Before Brady left New England, Peyton Manning's NFL free agency was one of the most talked about in decades. Sports Illustrated is opening up the SI Vault and examining its most consequential work about moments like this one that defined the most legendary athletes in sports through its new podcast, The Record.
Manning's choice was shrouded in secrecy and marked by process that included head coaches wearing disguises, decoy SUVs and tracking a private jet. On this week's episode of The Record, Peter King tells SI 's Jessica Smetana about some of the best stories from Peyton Manning’s free agency in 2012, and how Manning to the Broncos came to be.
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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Jessica Smetana: So, it seems crazy to think about now because Manning went on to win an MVP in a Super Bowl for the Broncos. But in 2012, when you were reporting this, that wasn't a certainty. And in fact, I think there are probably a lot of teams that we're not sure if he was worth the risk. Can you set the scene for Manning's mindset and why Elway was so sure about the signing and how that all came together?
Peter King: Well, I don't think Elway was sure about it at all. In fact, I don't think anybody was really sure, but it was such a weird, weird chase because Peyton had it in his mind the teams that he was really interested in and some of the teams that wanted to get involved. And this is what is so strange about the whole thing: that you think back to 2012. The Seattle Seahawks in 2012. A month after Peyton Manning signed, the Seattle Seahawks drafted Russell Wilson in the third round. And I might be wrong a game or two on this, but they've played about 135 games since the day that they drafted Russell Wilson. He has started every one of those games and clearly, he's a Pro Bowl, top 10 NFL quarterback. If they had signed Peyton Manning, they would not have gone after Russell Wilson. So that's one little X factor here.
But what was so interesting about this is that Peyton Manning had a bunch of friends along the way, like one of his really good friends was a guy named Brandon Stokley, a wide receiver who played with Peyton in Indianapolis for a while and then he played in Denver. And so Brandon Stokley was living in Denver at the time. And basically Manning stayed with Stokley when he visited the Broncos on this trip. And when he visited the Broncos on this trip, the Seattle Seahawks and Pete Carroll flew to the airport right near the Broncos facility, even though Manning said he really didn't want them to do that. And Manning didn't go meet Pete Carroll. Pete Carroll flew to Denver chasing Peyton Manning and Manning never met with him. He got back on the plane and just flew back to Seattle. It was really kind of a crazy time.
Look, I think one of the things that has maybe been misrepresented about this over time is that Manning went to the Broncos because of Elway. I think Elway really helped and was probably very important in it, but he didn't go only because of that. You know, he liked the team they had. He knew that they could be a contending team. And there was a lot about the team and the situation he liked. And in fact, I think when he first went there, a good friend of his who was working in TV at the time, John Lynch, told him that, one of your best assets here is going to be John Elway. So, I think Elway helped. He was not everything, but he certainly was helpful.
JS: Manning also went to Denver during the lockout the previous spring to work out after his surgery because he couldn't practice at the Colts facility and he also wanted this kind of heir of secrecy about how strong he actually was at the time. Was that just a coincidence or did that have any role in him choosing Denver the next season?
PK: I don't think it had a big role in him choosing Denver, but I do think that Elway helped. And remember, Manning was really pretty friendly with John Lynch, and Lynch was very, very bullish on Denver. And he was bullish on just the simple fact that—this is going to sound strange. But he wanted to go to a place—and this sounds funny saying it—but he wanted to go to a place where football mattered and where they were gonna take it really seriously and they were gonna do everything possible to win a Super Bowl while he was there. And at the time, this is really because Pat Bowlen, the owner of the Broncos, was basically in the early stages of being afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. But he was there at the press conference announcing Manning and Bowlen was a big reason why Manning wanted to go because Manning knew he just looked at Denver's history and they were never bad. They were they were always a contending team. And I think that was really important to him, that they would spend the money and do what they had to do to try to be a contender.
JS: Going back to Pete Carroll, being left in his in his plane on the tarmac in Denver. Were there any hard feelings between Manning and Carroll after that, that he didn't even really give him the courtesy of face-to-face, I’m not interested. He kind of let him fly back to Seattle. They did eventually end up playing against each other not long after that in the Super Bowl. So what was the relationship like after that?
PK: I think Pete Carroll is one of those, Don't worry, be happy guys. He's not the kind of guy to hold a grudge. But I've never asked him. That's a great question. I've never asked him, but I don't think he'd be the kind of guy. Because remember, Manning never said, Hey, come to Denver and I'll meet with you. Pete Carroll got on the plane himself and said, I'm going to be there. Just come. Nobody will know. I'm at an airstrip. As a matter of fact, it's an airport that if you are at the Denver Broncos practice facility, this airport is four Peyton Manning spirals away from that. I mean, U.S. planes take on and off all the time. And so Peyton Manning, when he visited with the Broncos, would have been a half mile from this airport. So Carroll was trying to make it as convenient as he could, but Manning—quite honestly, I never asked him this—but stuff like that bothers him. Like he didn't ask you to come. If he wanted you to come, he would have. But he's almost put off by the fact that you spent all this time and energy and fuel and whatever to come down here when I told you, it's not going to happen. I'm not doing it.