The next NFL commissioner? Peyton Manning should be on the short list.

A few years ago, when Peyton Manning was quietly making his post-retirement visits through a handful of NFL team facilities, the natural question began to percolate inside some front offices. First he was spotted in the Los Angeles Rams' cafeteria. Later it was in the Chicago Bears' facility. Then an Oakland Raiders practice. At every stop, the curiosity grew.

What exactly was Peyton Manning planning?

On the eve of the 2018 kickoff at the Manning Passing Academy, Manning’s longtime agent Tom Condon chuckled at the attention and speculation.

“I think he’s enjoying his life,” Condon said. “But I don’t rule anything out with Peyton. He wants to stay connected to football and I think that he could do whatever he wants if he put his mind to it.”

So what was the preparation for? Was he gearing up to coach? Was he prepping for a $100 million deal as an analyst? Perhaps angling to be a general manager or team president? Or was he preparing for something bigger like team ownership?

“Why not NFL commissioner?” Condon said. “How about that?”

Peyton Manning, left, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2021, and his father and presenter Archie Manning prepare to unveil Peyton's bust during the induction ceremony at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021, in Canton, Ohio. (AP Photo/David Richard)
Peyton Manning, left, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2021, and his father and presenter Archie Manning prepare to unveil Peyton's bust during the induction ceremony at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Sunday. (AP Photo/David Richard)

Why NFL could pivot toward Peyton Manning's leadership

Well … three years later, the question lingers. He might be the single greatest player ambassador the NFL has ever seen. Manning's connection to players, coaches, executives and even franchise owners might be stronger today than it ever has been. Not only is he a historian of the game in a way that might rival Bill Belichick’s encyclopedic knowledge, he also has an eye on where the NFL and football in general are going, something that was very evident in Manning’s Hall of Fame enshrinement speech this weekend.

As Manning put it, “I don’t know about you, but I am not done with this game. I never will be. I am committing to ensuring its future, and I hope you join me in that commitment.”

It might be a stretch to say this was Manning throwing his hat in the ring as a potential future replacement for Roger Goodell. But it harkens back to Condon’s question: Why not?

For years, the scuttlebutt has been that the league is going to seek a diplomat as much as a business executive when it comes to replacing Roger Goodell. Someone who can not only connect with the game and the players on a personal and experienced level, but a younger voice who also has the ability to navigate changing times.

It can be argued that Manning has these qualities, something that has been showcased in the years since his retirement, when Manning has arguably become more popular than ever among NFL fans. Of course, what he doesn’t have now is the same thing he didn’t have in 2018: the steeped side of the business operations ledger that team owners will always crave. This could be remedied if Manning were to take over as the president of an NFL team for a sustained time.

It might not be too late for Manning to take that dive, with the longer-term goal of NFL commissioner being his aim. While Goodell is allegedly supposed to complete his run as commissioner by the end of the 2023 season, that’s looking less likely. Regardless of what fans or players think of Goodell, his 15-year stewardship of the league has overseen the most immensely lucrative run in the worldwide history of professional sports. From stadium infrastructure to sustained labor peace to bottom-line revenues and titanic television-rights deals, arguably no sports league in the world has been in a better place than the NFL is right now.

That tends to be the kind of thing that keeps a commissioner around, even if he has personal designs to move on with his life. You can bet that the vast majority of team owners will be leaning on Goodell to stay beyond his scripted end following the 2023 season, with the next target being the league reaching Goodell’s goal of $25 billion in annual revenue by 2027. Indeed, if there were wagers placed on the conclusion of Goodell’s tenure, the smart money would be closer to the middle or end of this decade than three seasons from now.

Would business get in way of Manning commissionership?

So what does that mean for Manning? He has more time than anticipated to figure out what he wants to do and then chart out his course. Frankly, there’s no telling whether he’d be interested in being commissioner. He appears to be enjoying himself every bit as much now as he was in 2018, both in his ability to spend time with a multitude of different franchises as well as his robust career as a pitchman and on the fringes of the entertainment industry.

The question comes down to what Manning wants most — the remainder of his life being involved with the NFL, or a large part of it spent guiding it. If it’s the latter, he’s going to have to get moving on his plans because there are contenders emerging inside the league office and out. And all of them have more business or football operations expertise than Manning does at the moment: They range from NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent to business operations officers Chris Halpin and Brian Rolapp, to outside candidates like Big Ten conference commissioner Kevin Warren.

The history of succession in the league suggests these are the frontrunners, all of whom fit more neatly into the 60-year transition from Pete Rozelle to Paul Tagliabue and finally Goodell. With all three of those choices, NFL franchise owners leaned into the bottom line. Goodell had a background in economics and had spent his career working his way through communications and business operations roles inside the league. Tagliabue spent 20 years in the white shoe law firm of Covington & Burling before his NFL ascent. Even Rozelle was a general manager of the Rams and built the strongest part of his resume on the business side of that operation.

Manning would be a break from that mold. But it would take some remolding that he’d have to embrace, too. It's something Manning himself recalled to a visitor in 2018, only days after Condon suggested the role of commissioner.

“It’s what I like to think of as sort of the second chapter opportunities in my life,” Manning said from his family's passing academy in the summer of 2018. “There are a lot of things to consider. I talk to a lot of people about different things — I should say I listen to a lot of different things and try to keep an open mind. But whatever comes next, I know I want to stay involved in football. Part of that is not closing myself off to anything. It’s going to be a journey that I enjoy, and who knows where it will take me.”

Five years after his retirement, it took him to Canton. And five years from now, maybe it will lead him to Goodell’s seat on Park Avenue in New York. Or at the very least, answer the question that Tom Condon offered up in 2018.

Why not?

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