By Damon Hack
March 08, 2012

The last time Peyton Manning went through a recruiting process, he was a high school quarterback in New Orleans.

College teams bombarded the Manning home with so much mail that he created a special filing system in a drawer. "From Alabama to X, Y, Z," was how a former high school coach described it.

Before deciding on the University of Tennessee in January 1994, Manning made a dossier on each of his suitors. He knew all of the critical details -- the team's offensive philosophy, how long the coach had been in place, the incoming freshmen and outgoing seniors, the other quarterbacks on the roster.

After a remarkable 14-year career in Indianapolis, Manning is the nation's top recruit once more, a future Hall of Fame quarterback on the cusp of a second life in the NFL.

Whether he chooses a new team rapidly or slowly -- and indications are that it could be a quick process -- his meticulous nature will have guided him through the vetting process. Manning will not have just kicked the tires. He will have removed them from the rims and inspected the tread.

A quick decision would indicate that Manning has been ruminating about his future home long before the Colts released him Wednesday. According to FOX Sports, his camp has already made inquiries with the Arizona Cardinals.

Manning hit the waiver wire as one of the most unique free agents in NFL history, a four-time most valuable player, a Super Bowl champion and one of the most respected players to ever don a uniform.

Is there any player in the NFL who has a larger network of active players, former players, coaches and former coaches at his disposal than Manning does?

How varied is the Arizona Cardinals playbook? Manning can draw insight from pal Larry Fitzgerald. What is it like playing in South Florida, where Manning already has a condominium? He has Dan Marino on speed dial. There is not a question about any team that Manning cannot get answered.

The on-the-field factors on where to sign aren't too difficult to discern. The coach, the offensive philosophy, the receiving corps and the talent level all matter. The off-the-field factors, though, could be harder to gauge.

After playing in a small media market for 14 years, would Manning even consider the unending glare of New York City? Does that even matter to him? And what about the city's climate? Is warm weather a lure for a quarterback coming off multiple neck surgeries? And where does family lifestyle fit in for a father of young twins? High or low, it is on the list somewhere.

Manning always had one of the loudest voices in the Colts organization, a position he clearly earned. He felt comfortable speaking out on offensive philosophy and, at times, even weighed in on personnel. Will Manning opt for a veteran coach set in his ways or a younger, malleable coach who might listen to a legend?

Before the Colts released Edgerrin James in 2006, Manning lobbied the Colts brass hard to re-sign him. Manning was insistent.

Recalled Tony Dungy earlier this season: "He really wanted to keep him -- they were friends and it was, 'We can't let him go, we can't,' Dungy said. "Then you explain it to him. 'If we sign Edge we may lose Bob Sanders or Reggie Wayne or Dwight Freeney. We'll draft a back and get a Maurice Jones-Drew or a Joseph Addai.' As painful as that was for him, that's how the game is."

Six years later, it is Manning who will turn a heavy page from a storybook career.

As in most free-agent derbies, many elements will guide Manning. His choice will reveal much about the man at this stage of his career.

Manning has forgotten more about football than most of us will ever know about football. A relentless worker and the biggest football brain in any room, his questions to prospective teams will be on topics that many on the outside wouldn't even think of.

The days of envelopes with team logos landing in Manning's mailbox are over, but Manning is still calling the shots, asking every question via text and telephone and who knows what else. He will arrive to his decision with complete comfort and total certainty.

Until then, we wait. That's what makes the Manning free agency so intriguing -- the unknown.

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