Ripple effect of Manning's decision will affect these parties and more
Peyton Manning's decision will have a far-reaching impact within the NFL
Why the Matt Flynn signing makes sense for both the quarterback and Seattle
Thoughts on the Mario Williams contract, the NCAA tournament and more
(Editor's note: A few hours after this column was originally published, Peyton Manning told his agent to start contract negotiations with the Denver Broncos.)
Well, Peyton Manning's doing a terrific job of not telegraphing his intentions. And because we don't know his landing spot -- Denver, San Francisco or Tennessee (in alphabetical order, because believe me, I don't know) -- a ripple effect was felt Sunday from the Pacific Northwest to the Atlantic Southeast.
One top official from one of the three teams told me Sunday night his team hadn't heard from Manning all day Sunday and, in his words, "We don't know if we're in or out. He told us he'd call when he knew what he was going to do, and we're taking him at his word. No pressure.''
I had one smart football official tell me Sunday Manning's going to San Francisco, and another tell me he's going to Tennessee and a third tell me: "His brain tells him San Francisco. His heart tells him Denver.''
So, folks, we're all guessing here. So let's not guess. Let's just say if all things were created equal, he'd probably rather go to the AFC, because that would take him away from playoff competition with his beloved brother Eli until the Super Bowl and because the AFC doesn't have as many good teams at the top as the NFC this year, from the looks of it. But all three contending teams have logic on their side.
Tennessee is in the division he knows intimately, and he loves familiarity. He knows offensive coordinator Chris Palmer from his brother; Palmer was Eli's quarterback coach from 2007 to 2009. Is it a factor that Tennessee is where Peyton went to college (Knoxville), where he loves to golf (Chattanooga) and where his wife is from (Memphis)? Probably not, but it can't hurt.
San Francisco may have the NFC disadvantage, but it also has the best team. Manning must love the fact that his workout with coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman was kept quiet for 65 hours; the 49ers do a very good job of shutting up. And he must love the fact that he'd have enough offensive weapons to win with, and that the Niner defense will be a top-five defense (maybe top-one) for the next two years at least.
Denver has a good confidant, John Elway, running the show, a young franchise receiver in Demaryius Thomas and one of Manning's very good friends (Brandon Stokley) living in town. He could win at any of the three places. He'd win biggest in San Francisco, most likely. So there you go.
Manning is the father of young twins. His 11-year wedding anniversary was Saturday. So I'm assuming he had some significant family time over the weekend as he mulled over what to do. But that's an assumption. And make no mistake about this: The circle of information and influence is very small here. It may be a circle of one. Notice the lack of leaks over the weekend? There's a reason for that. Manning wants to control everything about this. And if the teams want to be involved, they have to play the game.
While Manning mulls, here's my read on who, and what, is being swept up in this story that may have 48 hours yet to wash over us all:
Alex Smith. Sure seems like a jilted quarterback to me. How many times has coach Jim Harbaugh staunchly defended this criticism magnet over the past 14 months? Daily, it seems. They're so tight Smith caddied for Harbaugh at the AT&T golf tournament last month. But I think Smith (an unrestricted free agent) was getting some cold feet about his long-term love from the team before the Manning/Niner interest surfaced. He thought the contract being discussed should have been structured more favorably to him in the first year or so of the deal, and he was thinking of looking around in free agency before learning of the Manning workout for Harbaugh and Roman.
But the workout sent him on the road. After Smith met with the Dolphins Sunday morning, he went to the Fort Lauderdale airport to catch a flight to Seattle. But the Seahawks had him hold on for a bit, then told him not to come. They'd just agreed to terms with Matt Flynn. And Sunday night, Mike Klis of the Denver Post reported Miami was negotiating to try to bring Smith to terms before Manning made his call. Stay tuned.
Jeff Ireland. In the history of NFL general managers, Ireland is on the coldest streak ever. He needs to do something right. He doesn't even need to hit a home run. A seeing-eye single would do. That may make him more aggressive on Smith today -- and it may make Smith more inclined to go somewhere I don't think he really wants to go.
Miami looks like the worst team in the AFC East right now. Would Smith rather rub it in 49er GM Trent Baalke's face and run off to a bad team, and would he rather pray for Manning to pick Tennessee or Denver, enabling Smith to go back to where he has the best chance by far of making a Super Bowl run? Ireland may have to do what he loathes -- overspend for an OK player -- just to deodorize the stink of the last few years in Miami.
Josh Johnson. Colin Kaepernick. Mark my words: I am sure the 49ers, before embarking on the Manning quest, went over every alternative. One of them had to be what the franchise would do if it not only lost Manning, but also lost Smith. Such an outcome seemed unlikely a few days ago. But now, with the Dolphins in contention to sign San Francisco's starting quarterback, the Niners have to realistically think of life without Smith.
Kaepernick isn't ready for the job. Johnson's a free agent after being a bench player in Tampa Bay. Harbaugh coached him for three seasons at the University of San Diego before Harbaugh took the Stanford coaching job in 2007. The year after Harbaugh left San Diego, Johnson, running the same offense, threw 43 touchdowns with one interception. Needless to say, Harbaugh likes the 6-foot-3 Johnson more than most NFL head coaches do. Don't be surprised if the Niners, if suddenly desperate, take a shot at playing at least a bridge season with Johnson.
Mike Wallace. In the category of "remember where you heard this one,'' if the Niners save $8 million a year by not signing Smith and by paying Johnson a low 2012 cap number, I believe they'd consider making an offer for Pittsburgh's restricted free agent. San Francisco knows it would have to surrender the 30th pick plus a contract in the neighborhood of $8 million a year to get the speedy Wallace, because Pittsburgh would have the chance to match any deal offered to Wallace. This is a longshot, but don't be stunned to see it happen -- if Manning jilts San Francisco and Smith runs off too.
Randy Moss. At 35, does he have anything left? At 32, he caught 83 balls for 1,264 yards and 13 touchdowns. He'd likely be significantly jacked up to catch balls from Manning after catching them from another all-timer, Tom Brady, for three-plus years. More jacked up, I'd imagine, than catching balls from Josh Johnson.
Matt Hasselbeck. If Manning picks Tennessee, Hasselbeck could be a bridge quarterback in Cleveland or San Francisco.
Colt McCoy. If Manning picks Tennessee and Hasselbeck is imported by Cleveland, McCoy would have a big challenge beating out Hasselbeck in an offense he played every year of his pro career in except 2011 in Nashville.
The Broncos. Seemed like the ballgame was theirs to lose six days ago. Cold and hot doesn't matter here, so who knows? Manning may be just making sure he's made the right choice -- or he might be seeing some zits the further away from the Broncos he gets.
Tim Tebow. If Manning picks Denver, I'd be the only person alive who'd think Denver shouldn't trade Tebow; I'd love to see him be the jack-of-all-trades runner-receiver-very occasional thrower who'd keep defenses honest. But this would be the chance for Elway to get something for Tebow. Question is, would it be foolish to dump him for, say, a fifth-round pick? I think it would be. I'd keep him unless I could get a third- or higher.
Bud Adams. The Tennessee owner, just eight days ago, put his team on notice. He wanted Manning. At the time, the Titans weren't considering a Manning run, but when the owner dictates what he wants, employees scurry to make it happen. Adams, I'm told, doesn't expect to get Manning now, but his reaction will be worth monitoring if they don't. Will he pull a Steinbrenner and put rookie GM Ruston Webster or COO Mike Reinfeldt on notice for their jobs?
Matt Flynn. Before the Manning derby began, Flynn said, "It's pretty strange that Peyton Manning's going to affect me at all. Amazing, really.'' Well, he did and he didn't. But by spurning the Dolphins and Seahawks, both of whom wanted to sign him, Manning allowed Flynn to have a market created for him between Seattle and Miami. And that's how he ended up with the contract I'll describe shortly.
Scott Wells. Tennessee was very interested in the free agent Green Bay center. But because they have to wait for Manning to decide and couldn't afford Wells' $24 million, four-year pricetag, the Titans passed and the Rams signed him. That's one of the hidden fees of going all-in for Manning. You have to wait for him, and while you wait, some players you want come off the market.
The bad news around the NFL. Jim McMahon had a powerful interview on ESPN Sunday regarding the head injuries he suffered during his career. Ignored. The Saints bounty story and looming discipline? Ignored. Dallas and Washington angry about their salary-cap penalties on the eve of free agency? Ignored. Peyton Manning can even make the bad news go away -- for a while anyway.
Matt Flynn's deal is smart for both sides.
The three-year contract with Seattle will give him the edge in training camp competition with Tarvaris Jackson, but not a late-July lock on the job. It'll be interesting. Jackson will have the better arm, Flynn the better accuracy. And it may take time because Jackson knows the players and the plays better, obviously, than Flynn. But Flynn's strength is quickly transferring the tenets of every-second-counts quarterback play (what he learned during the week about individual players on defense, how to beat what the defense is showing him, how to know what play to check to when he has to audible), and you'd think that would show up in time.
Would Flynn have had a better shot at being assured the starting job in Miami? Probably. But in a conversation Sunday night, he kept talking about the feeling he got in Seattle's recently built training center in suburban Renton on Lake Washington. "I really enjoyed everyone there, and I got a chance to sit with [offensive coordinator] Darrell Bevell and felt really good about the offense, like it was something I knew very well,'' he said. "I just felt like it'd be a great fit.''
The deal is for three years, with $10 million guaranteed. Depending on his skill level and whether he starts, Flynn could earn between $19.5 and $24 million from the contract, or $26 million if he performs at a top-quarterback level. But chances are he'll play two years of the deal and then the Seahawks will make their decision for the future on him.
His minimum over two years is $13.25 million, a league source said, with that number rising to $15.5 million over two years if he starts in 2012, and $16 million if he starts and the Seahawks make the playoffs. The basic deal here: Flynn will make between $6.63 million and $8 million a year, depending on whether he beats out Jackson for the starting job and how well he plays.
Fair deal for Flynn because he has yet to prove himself; he had two starry starts in four Green Bay seasons. Smart job by his agent, Bill Johnson, getting as much guaranteed money as he did with such a lack of pro experience. But Seattle GM John Schneider didn't get taken here. He watched the tape of Flynn's two starts -- nine touchdowns, two interceptions against New England in 2010 and Detroit in 2011, combined -- and saw the decision-making and accuracy modern quarterbacks need.
Indulge me here, if you've already read this. It's from my column last Tuesday on SI.com, about a play I saw when I watched tape of the Detroit game with Flynn earlier this month. It says much about why Seattle thinks he can be its answer. With the emphasis on "could:''
On third-and-nine, Flynn came to the line with 14 seconds left on the play clock. At 12 seconds, he began a hard count. "Getting the defense to show their hand,'' he said. Middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch took a couple of steps back. In film study that week, Flynn had seen that Tulloch would likely be covering the tight end in the slot on this call, and that Tulloch always liked to give the tight end some cushion, maybe dropping to 12 or 13 yards and then coming in to try to separate the tight end from the ball.
At seven seconds, Flynn gave the receivers an alert; he was changing Jermichael Finley's route to a 10-yard curl. He snapped the ball with four seconds left on the play clock. Finley ran nine yards, turned around, and the ball was in his gut. First down, barely. Flynn had combined his film study from the week, the stones to check off from a play the team wanted to run, and the trust with his receiver to throw the ball to a spot before Finley turned around. It worked.
"In the Green Bay offense,'' Flynn said with the tape on pause, "we're what you'd call a 'best-play' team. I've been in the system for four years, and I know how it works. You study during the week and know everything you can possibly know about the defense. You talk to the coaches about what you like and what you don't like. Then, you get in the game, and checks like that come easy. We've worked on plays like that one every day in practice. It's just reaction for me now; I know what to check to.'' Which, for an NFL quarterback, is half the battle.
When Schneider did his homework on Flynn, one of the players he was reminded of was Rich Gannon. So he called Gannon to see what he thought of Flynn. "He can play the game in his head,'' Gannon said. Like you just read.
Postscript: When Flynn was in Seattle, he asked Schneider if there was a chance he could get his favorite number, 15. In Green Bay, Bart Starr's number wasn't available; it had been retired. In Seattle, 15 belonged to wide receiver Doug Baldwin. So Schneider on Sunday contacted Baldwin and asked if he'd be OK giving up the number. Baldwin's favorite number, 89, had just come available with free agent tight end John Carlson leaving for Minnesota. Baldwin wanted 89. Schneider said sure.
"You sure I can have 89?'' Baldwin said.
"Doug,'' said Schneider, "I'm sort of the boss around here. Yeah, you can have it.''
The boss got his man Sunday, at the right money. Now we'll see if Flynn's the answer.
Free agency: The idiotic part.
This is possibly the most over-covered week of anything we do in writing about the league, this first week of free agency. I knew it had gotten totally out of control on Saturday when Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News tweeted: "Amazingly, I'm sensing angst among some Giants fans again about Jerry Reese's lack of offseason action.''
Reese is the general manager of the New York Giants. He has had the job five years. He is notoriously slow off the draw in free agency, and he is not alone. In recent years, noted GMs and personnel czars like Ted Thompson (Green Bay), Mickey Loomis (New Orleans), Kevin Colbert (Pittsburgh) and Bill Polian (Indianapolis) have let the free agency field settle down before going after players of moderate cost. In the last six seasons, those franchise architects -- Reese, Thompson, Loomis, Colbert, Polian -- have won every Super Bowl. Not saying the patient way is the only way to team-build, but come on. Reese did nothing big in 2007 and 2011 and won the Super Bowl both times.