For Peyton Manning, creature of habit that he is, no doubt the easiest thing would have been becoming a Tennessee Titan. The familiar and the comfortable have always held particular sway with Manning, and in his world, if he couldn't be a Colt, what could have been more familiar than playing his football in a blue-and-white-schemed uniform, for a franchise based in his adopted home state of Tennessee, and with a team that resides in the comfortable environs of the AFC South?
But in this case, Manning's desire to win superseded his desire to stay in this comfort zone. Manning is on the verge of becoming the quarterback for the Denver Broncos today because if there's a model he hopes to follow in making the latter part of his career a spectacular second act of success, it would be the very path trod by current Broncos football czar and former two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback John Elway.
In Elway, Manning has living proof that in the right situation, with the right players and coaches around him, another late-career dose of Super Bowl glory is possible. Could there be a more storybook finish than the one Elway enjoyed, riding off into the sunset after a 16-year NFL career with back-to-back Super Bowl rings as his prize in 1997 and 1998?
The Elway example must have resonated with Manning, who was an NFL rookie struggling to a 3-13 record in Indianapolis as Elway was completing his final season in Denver in '98, going 17-2 and capping everything off with a 34-19 victory over Atlanta in Super Bowl XXXIII. Because after 13 mostly stellar seasons in Indy, plus one, long agonizing year spent rehabilitating on the sidelines, it's clear that Manning wants nothing more than another turn on the NFL's ultimate stage, and another chance to win the game that defines a quarterback's legacy.
Only three quarterbacks in NFL history have won Super Bowls at 36 or older, and one of them happens to be Elway, the man whom the soon-to-be-36-year-old Manning has now cast his late-career lot with. Could there be anyone who better understands where Manning is hoping to go with Denver, and what it takes for a quarterback to win big that late in the game than Elway?
When Manning looked at Denver's suitability, the arc of Elway's career must have been his comfort zone. Like Elway circa 1997-98, the Broncos of today are led by a respected, veteran coach (John Fox as Mike Shanahan), feature a strong enough running game to lift some of the burden off the quarterback's shoulders (Willis McGahee and Co. as Terrell Davis), and field a quality defense that can win games on its own if that's what's called for on a given game day.
No, the analogy isn't perfect, but in Elway, Manning must have seen enough of his own story to recognize that Denver featured the right combination of players, coaches and front office leadership to provide him with his best possible shot at another Super Bowl. There is no other reason for Manning to still be playing, or to endure what he endured in 2011, when three neck procedures in the span of four months rendered his injury the most impactful in NFL history and altered the course of two franchises.
The brand new pairing of Elway and Manning is a two-way beneficial street, of course, providing a kindred spirit for Elway to connect to who takes a page right out of his own experience. Elway and Manning are members of an exclusive club, having been superstar, franchise quarterbacks who were both No. 1 overall picks in the draft, 15 years apart (1983 and 1998). Both were even selected by the Colts, but now, like Elway did before him, Manning is making the jump from the Colts to the Broncos, albeit at different stages of their careers.
What a turn of events this represents for Elway, who never grew completely comfortable with Tim Tebow as his quarterback last season, no matter how high the rollercoaster ride climbed or how sweet the unexpected success of a division title and a playoff victory seemed. After the frustration of having the most unorthodox starting quarterback in recent memory in Tebow, who did little of his work in the pocket, Elway has now landed perhaps the game's most pre-eminent pocket passer.
Stylistically, they are as different as two quarterbacks can ever be, and Manning, if he is healthy and himself again, is the passer Elway has longed for even while trying to appreciate what Tebow has done for the franchise, the city, and a team that he uniquely made his own.
But if the Broncos win with Manning, Denver will swoon once again over its starting quarterback, the way it did with Tebow and Elway before him. If No. 18 is right, you have to like the Broncos' chances to return to the playoffs, and this time maybe not as a novelty act. Manning always does his homework, but it didn't take much study to realize that any division the 8-8 Broncos were able to rule last season is a division ripe for the taking.
The AFC West is the path of least resistance to the NFL's postseason, being claimed by the .500 Broncos last season, the upstart and over-achieving Kansas City Chiefs at 10-6 in 2010, and before that a San Diego Chargers team that was always its own worst enemy, starting slowly and rallying down the back stretch, only to expire quickly in the playoffs.
Manning realizes the opportunity the division presents, allowing him to stay in the AFC that he knows so well and yet giving him a clear-cut path to compete for the playoffs every year, just as he did in Indianapolis, where his Colts made the postseason 11 times in the past 12 seasons.
That's what it's all about for Manning at this stage in his career, playing for a team that can chase the ring, and be knocking on the door every January. In Denver, he believes he has found both the fit and the blueprint that works. Manning trusts Elway to recreate the formula that once worked wonders for another 36-year-old Broncos quarterback of a different era.
Time will tell if that old Elway magic can be reproduced with Manning in Denver. New team or not, Peyton remains a creature of habit, but clearly the habit he cares about most of all is winning. He has made his call, and the Broncos and Elway are both his first choice and the choice that he thinks can help him finish first again.