Peyton Manning has made his choice, and while he and the Denver Broncos are off to the penthouse to consummate their relationship, teams like the Titans, 49ers and Dolphins are left vulnerable and feeling empty. They stand there beaten and shamed, like the rejected ladies on "The Bachelor," pretending they still have a strand of self-esteem to cling to.
Matt Flynn is off the market now, too, which makes everything sting worse. There is no consolation prize, aside from Alex Smith, who would only represent the status quo for the 49ers and a questionable upgrade for anyone else.
The Titans are in the best shape. For them, an attempt to acquire Manning was always playing with house money. If they got him, wonderful, and if not, they've still got the pieces they've carefully assembled over the last couple of years. Having a capable veteran in Matt Hasselbeck and a promising youngster in Jake Locker is something they can live with. If you can't have a superstar, that's the configuration you want.
For the Titans, Manning was a luxury item ‒ a "nice to have" ‒ unlike Miami, where acquiring Manning was more of a "Sweet heavens, we need this, and if we don't get it, we might as well bring back Daunte Culpepper" venture.
They could still sign Alex Smith, but if you're Smith, why would you want to leave the 49ers? They're Manning-less, too, so they need Smith back, and he just had the best year of his career under new head coach Jim Harbaugh. No one else has been able to coax that kind of season out of Smith, and plenty of coaches have had the chance.
Unless Miami is ready to wildly overpay him (and don't rule that out), there's no reason for Smith to not work out a deal to return to the 49ers. It's a better team with better receivers and a brighter future. Even if he did sign with the Dolphins, what guarantee is there that the Dolphins are getting the efficient, reliable 2011 Alex Smith, and not the Smith that floundered for the previous five years?
It might also be nice for Smith to experience a little coaching staff continuity at some point in his career. If he and the 49ers are able to put bad feelings aside, and I'm sure they'll see that at this point, they need each other.
All of which would leave the Dolphins as the team with the biggest end of the shaft here. Matt Moore will be returning and, at this point, is probably the odds-on favorite to be the starter in 2012. Maybe they'll draft someone ‒ Ryan Tannehill is the name most frequently mentioned ‒ or sign a second-tier (OK, third tier ‒ fine, 17th tier) free agent like Kyle Boller, David Garrard, J.P. Losman or Vince Young. In any case, the Fish figure to have one of the worst offenses in the league in 2012.
The Titans will be just fine. The 49ers probably will, too. The Dolphins, meanwhile, remain an offensive mess, which is maybe why Manning wanted nothing to do with them to begin with.