With one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history now on the open market, one thing is certain: There's going to be a mad scramble that would make Fran Tarkenton proud.
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Based on my conversations with numerous general managers and other league insiders, I've got a list of a dozen viable suitors. At this early stage, I don't think anyone, even Manning himself, knows where he'll end up.
However, given the specifics of his situation – coming off neck-fusion surgery; desperately seeking a second Super Bowl ring; accustomed to and intent upon having full control of the offense he runs – I can tell you where Manning should go when all is said and done.
I'm sure he'll pay close attention to this list, and that he'll thank me after he signs. In the meantime, get ready for one of the most closely followed recruiting efforts in the history of free agency.
Here's the Dirty Dozen:
1. Houston Texans: I know there was a report a few weeks ago from the Houston Chronicle's highly reliable John McClain that Manning to the Texans is "not going to happen." But it should, and I believe the franchise's powerbrokers (owner Bob McNair, general manager Rick Smith and head coach Gary Kubiak) are smart enough to give the idea strong consideration. The Texans have everything Manning could possibly want: A terrific defense; a premier running back (Arian Foster); an elite receiver (Andre Johnson) and other dangerous targets; an exceptional offensive line; a fabulous stadium with a roof; and a seemingly weak division that, oh yeah, happens to include the Colts. This team is a Super Bowl contender with Matt Schaub under center; if Manning is healthy and able to regain his throwing touch, I think the Texans are Super Bowl favorites. Schaub, while accomplished, has been injury-prone and has struggled against top-notch competition. He turns 31 in June and has missed five or more games in three of his five seasons as the Texans' starter, along with failing to finish several other starts (Sage Rosenfels closed out four games in 2007). Houston could free up approximately $7 million of cap space by cutting Schaub, which would give the franchise a nice start toward making a deal with Manning work financially for both sides. Granted, this would be a risk, but, worst-case scenario, Smith and Kubiak are high on T.J. Yates, who filled in as a rookie for the injured Schaub and led Houston to its first-ever playoff victory in January. If the Texans take the leap of faith, Manning should jump at the opportunity.
2. San Francisco 49ers: I did a book with Jerry Rice way back in the day, and I covered him daily as a beat writer when I broke into the business in the late 1980s and early '90s. We've had our verbal skirmishes now and then – but far be it from me to argue with the best receiver in NFL history on this issue. Rice told Bay Area media outlets on Tuesday that the 49ers should go all out to sign Manning. Of course they should. I loved what Alex Smith did last year – it's seriously one of the cooler NFL stories in recent memory – and he's one of my favorite guys. That said, he's coming off his first truly good year in seven NFL seasons. Manning has had more than a decade's worth of exceptional years, and it's hard not to see him succeeding in San Francisco if he's healthy. The Niners have a good line that is likely to get better, a workhorse halfback in Frank Gore and a great offensive coaching staff that includes head coach Jim Harbaugh and brainy coordinator Greg Roman. They're likely to make a strong run at Vincent Jackson in free agency or, if that fails, to try fervently to acquire an elite receiver through other means. Like the Texans, they have a tremendous defense. They took the Giants to overtime in the NFC title game and are obvious Super Bowl contenders heading into the 2012 season. And while they play in a lousy stadium – for now – the weather is generally good. If the Texans don't make a run, San Francisco should be Manning's clear favorite.
3. Denver Broncos: Wait, did I just do something else to tick off the Tebowites? Perhaps, but it's not personal. Tim Tebow is deservedly popular and has a ton of potential, but he could also use a year to work on his mechanics, recognition of defenses and other basic quarterbacking skills. In the meantime, watching one of the all-time masters at work wouldn't be a terrible blow to the kid's development. And while most passers wouldn't be thrilled with the idea of throwing themselves into such a potentially contentious situation (given the cult-like worship of the incumbent), Manning could surely handle it. He'd take full control of a team that won the AFC West last year on the strength of its defense and running game – and he'd make young receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker look even better than they already do. The Broncos have a star at left tackle (Ryan Clady) and a better-than-average line, and though there's always potential for inclement weather in Colorado, it's typically not an issue. Most general managers wouldn't dream of bringing in someone that would send Tebow to the bench, but executive vice president of football operations John Elway isn't most people. As one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, Elway might just have the guts to make a run at another man who fits that description, Tebowmania be damned.
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4. Washington Redskins: Mike Shanahan has had a rough first couple of years in D.C., and given owner Dan Snyder's impatience, it's possible he's coaching for his job. Manning would be a huge gamble, and there would have to be a fallback option, but I'm pretty sure it's one neither the coach nor owner would shy away from taking. This wouldn't be Donovan McNabb 2, a horror-flick sequel; people close to Shanahan say he regards Manning as the greatest quarterback of all time, and he and his son – offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan – would give this veteran quarterback a lot more power and leeway than they did McNabb. The Redskins would need to go out and get Manning some weapons, perhaps making a run at familiar targets like Reggie Wayne and/or Pierre Garcon in the process. The team's overall talent level isn't overly impressive, but a healthy Manning could change the vibe in a hurry. The weather isn't horrible, and the move would be incredibly sexy: Among other things, he'd have the chance to battle younger brother Eli and the defending Super Bowl champion Giants twice during the 2012 season. With the Shanahans' play-calling chutzpah and acumen and Manning's immense knowledge, this could be a legendary combination.
5. Miami Dolphins: The idea of Manning taking his talents to South Beach is a sound one – he has a residence in that trendy neighborhood. The Dolphins just hired a coach (Joe Philbin) known for his offensive acumen, and Brandon Marshall is a big-time receiving threat. The running game was surprisingly strong during the second part of the 2011 season, with Reggie Bush emerging as an every-down threat, and there's reason to believe the defense could be much improved. Weather obviously isn't an issue, and owner Stephen Ross – who talks a big game – seems hell-bent on doing whatever it takes to make this happen. So why do I have a sneaking suspicion that, when it comes down to it, Ross will find a way to screw it up?
6. Seattle Seahawks: If Manning is looking to recede from the spotlight, at least to the extent that he can, the NFL's most remote locale is an enticing prospect. I like Seattle's running game (especially with the team having signed Marshawn Lynch to a lucrative, four-year deal) and overall potential, but there are plenty of things that make me dubious about this arrangement. Manning might be able to coexist with coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell (who had mixed results amid the Brett Favre madness in Minneapolis), but he'd almost certainly regard offensive line coach Tom Cable as a clueless clown. Plus, he'd have to face that 49ers defense twice a year, which doesn't sound all that fun. Oh, and this just in: It rains up there. A lot.
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7. New York Jets: On paper, this looks pretty cool. Rex Ryan is a players' coach who'd surely give Manning the power to run the offense his way, and though the Jets' defense fell off a bit in 2011, it shouldn't be that hard to reinvigorate a unit that includes a transcendent cornerback (Darrelle Revis) and plenty of other big-time players. The running game could also stand an upgrade, but the offensive line is above average and with a healthy Manning behind center, Shonn Greene (and/or whichever back the team brings in over the offseason) could suddenly have a lot more running room. I could see tight end Dustin Keller becoming a bona fide star in a Manning-run offense, and Santonio Holmes undergoing an instant attitude adjustment and thriving the way he did in 2010. Would the Jets be willing to demote Mark Sanchez, their first-round pick in 2009? In this case, especially having watched the Giants win it all last month, I kind of feel like they would. That would give the Big Apple dueling Mannings and immeasurable glitz. So why aren't the Jets higher on my list? I don't think Manning would have a ton of respect for newly hired offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, a career offensive line coach until Bill Parcells hired him to be the head coach of the Dolphins. And something about Manning to the Jets gives me a distinct train wreck vibe.
8. Arizona Cardinals: In some ways, I like this move: Ken Whisenhunt is a smart, player friendly, offensive-minded head coach, and Larry Fitzgerald is the game's best receiver. Beanie Wells emerged last season as a legitimate running threat, and there are still a few standout players (especially tackle Darnell Dockett) on a defense that has fallen off precipitously since Super Bowl XLIII. There's no threat of inclement weather, and there's a retractable roof over the stadium just in case. However, the Cardinals also have lots of holes, are shaky on the offensive line and have to face the 49ers twice a year. For many reasons, I just can't see this happening. I keep trying to picture Whisenhunt making the case to notoriously cheap owner Bill Bidwill (along with Bidwill's son, Michael, and the Bidwills' faithful steward in bean-counting, general manager Rod Graves) that a year after trading a talented young cornerback (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie) and a second-round draft pick to acquire Kevin Kolb – and giving Kolb a five-year, $63-million contract with $21 million in guaranteed money – the franchise should pay a 36-year-old quarterback coming off several neck surgeries even more. Good luck with that.
9. Jacksonville Jaguars: This seems implausible, given that the Jags selected Blaine Gabbert with the 10th overall pick last April. But Gabbert looked mighty shaky as a rookie, and with Shad Khan having bought the team from Wayne Weaver, the new regime might be tempted to do something dramatic. I don't think this is likely – Gene Smith, the man behind Gabbert's selection, stayed on as general manager after the ownership change – but I don't believe it's impossible, either. Khan is a bold thinker looking to energize his fan base, and bringing Manning to town would do it in a big way. I'm not saying Manning would or should go to Jacksonville. While Maurice Jones-Drew is obviously a standout halfback, there's not a ton of talent on this roster. That said, the weather is good and the Jags play the Colts twice a year, and I have a feeling Khan is a very persuasive person.
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10. Kansas City Chiefs: New coach Romeo Crennel caused a stir at the combine by saying he "would be crazy not to consider" signing Manning were the quarterback to become available, which kind of sounded like tampering. In my opinion, Manning would be crazy to consider the Chiefs. Yeah, they have a big-time halfback in Jamaal Charles (coming off a torn ACL), a potential star in talented wideout Dwayne Bowe and some good players on defense, but there are plenty of reasons for Manning not to come to K.C. The first is the presence of newly hired offensive coordinator Brian Daboll – ask the Browns' Colt McCoy how he thinks Manning might enjoy playing for such a coach. Another is general manager Scott Pioli, whose control-freak tendencies likely wouldn't allow for a quarterback who desires near autonomy. (If nothing else Manning, were he to sign with the Chiefs, should keep his cell-phone number a secret.) I'm sure Manning is also thrilled that Pioli decided to waive veteran offensive lineman Brian Waters before the 2011 season. Waters jumped to the Patriots and made the Pro Bowl blocking for Tom Brady. Bottom line: I don't see Manning in a Chiefs uniform, at all.
11. Cleveland Browns: Two words: Brad Childress. If Manning is checking references for the newly hired offensive coordinator and former Vikings head coach, I'm sure Favre is only a phone call away. Remember when a Vikings player told my Y! Sports colleague Jason Cole that "Brett thinks Childress has no clue about offense", a contention corroborated by multiple sources? Throw in the fact that Childress is headstrong, prickly and vociferous, and you've got a marriage made in hell.
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12. Buffalo Bills: LOL.
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