The slightest clue that he is in town draws curious onlookers to airports and practice fields. Reporters stake him out, and television helicopters hover overhead to capture his every move.
There’s never been a free-agent frenzy like this in the NFL. Then again, there’s never been a free agent like Peyton Manning.
He’s undergone four neck operations, missed an entire season and is about to turn 36, ancient by NFL standards. His old team cast him off like yesterday’s garbage, infatuated by the thought of a fresh new face playing quarterback in Indianapolis.
And yet normally sane NFL executives are convinced he’s the player who will lead them to a Super Bowl. They’re willing to mortgage their team’s future to have him play, and they’re raiding their piggy banks to find enough cash to pay him.
The field has now been cut, by most accounts, to three. One will get the prize, while the other two will have to figure out how to deal with quarterbacks with abandonment issues.
Money doesn’t seem to be an issue. The price for the recycled Manning reportedly is the same as the Colts put on him a year ago when he signed a five-year, $90 million deal. His decision will be made for other reasons, and the teams courting him can only hope they have the other reasons.
So let’s handicap the contenders:
DENVER: I’m making the Broncos the favorite in this race. They were the first to publicly embrace Manning and seem to have a game plan in place to land him. The salary cap is not an issue and, perhaps most important, they have John Elway in charge of their courtship.
Imagine the conversations the Hall of Fame quarterback and Super Bowl winner could have with the future Hall of Fame quarterback with a Super Bowl ring. Better yet, Elway can drop the facade and quit acting like he’s happy when Tim Tebow is flinging wild passes around the field while somehow finding a way for the Broncos to win.
Denver’s leaky offensive line might be an issue for a quarterback with health questions. And after a season with Tebow, the Broncos don’t have any receivers who remember what it’s like to have passes thrown where they can actually catch them. My guess, though, is that after Manning barks at them a few times in practice, they would figure it out.
The downside? The demise of Tebowmania, which before Linsanity was the greatest craze in sports. Elway is so eager to get Tebow out of town that he might send him on his way in the same private jet that brings Manning to town for his official signing.
SAN FRANCISCO: A solid competitor that in recent days has moved up the depth chart. Unlike the Broncos, the 49ers took the stealth approach with Manning, reportedly working him out with coach Jim Harbaugh in private before Alex Smith ever realized his job was in jeopardy.
The 49ers have to be tempting to Manning, and not just because they came within one win of the Super Bowl last season. San Francisco has a great defense, a strong running game and the infectious spirit of a coach who knows a thing or two about the quarterback position himself.
It seems a perfect fit, but there are some negatives. One is the miserable stadium the 49ers play in, which is often made even more miserable by lousy weather. The other is that the 49ers are already so good that anything less than winning the Super Bowl in Manning’s first season would be looked upon as a failure for the quarterback.
Still, with the clock running on Manning’s career, he might see this as his best chance of joining his brother Eli as a multiple Super Bowl winner.
“I know Peyton Manning is looking for a team to join now and win a division now and go to the Super Bowl now,” former San Francisco great Steve Young told ESPN. “That’s the San Francisco 49ers.”
TENNESSEE: People loved him so much at the University of Tennessee they named their kids after him, and Titans owner Bud Adams loves him so much he told team executives to do whatever it takes to sign him.
Manning worked out for the Titans on Saturday in Knoxville, and the reviews were good. And if $90 million or so isn’t enough, a Tennessee-based restaurant chain is offering Manning free pancakes for every day he is a Titan if he signs with the team.
The pluses for the Titans are that Manning is comfortable with the area and might want to remain in a small market. The minuses are that the Titans are a mediocre team with a lot of questions on defense and a brutal schedule for the 2012 season. They’re an underdog in this race, but they could pull it out by offering Manning not just control over the offense but, perhaps, a say in key personnel decisions.
Sometime this week Manning will likely announce his choice. Assuming he’s ready to play next season and can remain healthy, some lucky team will have a four-time NFL Most Valuable Player under center.
The other two teams? Well, at least they gave it a shot. Nothing lost, except maybe the loyalty of an incumbent quarterback or two.
The only real loser in the Peyton Manning sweepstakes might be the team that let him go in the first place.
Tim Dahlberg is a Las Vegas-based national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg.