So now, with Peyton Manning in Denver, the Titans and the 49ers have to put the pieces of their broken dreams back together and go on without him.
For San Francisco, the job might be a little tougher. Niner brass seemed confident over the weekend that if Manning went to either Tennessee or Denver, the team would be able to sign free agent incumbent quarterback Alex Smith to a contract approximating the three-year, $24 million deal that was on the table before the 49ers entered the Manning derby last week. But then Smith took a trip to Miami, spent five-and-a-half hours talking with Dolphins coaches and brass, and seemed morose that the team he'd helped to a stunning 2011 NFC West title was trying to replace him. Monday afternoon, a source close to the Niners still thought the team could get Smith back in the fold. It's thought by others, however, that Alex Smith could be very interested in Miami after their weekendmeeting. Don't be shocked if Smith is serious about the Dolphins, if the Dolphins are serious about him.
That same source who thinks the 49ers believe they can bring Smith back intimated that he thought the Super Bowl-or-bust atmosphere that would have hounded Manning in San Francisco -- the Niners were clearly the best team of the three in contention for him -- was a negative for Manning, who can't be sure if he'll return to the form that made him one of the best quarterbacks of all-time. Manning turns 36 next week, and he's had four neck procedures in the last two years.
In Tennessee, where Manning broke the news to owner Bud Adams and coach Mike Munchak in morning phone calls, there was a sense of surprise that Manning picked Denver. The Broncos went 8-8 last season and won a playoff game, but the defense allowed 40 points or more five times in a game, and they pulled a few rabbits out of their hats with some fantastic finishes by Tim Tebow. But the Titans also knew that if Manning returned to the state where he was an iconic college football player at the University of Tennessee -- and to the state where his wife is from (Memphis) and where he golfs and relaxes frequently (Chattanooga) -- he'd probably be hounded more than he wanted.
Just as the flirtation may cost San Francisco, Tennessee was also affected by it. The Titans wanted to sign Pro Bowl free agent center Scott Wells last week, and they wanted to get Mario Williams to visit Nashville; he was their top defensive target. But they couldn't spend on Wells -- who signed a four-year, $24 million deal in St Louis -- and they knew they wouldn't have been able to talk money with Williams in the opening days of free agency because they could never have been able to sign both Williams and Manning. It turns out Williams never left Buffalo and signed with the Bills, but the Titans very much wanted a shot at him, a shot that couldn't come with Manning hanging over the franchise like the Sword of Damocles.
In Denver, Manning gets to control the offense (something that coach John Fox is willing to allow, in conjunction with offensive coordinator Mike McCoy), and he gets to do it in an atmosphere the team and Manning can probably control well.
But Denver has to be considered an upset, if you consider where the process started. Other AFC teams that wanted Manning -- such as Kansas City, also in the AFC West -- never got a chance to sell their programs to him. Perhaps it's no coincidence that in the places where Manning got serious, he was dealing with star former players in determining where he'd go. In Tennessee, Hall of Famers Munchak and line coach Bruce Matthews were key contacts on his visit to Nashville. When the Niners came to North Carolina last week to work him out, former quarterback Jim Harbaugh -- who Manning succeeded as Indy's quarterback in 1998 -- ran the throwing session. And in Denver, obviously, fellow legendary quarterback John Elway headed the delegation assigned to reel him in.
It worked. Denver's jubilant today, and San Francisco and Tennessee are picking up the pieces.