s healthy and ready to go or even is going to get healthy. Please.”

The problem is that the decision on whether to sign Manning may get plucked out of the hands of football people by the ultimate authorities, the guys who write the checks.

Whether it’s Woody Johnson with the New York Jets, Dan Snyder with the Washington Redskins or Stephen Ross of the Miami Dolphins, there will be owners who see Manning as a potential bonanza. This is a future Hall of Fame quarterback with perhaps two or three good years left. Manning could vault any of the aforementioned organizations into title contender status. At the worst, he’s going to sell a ton of season tickets in the next few months, even if he never plays.

At the NFL scouting combine last month, a Jets assistant coach admitted that New York will take a long look at Manning. Later, one AFC coach laughed at a friend of his from Washington when the friend was bemoaning Snyder’s supposed hot interest in signing Manning. As for the Dolphins, the team has yet to express remote interest in free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn so far, even though Flynn just finished playing for new Miami head coach Joe Philbin. A team source said that’s because Ross has told general manager Jeff Ireland to put the full-court press on Manning.

[ Related: Peyton Manning, Jim Irsay get teary-eyed ]

Of course, there are plenty of other teams that will be interested in Manning. Seattle, Houston, Arizona and Kansas City have all been linked to him in some regard. On top of that, there are all sorts of theories about where he’ll sign, such as he might not want to play for the Jets because he doesn’t want to compete in the same city with his brother Eli. Or that he won’t play for Washington because he doesn’t want to be in the same division with Eli.

The GMs from those two teams would probably prefer to get that answer. In that case, the decision will be taken out of their hands.

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Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Mar 7, 2012