Why We'll Never See Another Peyton Manning on the Free Agent Market

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistMarch 13, 2013

ENGLEWOOD, CO - MARCH 20:  Quarterback Peyton Manning poses with his uniform after the news conference announcing his contract with the Denver Broncos in the team meeting room at the Paul D. Bowlen Memorial Broncos Centre on March 20, 2012 in Englewood, Colorado. Manning, entering his 15th NFL season, was released by the Indianapolis Colts on March 7, 2012, where he had played his whole career. It has been reported that Manning will sign a five-year, $96 million offer.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Take Peyton Manning's name off the list and the crop of free agent quarterbacks has been dreadful the last two years. That's because a quarterback the caliber of Manning becoming a free agent is something the market never is likely to see again.

The twists of fate that pushed Manning onto the market conspired perfectly, beginning with his injury and culminating in the 2012 draft featuring two "can't-miss" prospects at his position.

The injury that began Manning's prolonged exit from the Indianapolis Colts started so quietly, it almost came without warning.

Manning started every game of the 2010 season and, as usual, took the Colts to the playoffs. There was little hint of the underlying problem that was to keep him sidelined for the entire 2011 campaign.

Then slowly but surely, rumors began to surface that Manning needed neck surgery. More rumours followed, hinting that the star passer could be out for a while.

No one was ready to admit the possibility of missing an entire season, but steadily that hint became a reality. Yet news outlets struggled to comprehend exactly what was going on.

John Michael Vincent, host of ESPN 1070 Indianapolis, started the frenzy on September 4th with one simple report, tweeting that he had been told that Manning needed a second neck procedure and would be out indefinitely. Vincent's words sent the media scrambling to confirm Manning's status.

ProFootballTalk.com went with an early report that same day citing Vincent's report to satisfy a litany of early queries. Still nothing was definitive.

Four days later, ESPN.com would only go as far as confirming Manning would miss the opening day.

Even by September 26th, no one seemed wiser about whether Manning would take the field in 2011. CBSSports.com summed it up with the word "maybe" in its headline.

Yet Manning spent more weeks on the sidelines in street clothes. The Colts spent more weeks subjecting people to the Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky triangle.

It was clear Manning wouldn't don a Colts uniform for the 2011 season. That prompted the media cycle to spin a new direction: Manning's future.

What made that question so relevant was that all the time Manning stood on the sidelines, his natural successor was dominating college football.

Every year sees a number of draft prospects hyped beyond measure. That's just the inevitable reality of the build-up to the NFL's annual selection meeting.

However, even in that context, it's difficult to remember any prospect as widely praised as Andrew Luck. The Stanford quarterback was quickly accepted as the draft's top player.

Three days after CBSSports.com seemed unsure about Manning's health, ESPN.com's Greg Garber declared Luck the ''top pick in the draft.'' Suddenly the path to life without Manning in Indianapolis seemed set.

As the Colts floundered without Manning, their obvious need for Luck became greater. It soon created the perception that their season was being tanked purely to draft Manning's successor.

On October 29th, with the Colts 0-6, Gary Myers of the New York Daily News, made a radical suggestion to prevent the Colts so-called "Suck for Luck" efforts:

“Suck For Luck” is clever and funny, of course, but it's not a good thing when fans are rooting for their teams to lose just two months into the season, and there are whispers in October whether teams are truly trying to “Suck For Luck.”

Our proposal: A weighted lottery for the teams with the five worst records. In a typical year that would include teams that won four games or fewer. The team with the worst record would own the most ping-pong balls.

On November 1st, with the Colts now 0-7, Sports Illustrated's Don Banks had this slightly sarcastic view on the race to draft Luck:

But for the Colts, in what has been a season of misery so far, it might just be the prize that comes tantalizingly ever closer. And there's only one way to guarantee the goal is reached: Just lose, baby.

What was clear was that the winless Colts were in an enviable position. Not only was Luck considered a certainty to be a franchise quarterback, Baylor's Robert Griffin III wasn't far behind.

Indeed, as Griffin's stock rose, the Colts realized they had two opportunities to adequately replace a Hall of Fame quarterback. How often has that ever happened in the NFL universe?

In 1993, the San Francisco 49ers ditched Joe Montana. That seemingly unthinkable move was only made possible because Steve Young had established himself as one of the game's best.

It was a low-risk move for the 49ers, one that paid off when Young won a Super Bowl in 1994. Yet a similar scenario didn't play out again until 2008.

That year the Green Bay Packers parted ways with Brett Favre. He had seemed certain to end his playing days at Lambeau Field.

The Packers only felt able to make the move because they had used a first-round pick on Favre's backup Aaron Rodgers. Again the move was given the ultimate seal of approval, when Rodgers raised the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the 2010 season.

Both the 49ers and Packers didn't release their celebrated starters on a whim. Young had started the previous two seasons and led the league in passer rating.

Rodgers had spent three seasons on the bench learning the offense. The Colts' situation was entirely different.

They had been presented with a unique opportunity to change the image and direction of their franchise in one sudden move. On March 7th, 2012, USA Today reported that Manning would be released.

He instantly became the best quarterback available in free agency. It's easy to see why considering the paucity of talent that made Packers backup Matt Flynn the previous top choice.

That's because the quarterback position has garnered so much importance in the modern game. The position has always been significant, but the rise of pass-first attacks means even average passers find themselves coveted.

That explains how a team can give up a second-round pick and a starting cornerback for Kevin Kolb. Such is the desperation of teams to find a playmaker under center.

No team will part with even a serviceable quarterback without a very good alternative already in place. More importantly, very few drafts contain two prospects like Luck and Griffin.

That's why the 1983 class is still lauded 30 years later. Certainly, the 2013 NFL draft appears to offer no bounty of riches at quarterback.

The three latest mock drafts on NFL.com all have Geno Smith as the only quarterback taken in the first round. Smith appears to be the only consensus talent at the position in this year's draft.

Had the Colts faced a similar situation last year, Manning would still be playing in the AFC South. Of course, not many marquee quarterbacks are laid low in the way Manning was.

There was no one hit that could be identified as the root cause of the problem that needed four neck surgeries. It wasn't an obvious collision that led to the quarterback being carried or stretchered off the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Indeed, not many quarterbacks of Manning's pedigree fall victim to that level of injury. Those who have usually made successful comebacks with their existing teams.

That was the case for Tom Brady who returned to the Patriots after missing the 2008 season. It was also the same for Dan Marino when he returned to the Dolphins after an Achilles injury in 1994.

Manning's situation most closely resembled that of Montana, Yes there was no crushing hit that made its way into NFL folklore.

However, Montana's elbow injury, and the growing number of problems that surfaced because of it, was as murky and costly as Manning's neck issues.

It resulted in two missed seasons and ended Montana's glorious tenure in San Francisco. That was in 1993. It took nearly 20 years for another elite quarterback to experience that same scenario.

Even then, it took a perfect confluence of events and some unique twists of fate to land Manning on the open market.

Don't expect it to happen again any time soon, if ever.


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