The highly anticipated 2020 NFL draft broadcast opened with a familiar voice. "This may look like separation," Peyton Manning narrated while images of vacant city streets and empty stadiums flashed, "but it's actually solidarity. It's a sign that, through isolation, we are fighting as one. And there's no better reason than that, for hope."
He doesn't have an official job with a team or a network, but Manning is still the voice of football, and one of the biggest ambassadors for the game. He's been offered a TV job almost every year since he retired in 2016, and he's had serious conversations to run NFL teams. Four years into retirement, he is tired of hearing the question, What is Peyton going to do?
Tony Romo retired and announced his CBS role the same day. Drew Brees has already signed with NBC, and he's still playing at least one more season. Tom Brady has had his TB12 business for years, and is only now starting the last chapter of his playing career with Tampa Bay. It feels strange that Manning should still be so unattached, when his voice and opinions are so coveted. What is he waiting for?
"I sort of don't like the fact that there is this what is he going to do watch out there," Manning tells Bleacher Report, "because I feel like I am doing a lot right now, and staying busy. ... I like my kids seeing me working. I don't have a one-word job description that they would be able to say at parents day at school, but they know I am busy."
In the weeks leading up to the draft, teams go to extremes to gather information on what other clubs intend to do with their picks. In 2017, the Bears brass was interested in finding out what Manning was doing, even though he had been out of the game for a year.
Manning had formed a relationship with North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who had sought Manning's advice on whether he should declare for the draft or return to school. Chicago, slated to pick third, was in need of a quarterback, and had its aim set on Trubisky. The Browns, though, also were rumored to like him and had the No. 1 pick. They too had a connection to Manning through owner Jimmy Haslam, a major Tennessee booster and someone who has known Manning since his college days playing for the Volunteers.
A source familiar with the situation says the Bears personnel staff wanted to know if Manning was saying good things about Trubisky to Haslam. Enough to convince the Browns to go quarterback with the first pick? The Bears didn't necessarily need Manning's opinion on Trubisky (though then-head coach John Fox had already called to ask him that earlier in the process), but they feared the power that a recommendation from Manning might have in the hands of a draft rival.
The Bears, who eventually traded up and selected Trubisky No. 2 overall after the Browns drafted defensive end Myles Garrett, never did find out what was going on in Haslam and Manning's conversations, but they were correct that the two were talking. Haslam says they did discuss Trubisky that year, but more about his personality than his football traits. Manning, for his part, was oblivious to the cloak-and-dagger machinations going on behind the scenes. "It wouldn't surprise me," he says, laughing at the thought of it. "These guys leave no stone unturned."
Even in unconventional, through-the-grapevine ways, Peyton's influence permeates the league. He's a ubiquitous presence, almost John Madden-like, despite not having that one-word job description in football. So, why does everyone want a piece of him? "I sometimes ask myself the same thing," he says.
"He transcends the game," Colts head coach Frank Reich says. "If I am an NFL owner or a GM and I am looking for an opinion, an objective football opinion, I am calling Peyton Manning. Peyton is definitely in that elite category."
The networks certainly appear to agree. This winter, both CBS and ESPN made significant offers to Manning to join their broadcast teams. The New York Post reported that CBS offered Manning $10 million to $12 million per year for five or six seasons to take Romo's job, because the network feared Romo's salary would be too high. ESPN wanted Manning for the Monday Night Football booth, for a multiyear deal. A source close to Manning says he seriously considered both offers and was the closest he's ever been to taking one (for either a broadcast or NFL front-office position) since he retired. Both networks gave him about 10 days to consider, a window that proved too small to make that leap.
"If he had another month to think about it, he very well might have done it," the person says. "Many people in his family said, 'You know what, you should do this.' ... That's hard to do because you're not saying, 'I'm going to try it this year.' You're basically saying, 'This is what I am going to do for the next decade.'"
He transcends the game. If I am an NFL owner or a GM and I am looking for an opinion, an objective football opinion, I am calling Peyton Manning.
—Colts head coach Frank Reich
And when you're Peyton Manning, why settle on one job when you already have more than half a dozen: spokesperson for Nationwide, star of his family's annual football camp, corporate speaker, philanthropist, host of two scripted shows for ESPN+, mentor to young quarterbacks in the league and college quarterbacks considering declaring early for the draft, source for NFL teams curious about those prospects and, most importantly, dad and husband.
"It's not like the guy is sitting at home, twiddling his thumbs," former Colts center Jeff Saturday says.
Three sources who have spent time with Manning say that what he really wants to do is run a team with an ownership stake. Call it the Michael Jordan model.
"I could see him running an organization," former NFL head coach and three-time Super Bowl champion Mike Shanahan says. "He is so on top of every area because he has been working at it his whole life."
Manning didn't wait for retirement to start building his NFL rolodex. During his Colts career, he would invite opposing coaches to his home in Indianapolis to talk shop during the scouting combine. Some of the game's most innovative minds often would accept.
"Jon Gruden and I [were] drawing plays up on napkins," Manning says of one meeting the two had. "He's a Coors Light drinker, I'm a Bud Light drinker, so I had to get the Coors Light for him. [Bill] Belichick and I talked some ball one night. He was in a Rutgers hoodie if I recall."
During the 2004 combine, Gruden took Manning to the local Hooters after their meeting. To Manning's surprise, the Buccaneers defensive staff was already there, and to their surprise, Gruden asked them to explain to Manning how the Tampa Bay defense had allowed the Colts quarterback to mount one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history the previous season. (The Colts won 38-35 after trailing by 21 with just four minutes left in regulation).
Manning and another guest, Shanahan, once got pulled over by the police in front of Lucas Oil Stadium in 2010 after a one-on-one meeting. Manning was trying to drop Shanahan off for a meeting with quarterback prospect Sam Bradford and was running late, so he made an illegal turn on red. They were both relieved to avoid media attention, in part for the offense itself, but perhaps more importantly, to avoid questions about what the Colts quarterback and the Washington head coach were discussing in private. A trade? Free-agency plans?
"He had a game plan," Shanahan says. "If you were doing something, he would want to know why."
When Manning retired in March 2016, he set off on the second phase of that game plan, a mini tour of the league to study how general managers and coaches do their jobs. "You retire and you sort of try to figure out, OK, what's Chapter 2 going to be?" Manning says.
He traveled to team facilities and spent time in war rooms observing general managers and head coaches preparing for the draft. He crashed formal combine interviews in Indianapolis with the Dolphins, Rams and Niners, and he attended preseason quarterback meetings with the Bears. He met with Seahawks general manager John Schneider, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and then-Packers head coach Mike McCarthy during their precious downtime at the scouting combine. Manning took the most meetings that first year of retirement, but he visits training camps around the league each year to speak to teams and then sit in on meetings. Last summer, he spent time with the Colts and Jaguars. Manning carries a notebook with him everywhere he goes, filling it with copious descriptions of the process, a habit he started in his playing career. Back then, he would urge teammates to take notes as well, sometimes even picking up their pens to remind them to write things down in meetings.
"There might not have been a phase of the process from A to Z that he didn't ask questions about, circle back to and not get bored at any of them," Rams general manager Les Snead says. "You realize, OK, this human being has a very curious, focused mind and wants to learn so much."
The meetings were a give and take. Manning asked about every part of running a team, such as the most important part of the scouting process. The general managers and coaches asked him questions of their own. Snead wanted to know which defensive coaching trees presented the most problems. Schneider asked what Manning felt was the most important trait in a receiver. Quickness off the ball? Ability to separate down the field?
As he made his way from team to team, the league took note. Manning says he has had meetings and serious conversations about opportunities with NFL teams, but he declined to provide further details. About the only thing he has ruled out is coaching, because he doesn't think he'd be good at it.
But, indeed, "There have been offers to run teams," the source close to Manning says, though it's unclear how formal those invitations were.
In January 2016, when Manning was still playing his last season, Fox Sports' Jay Glazer reported on a "push inside the league to have him [be] part of an ownership group with the Tennessee Titans," a story both the team's CEO and controlling owner refuted at the time.
A year later, Glazer reported that Colts owner Jim Irsay made a "strong push" to hire Manning as head of football operations, with Gruden as the head coach.
"I have had conversations with different people," Manning says. "But I have never had a formal contract offer, nothing in writing. I have had football conversations that I think, you know, they are probably gauging my interest and I am asking them questions about what their direction is."
Multiple NFL executives and agents say they heard Haslam was interested in hiring Manning in Cleveland after Manning retired.
"I think people assume that I have been offered a Browns role, but that is just not true," Manning says. "What's the old saying? Be careful going to work for your friends [because] you might ruin a friendship, you know? Jimmy and I talk a lot, and I think sometimes Jimmy talks about what is on my radar and what am I thinking about almost more as a friend. As an adviser, if you will. I never really felt like he was asking for his personal views."
While Manning says making the shift into a front office is "just not something that I have moved on yet," multiple sources interviewed for this story agree his ultracompetitive nature will probably make him more likely to run a team than become a broadcaster.
"He is a demanding guy," Saturday says. "If somebody is going to play for him, they damn sure better be seat buckled in. The amount of time, energy and effort that he is going to expect you to put it in ... If he's a GM, now I'm not sure what the [draft] grades would be. He might grade everybody really, really low, but I do know you wouldn't have outfoxed him."
Perhaps the only qualification Manning lacks is formal experience. Manning's broadcast forays have mainly been scripted shows. He's never called a practice game, and he's never actually worked in personnel for a club, never scouted players.
He is a demanding guy. If somebody is going to play for him, they damn sure better be seat buckled in. The amount of time, energy and effort that he is going to expect you to put it in ... If he's a GM, now I'm not sure what the [draft] grades would be. He might grade everybody really, really low, but I do know you wouldn't have outfoxed him.
—Former Colts center Jeff Saturday
One veteran NFL scout raised perhaps the one point every organization will need to consider before actually hiring Manning: "Peyton has to be the most sought-after person for any NFL job, be it coach, GM, broadcaster," he says. "But Mike Vrabel didn't go from playing linebacker for the Patriots to the head coach of the Titans. Peyton is still unproven."
The first time Snead saw Jared Goff in person wasn't when he was throwing a touchdown pass at Cal or running the 40 at the draft combine. It was at the Manning Passing Academy, where Snead's son, Logan, was a camper. While he was there as a dad watching his kid, Snead couldn't help but put his GM cap on when he noticed Goff was one of around 40 college starting quarterbacks working the camp as counselors.
He later followed up with Manning to ask him more about Goff. "Jared got a thumbs-up coming out of the meetings with the Mannings," Snead says. That same summer, Snead also noticed Manning kept picking to throw to a certain college receiver, Eastern Washington's Cooper Kupp, who was also working the camp. Snead drafted him, too.
The camp has become such a rite of passage for any successful college quarterback that NFL personnel might assume something is wrong with a draft prospect if he were never invited to work the camp. Of the 57 quarterbacks who started at least one game in 2019, 36 were MPA alumni. One NFL executive says he called Archie Manning to ask if there was something he should know about Trubisky, who hadn't been invited. (As a single-season starter in college, Trubisky just didn't have enough experience to attract the Mannings' attention.)
The Mannings spend four long days coaching teenagers in the Louisiana heat each summer, and by the end, can get a good read on the character of the college quarterbacks who assist them. Archie says he can tell by the number of "emails from mamas." After the camp wraps, Peyton regularly fields calls from general managers and coaches that he knows, all asking about those counselors who will be draft-eligible. Who asked you a lot of questions? Did he engage you?
"People call him because he is a set of eyes that is not normal," says Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, who worked closely with Manning for four seasons as an offensive assistant in Denver. "He is one of the best to play the position, so [he] understands what it looks like, and he can give a different perspective than a scout, or sometimes even a coach."
"It keeps [him] tied to the game," says Fox, who coached Manning in Denver, "because now he is seeing the young quarterbacks and not just the guys he came into the league with. Not many guys do all that. Dan Marino doesn't do that. Brady doesn't do that."
Those connections stretch beyond executive offices. When an MPA alumnus such as Drew Lock or Joe Burrow calls for advice, Manning picks up. Lock called just before his first start for the Broncos last season, and again the following week before his first road start. "He welcomes those calls," Lock says. "Those are his mini-game days, so to say. He gets to talk to and inspire some of the best young quarterbacks that, like he always says, hopefully break his rookie INT record."
After a 4-12 season in 2018, Jets president Christopher Johnson was casting about for a new coach, someone who could develop their young franchise quarterback, Sam Darnold, and get the Jets winning again. As Johnson focused on Adam Gase days after he had been fired by the Dolphins, he turned to Manning, who played under the Jets' prospective new hire when Gase was a Broncos assistant coach. Before the divisional playoff games were played, Gase had the job.
"Very rarely do players give recommendations for coaches," Callahan says. "That's reserved for a pretty exclusive group of people. ... It's rare that you see a former player carry that kind of clout amongst league circles like that."
Colts general manager Chris Ballard also called for a reference when he was doing his research on Reich for the head coaching job after Josh McDaniels abruptly left the team after agreeing to take the job. Reich had worked alongside Manning in various offensive coaching roles during six seasons with the Colts, and Ballard wanted an evaluation of his potential new coach that he could trust. "I just wanted to see what kind of man [Reich] was, what kind of teacher, and I got a very strong recommendation from Peyton," Ballard says. "Peyton has been a really good asset in terms of just guidance when I've got a question. He's got a brilliant mind, a beautiful mind when it comes to football."
Reich adds, "Everyone knows that if you can earn Peyton's respect, that is gold, because his opinion is so valued."
Last offseason, Reich found himself on the other side of it. He wanted to hire then-Broncos offensive tackles coach Chris Strausser for the Colts' offensive line job. Manning and Strausser didn't overlap in Denver, but Reich knew Manning could connect him to people in Denver.
"It was one of those deals, like, 'Hey, see if you can find out any information for me on [Strausser],'" Reich says. "'I think I want to hire this person.'"
So, Peyton moonlighted as a quasi-consultant. "He really is, and I am glad he is unpaid, too," Reich laughs.
Peyton takes the snap, drops back and lets out a loud grunt as he heaves a deep bomb to an MPA camper. The camper sprints to the end zone with all the energy he can muster in the heat. This late June afternoon in 2019 is so humid that the air feels heavy and the camper isn't remotely close to getting underneath the ball. The two dozen teenage quarterbacks and receivers watching in the center of the field all groan at the miss, and then a loud horn sounds to mark the end of the practice session. The boys grab their drawstring bags and water bottles and swarm Peyton as he ambles off the field. Mr. Manning! Mr. Manning! Wearing a white bucket hat with the MPA logo on it, Peyton poses for dozens of selfies, grinning in his lopsided, goofy manner.
Earlier that morning, Archie was asked the familiar question: What will Peyton do, and when will he do it?
"The way you think at age 44 can change when you are 46 or 50 or 70," Archie says. "NFL people have been nice to him and included him to be inside the organization and see what it's like. The one thing he knows, if he were to choose to go in that direction, you have to be all-in. Right now, Peyton is doing 10 different things and having fun."
Peyton is in no rush to commit to his next big thing. And why should he be? He wields enormous influence just as he is now, and he still has time to lob deep balls to high school football players.
"A one-word job description like coaching or broadcasting would certainly make the conversation easier," Peyton says. "But I think that's a bad reason to take a job, just to have a shorter conversation, so that's kind of where I am."
Maybe it's time to stop asking what Peyton Manning is going to do and start asking when will he narrow it down.
If one thing is certain, it's that the NFL and broadcast networks are ready for him. And in the meantime, "I have my notebook," he says. "And I have my notes."
Peyton Manning will be ready for his next move, whenever he's ready to make it.
Kalyn Kahler is a writer living in Chicago. She's a former staff writer for Sports Illustrated and has covered the NFL for five years. Follow her on Twitter for NFL musings and weird quarantine thoughts: @KalynKahler.