Peyton Manning's methodical job hunt came down to feeling comfortable
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Peyton Manning sounded relieved. It was his first day at work on a new job, and in so many ways this moment took way too long to arrive.
He was a bit anxious, too.
Standing in a lobby on the second floor of Denver Broncos headquarters, Manning was clutching the bright orange jersey presented to him at an introductory news conference a couple of hours earlier. But now his blue, pinstriped jacket was off.
He was a few minutes closer to hitting the weight room, which had practical, symbolic and emotional significance after nearly two weeks in official limbo and an exhaustive search to find a new team following 14 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts.
• MORE PEYTON MANNING: See all The Indianapolis Star's stories, photos and videos about the Indianapolis Colts quarterback's release.
It was only March, something the Broncos trainers had reminded the 36-year-old quarterback, who is out to prove that he is the Manning that you remember.
"They know that it bothers me that I'm not where I want to be yet," Manning said. "They feel they have a good strength program to help me in this process. I did think that the sooner I could get somewhere and get back into a routine, that would help me. That's another reason why I'm so glad to be here."
Routine has always been crucial for Manning, a foundation for the precision that has made him a special quarterback. Everything must be in order, methodical, consistent and controlled. While such a nature has contributed to Manning's reputation for obsession, he ultimately kills opponents with it.
Yet now, in some ways, he also wants to rush the calendar.
Manning is the only man who has been named MVP four times. He has passed for 54,828 yards and 399 touchdowns, third most in NFL history in both categories. His 141 victories as a starter ranks fourth all time, with a winning percentage (.678) that is best among any of the five quarterbacks who have won 125 games.
No quarterback has earned more Pro Bowl selections than Manning (11), produced more 4,000-yard seasons (11), notched more 300-yard games (63) or had more seasons with 25 or more passing TDs (13).
He also has had four neck operations.
That underscores the risk factor with this deal. The Broncos signed Manning to a five-year, $96 million contract that includes the league's highest average salary ($19.2 million), confident of a complete comeback.
The contract, with no signing bonus, includes a guaranteed $18 million for 2012, with $20 million salaries for 2013 and '14 guaranteed if Manning passes a neck exam 10 days before the opening of free agency.
"People keep saying 'four neck surgeries,' but it was one surgery and call it what you want, but three other 'procedures,' " Manning said.
The procedures, which left small incision scars on the front and back of his neck, occurred over a 19-month span and caused him to miss the 2011 season. The major operation, anterior fusion surgery, was performed Sept. 8. Typically, the surgery — addressing pinched nerves — involves the removal of soft disk tissue between vertebrae and fusing the bones with a graft.
Manning remains in rehab mode, seeking to regain complete strength in his record-producing right arm and banking on the nerves to fully regenerate as doctors expect.
Along the way, he has learned much about the nuances of an injured neck.
"Too much," he said.
One of the perks of Manning's free agent search was the additional opinions about his physical condition. In addition to gauging his arm during workouts, each of the finalists gave Manning positive feedback as they passed him on exams.
"It was kind of liberating to me to say, 'Here it is. It's on y'all now.' And nobody blinked," said Manning, who started 208 consecutive games before the injury. "They all said the same thing, that I'm on a good track. I can't defend the MRI, or defend the throwing in trying to sell myself. So it was open book, cards on the table. 'Here's what the throwing looks like. Here's the medical. You tell me.' "
How close is his arm to being 100%?
"I can't put a percentage on it," Manning said. "It's not where I want it to be. Could you win a game with it? Yeah, I think I can. But there are no games here in March. I've come a long way, but I have some work to do. Getting into a routine and not traveling from here to there, sleeping in different beds, will help."
When Manning woke up on the third Monday in March, he was in a familiar physical environment, if not in the typical mental space. He was at home in Indianapolis, two days after celebrating his wedding anniversary with his wife, Ashley. And, finally, he was a man who had made up his mind.
He chose the Broncos over the San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans.
"I didn't feel like it was right to just do this to get it over with," he said. "I felt like I had to get some peace about it, get some comfort. In some ways, I wish I wouldn't have gotten to know some of the teams as well as I did, because I liked everything about a lot of them."
Manning worked out for the three finalists and also visited with the Arizona Cardinals in Tempe and with the Miami Dolphins in Indianapolis.
The New York Jets and Washington Redskins were early candidates. In the case of the Redskins, their push seemingly ended before it started when they traded for the No. 2 pick in the draft, which they will likely use to take quarterback Robert Griffin III. Manning learned of the deal while having dinner with Elway — and the night before meetng with Redskins coach Mike Shanahan in Denver, according to Sports Illustrated.
Manning kept the meeting and talked football with Shanahan, who coached Elway for four seasons.
The more information Manning collected, the more difficult the choice became. He connected with Titans coach Mike Munchak and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, just as he had bonded with John Elway, the Hall of Fame quarterback who heads Broncos football operations.
"I was gravitating to some of the ex-players," Manning said of narrowing his list. "But the deeper you go in, the harder it was to say no. And you could only pick one place. I remember feeling this way coming out of high school. You want to go to all of them."
Manning liked what he heard from Munchak, a Hall of Fame lineman who has an extreme appreciation for protecting quarterbacks. He could also relate to Harbaugh, the competitive ex-quarterback whom he succeeded with the Colts.
It is difficult for Manning to identify a single factor that tipped the scale.
Surely, it wasn't money. The Titans would have exceeded the Broncos' package, and team owner Bud Adams said he would have given Manning a lifetime job.
"I had flattering offers," Manning said. "At some point, you have to narrow it to certain things, and it starts with football."
It wasn't about joining the team seemingly best-positioned for a championship. The 49ers, coming off an NFC title-game loss, have one of the league's best defenses and a potent rushing attack powered by Frank Gore. In free agency, they upgraded their receiving corps and enlisted seemingly hungry Randy Moss.
"People were saying, 'You didn't go to San Francisco because they are in the NFC.' That's not true," said Manning, dismissing the notion that he wouldn't want to face his brother, Eli, in any postseason game other than a Super Bowl. "I know they are in the NFC. I know the conferences. I wouldn't have gone into it that deep if that were the case.
"And I know the Titans are in the AFC South. It wasn't that I didn't want to play the Colts twice a year. Every interest that was there, I was sincere about it."
In the end, it came down to feeling comfortable. At the news conference, Manning talked of finding an organizational fit with the Broncos, of waking up that Monday with a gut feeling that reinforced what he felt the previous night and wanted to sleep on.
Explaining this, he catches himself.
"You've got to be careful saying stuff," he said. "If you had the comfort here, does it mean, 'Well, you didn't have it there?' It was more, 'Every place, I wanted to go.' "
Perhaps that's why the decision came with such anguish.
By the time Manning called Elway — who was huddled in his office with Broncos coach John Fox that Monday morning — he had phoned Munchak, Adams and 49ers general manager Trent Baalke and informed them that he wasn't coming aboard.
"He sounded so tired," Elway said.
Manning told Elway that it had been a rough morning, because he had called the other teams.
"I froze, and all I thought was, 'I wonder what number we are?' " Elway said. " 'Are we one, two or what?' "
After Manning uttered the news, Elway flashed a thumbs-up sign to Fox, who literally jumped for joy. With Elway on the phone, Fox muffled his excitement — barely.
"Almost pulled both hamstrings," Fox said of his impromptu reaction.
Fox exceeded expectations during his first year at the helm as he turned over the offense to Tim Tebow— teaming with coordinator Mike McCoy to fashion an offense that was built around the type of run-pass options that Tebow flourished in at Florida — and produced an unexpected AFC West title.
Yet in the hours before the Manning decision came down, Fox was antsy. He didn't sleep well Sunday and came to the office early Monday morning. Fox was prodding Elway about what to do next in the pursuit of Manning — sit tight and wait or call him back? — when the phone rang.
"Two days felt like two weeks," Fox said of anticipating Manning's decision.
On the other end of the line, Manning was pressed as well.
Although news media reports suggested Manning wanted to find a new team within a week of his release from the Colts, the process was not going to be rushed.
Yet time was not exactly Manning's ally.
"I called a lot of people," he said. "It was like, 'Just tell me where to go.' "
In the end, Manning knew it was his decision alone. Ashley didn't have a preference. The Mannings are parents to twins, Marshall and Mosley, who are nearly a year old.
"She was OK with whatever I came up with," Peyton said of Ashley. "They're all great places to live. She knew I had to get to know the football part of it and get comfortable with that."
While there was no hard deadline to make the call, he intuitively knew the importance of the timing.
"I was starting to feel the heat from these other teams," he said. "I felt they were under the gun. And I just don't like anybody being hung out there."
That includes fellow quarterbacks. Manning said the ripple effect of his decision gnawed at him. The 49ers didn't re-sign Alex Smith, who had visited Miami as a free agent, until Manning made his decision. The Titans would have had to move veteran Matt Hasselbeck, with second-year pro Jake Locker in the wings, to accommodate Manning's arrival. And a day after Manning signed, the Broncos traded Tebow to the New York Jets.
"I hate the part about it that other quarterbacks were affected," Manning said. "I'm in that fraternity. Somebody's going to have my old job in Indianapolis. I just wanted to go somewhere and play, and I didn't know how else to do it.
"I hope those guys understand. I'll reach out to all of them at some point, when I get to breathe. I hope they don't hold it against me. I wish it all could have been under the radar."
As the most prominent player to hit the open market since Reggie White in 1993, Manning realized that his desire for a low-key search for a new team was wishful thinking.
Even so, he was determined to keep the search as private as possible, one reason why there was little in the way of public comments coming from prominent figures in the Manning camp, such as his father, Archie, and his agent, Tom Condon.
Manning said he didn't even talk to Condon for four days during one stretch of his search. He went solo during his visits with the teams, and was so hands-on in controlling the process that he arranged much of the logistical planning directly with the teams.
Yet that approach couldn't prevent what happened when he flew to Miami, hours after bidding farewell to about 30 Colts employees during a post-news conference reception on the day he was released.
Manning saw the reception as a fitting piece of closure on his way out of Indianapolis, where the timing of his departure was tied to a $28 million roster bonus due March 8 — and the franchise's ability to rebuild around Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, who is expected to be drafted No. 1 overall in April.
Upon his arrival in Miami, where he has an offseason home, Manning quickly discovered the intensity of the news media coverage.
He was even trailed by a news helicopter.
Soon after, Fox called.
"He was blown away," Fox said. "It was a paparazzi-like event when he landed there. We talked about that first. I was just kind of seeing how he was doing."
Then there was the other matter.
"I also wanted to feel him out, see what his plans were," Fox said.
Fox watched Manning's farewell news conference on a television in his office and called a staff meeting to discuss the pursuit of Manning. With the initial call, Manning made the decision to kick off his tour with a visit to the Broncos.
"I didn't know if that was going to work for us or against us," Fox said.
Manning's connection with Elway was a key component to the comfort level he found with the Broncos. Elway told Manning to take his time in deciding and that he could relate to the emotions that come with spending his entire career with the Colts.
That laid-back approach appealed to Manning. Yet the vibe with Fox and the coaching staff was significant in its own right.
While Fox has a defensive background, his style as a head coach is stamped by a willingness to adapt. With Manning in the fold, the Broncos will transition from a read-option scheme to an up-tempo system that plays to the strengths of the quarterback.
Manning likely will continue to go to the line of scrimmage, scan the defense and choose from run or pass options on every play.
And Fox envisions extensive use of a no-huddle offense, which could add to whatever home-field advantage that comes with opposing defenses tiring in the high altitude.
Of course, much rides on whether Manning regains his health and resembles the star quarterback he has been for years.
Fox says he's not worried, not after seeing Manning confirm his condition during the private workout for the Broncos.
Manning, meanwhile, talks of chasing another Super Bowl and allowing his performance to prove that his big decision was correct.
"I've really tried to have a good attitude about this, tried to have peace," Manning said. "I've prayed a lot about it, just trying to say there's a reason for this. So many players have been hurt. Going back to high school, this is the first time it has happened to me. So really, you just try to deal with it."