I don't know what to do. What does a free agent do?
—PEYTON MANNING, March 7, to his quarterback mentor and friend, David Cutcliffe
This doesn't happen to legends with time left on the clock. Legends who can play—and Peyton Manning can still play, if his neck holds up—don't jet across the country from one city to the next in a two-week span to showcase themselves. And let teams showcase themselves to him. Manning, the highest profile free agent in NFL history, interviewed the teams that wanted him as much as they asked questions of him.
In a meeting with the Broncos on March 9 the four-time league MVP turned to coach John Fox's two chief aides, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, and inquired, "What about you guys? You one and done?" Meaning: Will you take the first head-coaching offer you get if we have success here in 2012?
The question surprised both men. Del Rio, fired as the Jaguars' coach three months earlier, said all he wanted to do was get back to hand-on coaching and away from the politics of the top job. McCoy said he turned down one head-coaching interview last year because it didn't feel right; he said he'd leave only for the right job.
On March 20, Manning was formally introduced as the Broncos' quarterback. There's been much speculation as to why he chose Denver over a team with a regional, nostalgic edge (Tennessee, where he'd gone to college) or a clearly better roster (San Francisco, which came within a game of the Super Bowl last season). The reason can be summed up in a word: familiarity. Familiarity with Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway, a Hall of Fame quarterback who won two Super Bowls in his late 30s and with whom Manning shared a clear mutual respect. Familiarity, too, with Fox, a former college recruiter who put his skills of persuasion to good use; and with Del Rio, against whom Manning competed for years when Del Rio was coaching Jacksonville in the AFC South. Familiarity with good friend and Denver resident Brandon Stokley, the former Colts receiver, who hosted Manning on his two trips to Colorado during the process (and who might be in camp with the Broncos this summer). Familiarity with the teams on Denver's schedule in 2012, franchises Manning has faced a total of 93 times. "From talking with Peyton during the process," said Tony Dungy, his former coach with the Colts, "I sensed Denver was the closest thing he could find to what he had in Indianapolis."
And this: Manning likes to be in control. Of everything. In this process, he was. Elway played the game perfectly by doing precisely what Manning wanted him to do—make your case, then stay out of the way while I make my call.
The story of Manning's stressful fortnight of freedom includes misdirection car rides, secret meetings and workouts, and words of wisdom from trusted confidants. Here's how it went down.
CUT DAY AND THE DAY AFTER March 7--8
After an emotional farewell news conference in Indianapolis on the seventh, Manning spent an hour with 30 longtime Colts employees. "Maintenance, secretaries, equipment guys, everybody who'd been there a long time," he said. "Some guys leave a place after a long time, and they're bitter. Not me. But it was important for me to get closure."