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Four Downs: Peyton Manning’s Next Job; Eli Manning’s Future; Steelers’ Growing Optimism; More

Peyton Manning would make a good NFL GM. Eli Manning's future could be in Jacksonville. More NFL notes...

1. Peyton’s next step? Soon, we’ll have my annual Future GMs list in this space, and there’s one name you won’t see in there that could well be occupying a lead chair in someone’s organization come January: Peyton Manning. The Colts/Broncos legend has long eyed a football czar role, going back to when he was playing, and you can bet there will be clubs working to lure him from retirement in Colorado. So the obvious next question is whether he carries the credentials needed outside of just being the player he was for 18 NFL seasons. And most of the people who’ve been around him will answer that question for you quickly. One Broncos staffer told me, “There’d honestly be no one better.”

Manning has prepared for it, and had a front-row seat for four years in Denver to watch John Elway, with whom he has a similar background (although Elway did run an Arena League team). Those who were around Manning as a player watched him keep close tabs on every facet of the NFL. The draft. Free agency. The coaching industry. The scouting community. All of it. And the rest, he can learn as a guy who brings experience as a player that very few of the planet ever could.

“He’ll be extremely successful in anything he chooses to do because of the person is, how smart he is and how hard he works,” said one personnel man who worked with him in Indy. “He’ll be extremely well prepared, have done research on the job and an understanding of what the job entails. And he wouldn’t go into the job with unanswered questions or just to try it. He goes into everything with the deepest commitment, desire and work ethic. He’s always seen and understood the biggest picture, and he’ll set a vision and high standard for an organization. Winning will be paramount, and he’ll grind and work, he won’t be a figurehead or a guy that hangs out with the owner. He loves the nuts and bolts of football, and knows and loves the game, players and coaches. He’ll be able to put the whole landscape together from a uniquely informed perspective, knows what it takes and will attract top people. He won’t suffer other agendas and obviously has the résumé to set that line. The challenge won’t be football. It’ll be if there are spots in the organization that don’t meet his standard or share his commitment.”

So why is a GM job right for him? Well, as I’ve heard it, coaching wouldn’t quite satisfy the businessman in him, and TV wouldn’t give him the competition he wants. Being a football czar, as we’ve said before, would give him both. And so it’ll be interesting to see where this goes now, with calls coming in—and his old buddy Jimmy Haslam potentially asking first to come and save the sad-sack Browns.

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2. Eli’s next step. As for Peyton’s brother … Is this it for Eli Manning in New York? Maybe. You could even say probably, but until we know who the GM and coach will be in January, it’s impossible to have any sort of certainty about it. As I understand it, Manning does put value in playing his whole career for one team and knows the kind of post-career benefits that come along with that. So I don’t know whether or not he’s thinking about retirement now—remember, Tony Romo wasn’t either at this point last year—but also don’t believe that he’ll go to any old outpost just to extend his career past his 37th birthday (on Jan. 3). 

Should Manning decide to keep playing, and given his affordable contract, the Giants should have a trade market. He’s due $16 million in cash in 2018 ($10.5M base; $5.5M roster bonus; $500K workout bonus) and $17 million in cash in 2019 ($11.5M base; $5.5M roster bonus; $500K workout bonus). That $16.5 million average would make him, even with Kirk Cousins, Drew Brees and Jimmy Garoppolo still unsigned, the league’s 16th highest paid quarterback in 2018. Very reasonable. The next question, then, would be what he has left. “I think he has a lot left,” said one defensive coach who’s faced him the last few years. “No offensive line (in New York), zero run game and he lost his four top receivers in the same game. So it’s hard to truly assess him.”

Another defensive coach agrees: “He looks uncomfortable right now. He’s probably a better alternative than some others. With a solid line and decent run game, he’s above average. Reads defenses well pre-snap. Can throw it when he’s got a clean pocket. But accuracy and decision-making get worse when the pocket gets messy. He doesn’t step into throws when the pressure’s in his face, but he never really did that. The offensive line’s an issue and has been the past few seasons. … In the right situation, I think he’d be effective, especially with a team looking to groom a young guy.”

I still believe the ideal one for him is Jacksonville, and not because of Tom Coughlin’s presence, but because the run game and defense would allow him to play the kind of efficient game that’d highlight those strengths. But again, the truth is that until the Giants make larger organizational decisions, it’s hard to tell what’s next.

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3. Steelers rounding into form. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin broke script on Football Night in America last week, looking forward to the team’s Dec. 17 showdown with the Patriots and saying that it might only be “Part 1” for the two AFC titans. And before you start crying about bulletin board material, I’d tell you that my belief is he has reason to be confident. Two weeks ago, we wrote about the defense carrying the offense through some uncharacteristic rough spots. On Sunday, the offense finally returned the favor, scoring in the 30s for the second straight week—after not getting there once over the season’s first nine weeks.

The Steelers hit December with a rising young defense, and a loaded offense that might well be rounding into form. What happened? As it was explained to me, the team just stuck to the script. “For us, it’s just executing, doing things the right way,” said one Steeler source. “Very simple—catching the ball vs. not catching the ball a lot of the time. Nothing earth shattering. We were on the verge of breaking out the whole time. … We just stayed the course, knew we were winning games and we weren’t too far off (offensively), and we were working new or rusty guys back into the mix. And there’s something to be said for that.” They were patient with Martavis Bryant, through all the trade-demand drama, and he’s had nine catches the past three weeks, which is a modest breakthrough. It was well-timed, too, with rookie Juju Smith-Schuster working through a hamstring injury, and missing the Packer game as a result. Ben Roethlisberger’s been markedly better the last two weeks too, and Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are first and fourth, respectively, in the NFL in scrimmage yards. And the offensive line’s been better, too.

We can argue over whether Tomlin’s words were out of line. But it’s easy to see why he’s feeling breezy about his group.

4. Chargers still rolling.Give Anthony Lynn credit. There have been plenty of points where the Chargers’ calendar year could’ve gone sideways. And the interesting part of it, which I brought up with the coach, is how the move to Los Angeles seems to have galvanized the group, which is what he hoped would happen back in the spring. Remember, the Chargers spent the spring as lame ducks in San Diego, moved during their summer break, and spent training camp without a home facility in Orange County. 

Lynn and I talked then about all the upheaval, and he emphasized it’d likely affect his group in one of two ways. It could wear everyone out, and eventually take the team to its knees. Or it could harden the group. Then, the Chargers started 0-4. And just as it seemed the former scenario was playing out, the latter came to be true. “We’re still in the process, and looking back when the season’s over, we can ask, ‘Did that really galvanize us? Did that make us stronger? More resilient?’” Lynn said when I asked him about it. “We have to finish the season before I can completely answer that. But I was hoping that it would. And I feel like these guys are really resilient. The 0-4 start, it was pretty rocky, and these guys, they didn’t tank it. These guys showed up, they kept believing in the process and they stayed committed. And the last several weeks, you can see the results a little bit. We’re still 5-6, we’ve got a lot of work to do. I like the direction we’re going, though.”

The guys in the upper reaches of the organization do, too, “There might be a natural tendency to panic (0-4) but he certainly did not,” a Charger source noted. “He stayed the course. He was confident. You could tell the whole team still believed. No one was about to quit.” Lynn says the team just needed to learn to close games out, and that happened in nail-biting wins over the Giants and Raiders in Weeks 5 and 6.

With a win over the Browns on Sunday, and a Chiefs loss to the Jets, the Chargers will have pulled into first place, with a great chance to become the first 0-4 team to make the playoffs in a quarter-century. And who’d have thought that the move itself would be one big reason why it’s all worked out this way.