JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- The rumblings started soon after Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay announced Peyton Manning's release in a tearful press conference on March 7, 2012. Several NFL teams were ready to compete for Manning's services, and Seattle was one of them. The Seahawks had finished their second year under head coach Pete Carroll with Tarvaris Jackson as their primary quarterback, and it was their second 7-9 season. It was clear that while Jackson had done his best, Seattle would need more at the position if it wanted to compete at a Super Bowl level. Thus, as Manning met with representatives of the Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers, Washington Redskins, Tennessee Titans and Arizona Cardinals to decide his future, Carroll came up with a plan to try to crowbar the process.
From Peter King's April 2, 2012, article on that process:
One more surprise: Manning got a call informing him that Seahawks coach Pete Carroll had flown, unannounced, with Seattle G.M. John Schneider to the airport in Englewood. Carroll would do whatever Manning wanted -- talk for a while in Denver or on the plane to Arizona, his next visit, or fly him to Seattle for a lengthier discussion.
Peyton Manning does not like surprises. He said no thanks. Carroll flew home.
“Yeah, we tried to hook up with him and we couldn’t make it come together," Carroll said after the fact. "We tried to fit in to their schedule that looked like it had some space in it, but there wasn’t enough. So we made an effort. It’s kind of just classic for us – just competing to try to find a way and we just couldn’t pull it off at that time. We had to take a shot at that. It didn’t work out for us there. We had already spoken before that and we just couldn’t quite get together on it.”
In a scene right out of a bad airport adventure movie, Carroll had tried to apply his "Always Compete" philosophy to his quarterback situation. It didn't work; Manning felt most comfortable with the Broncos, especially because the Broncos had a top-level executive in John Elway who could tell Manning precisely how it was to come back from a rough time in his mid-30s to rebound and return to the biggest games possible.
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That has now happened for Manning. He'll be playing in Super Bowl XLVIII against those very same Seahawks in part because of what Carroll and Schneider did next. There was a nearly unprecedented haul of potentially great quarterback talent in the 2012 draft, so Seattle's brain trust went back to that idea. Schneider expressed admiration for Ryan Tannehill's quarterbacking acumen, but the Texas A&M star went to the Dolphins with the eighth overall pick, and Seattle was picking 15th after trading down from 12th with the Philadelphia Eagles. With Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Tannehill already off the board, Carroll and Schneider again refocused, surprising just about everyone by selecting West Virginia defensive end Bruce Irvin with the 15th pick. And then Utah State linebacker Bobby Wagner with the 47th overall pick in the second round.
And then, with the 75th overall pick in the third round, Carroll trusted Schneider when the GM said he had a feeling about Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson. The Seahawks also signed former Green Bay Packers backup Matt Flynn to a three-year contract, but it was patently obvious from Wilson's first rookie minicamp practice that he had the determination, intelligence and physical tools to take the job. He did just that, and Carroll announced to Wilson that he would be the team's starter before Wilson's first regular-season game against the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 9. The Seahawks lost that game when Wilson couldn't connect with his receivers in a late goal-line stand, but there haven't been many losses since then. The Seahawks went 11-5 in 2012, falling to the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round, and followed that up with a 13-3 mark and their upcoming Super Bowl appearance.
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Wilson has thrown 52 touchdown passes in his first two regular seasons -- 26 in each season -- which is certainly impressive. However, there has to be a part of Carroll that wonders what it would have been like had Manning come to the Emerald City and thrown anywhere near the 55 touchdowns he managed for the Broncos in 2013 alone.
"No, I haven't thought too much about that since we moved on," Carroll said from Seahawks headquarters on Friday. "It's kind of interesting that we're playing against him at this point. We wound up with Russell, and they wound up with Peyton. So, it's pretty cool."
One thing's for sure -- in retrospect, Seattle would have taken Wilson anyway, which opens up one of many alternate histories.
"Knowing what I know now, we would have taken him a little higher," Carroll said with a laugh.
And in the end, Manning's journey to Denver worked out for both teams. The Broncos got the finishing touch on a team that was almost there, and the Seahawks continued their process of roster construction that has allowed them to field the second-youngest Super Bowl team of all time.
"Often," Schneider recently said when he was asked if he still thinks what his team would have looked like with Manning at the helm. "I just think that we would have continued to do things the way we do it all the time. I know that we wouldn’t have been able to afford several players, but we would have competed in other areas to compensate for it in where we were deficient in our roster. It’s a daily process.”
By the way, it wasn't out of the question that Wilson could be wearing Broncos colors right now -- he was very much on head coach John Fox's radar, well before the 2012 draft, when Fox was the head coach of the Carolina Panthers.
“Well, Russell and I go back even further than that," Fox said Sunday during his introductory Super Bowl press conference. "I spent time in that part of the country when he was a quarterback at North Carolina State with Tom O’Brien and his staff. So I actually got to meet him even when he was still in college at NC State, even before he transferred to Wisconsin. He’s a tremendous young man. What he’s accomplished in a very short time in our league doesn’t surprise me at all -- just his makeup, his leadership ability and just the kind of competitor he is.”
As for Manning and Wilson, the primary characters in this story have known each other since Wilson attended the Manning Passing Academy as a high school sophomore. He was one of about a dozen youngsters in Manning's group, just trying to get in that orbit. Later, the two met again -- right around the time everything fell in place for both of their current teams.
And this happened in Denver ... when Wilson was Fox's guest in Dove Valley.
“I met Russell Wilson, believe it or not, when I was visiting the Broncos," Manning remembered Sunday. "Let me think about this … I believe it was after I signed with the Broncos, so let’s call it March or April . They were having players come in for visits before the draft. I was actually in the film room watching some tape, and someone brought Russell in. He was in town for a visit. I had a chance to shake his hand. It was an exciting time in his life, getting ready for the draft. So, I wished him luck and told him I enjoyed watching his college career. I had a chance to shake his hand after the two preseason games we played the last two years.”
There will be one more chance for the two quarterbacks to shake hands after this Sunday's Super Bowl and perhaps to wonder what might have been ... in all sorts of permutations.
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