Mailbag: Covering Peyton Manning's Free Agency From Indianapolis to Denver

It's Peyton Manning Week at SI, so Albert Breer looks back at his experience covering his free agency in 2012. Plus, questions about Jarrett Stidham, Cam Newton, training camp his career path and more.
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I’ll never forget that meeting. It was during Super Bowl week, in early February of 2012, and I’d been called in to a room in the Indianapolis Convention Center to discuss the offseason. At that point, since I’d gotten a job at NFL Network in Oct. 2010, I’d gone pretty much straight through—2010 season, 2011 lockout, 2011 season—and I was looking forward to things slowing down a little.

Then, they told me. They wanted me to be the point person on the Peyton Manning story. I was set to go home to Boston the following Monday, and they wanted me back in Indy two days later, with plans to have me effectively staking out until the Colts cut him.

At first, worn out as I was, I thought crap. I had plans that would have to be canceled. My girlfriend had just graduated from nursing school at Georgetown and moved back to Boston. And so there were implications to all this.

Then, I got excited. Any reporter should want to be on the big story, and there weren’t going to be many more transformational stories, from an NFL standpoint, than this one.

So for a month, the JW Marriott in downtown Indy was home, and I spent 10 days in Denver after that. I became invested, and got overly competitive, about all things Manning. I did everything I could to fight for whatever I could get with reporters who’d covered No. 18 since my senior year of high school, which was Manning’s draft year. And hearing my old colleague Peter King—one of those reporters—talk about February and March of 2012 on this week’s episode of SI’s The Record podcast brought a lot of those memories rushing back.

In this week’s mailbag, we’ll get your questions on Jarrett Stidham, Cam Newton, what training camps will look like, running back value and more. But since it’s Peyton Manning Week here at SI, I figured we’d start with some of my memories from the wild pursuit of the iconic quarterback in 2012.

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The first thing I remember about all of it is what things were like then—and how we covered these sorts of stories. At NFL Network, our approach had been to have boots on the ground on big stories from start to finish, and for a very specific reason. In 2010, Donovan McNabb was traded from Philly to Washington on Easter afternoon, and a lot of people, NFLN included, were left scrambling to cover it.

There was resolve never to let that happen again. When I covered the Metrodome collapse in late 2010, I was in Minneapolis for 11 days. Ditto for the story of Brett Favre’s starts streak being snapped. The lockout basically put me on the road for five months. The Manning story, most certainly, was always going to be covered that way. To the point where, during my stay in Indy, I actually went to a Colts decision-maker and got a promise that Manning wouldn’t be cut over this one weekend, so I could go home for a couple days.

Over that time, I did a story on Manning’s overall impact on the community, on other players who’d been in that spot from a health perspective (Chris Weinke) and other teams who’d had to say goodbye to an icon (the 1993 49ers). I did daily TV hits for our news show, Total Access. And of course, I did a million stories on his health.

That December, he threw for the team officials (Bill Polian, Jim Caldwell and Clyde Christensen among them) inside the club’s fieldhouse. He was limited to throws inside the 25-yard line. I was told he was at around 85% at the time, and it was the next day that the team shut him down for the 2011 season. The process, for Manning himself, of getting there was filled with fits, starts and the four neck surgeries, and Indy kept the idea of him playing that year alive for longer than most people remember.

After that, there were rumors of him throwing at Duke with his college coach, David Cutcliffe. You’d hear from one place he was dealing, and another that he was struggling to make throws a high school quarterback could, all the while knowing that the Colts releasing Manning was an inevitability, in large part because the best quarterback prospect since Manning himself, Andrew Luck, was draft-eligible and the Colts had the first pick and a new coach (Chuck Pagano) and GM (Ryan Grigson).

The insanity only spun further out of control as the Colts pushed closer to a $28 million roster bonus coming due on March 8. Indy took that one right to the deadline, announcing they were releasing Manning on March 7. Manning’s press conference happened, I flew home and, a few hours after unpacking, I got two questions from one of our producers in L.A.—Where do we need to be, and where do you want to go?

I gave him four places: Denver, Miami, Nashville and Phoenix. Washington had interest, but took themselves out of the running by trading for the second pick in the draft, with Heisman winner Robert Griffin III as the expected target. And the Jets were another team that had gotten the hint that Manning wasn’t going there. (In the case of those two, word was that Manning didn’t want to be in the same division or city as his brother.)

I chose Denver because, by then, it seemed most likely he’d land there, which would’ve been an upset a few months earlier when Tebowmania was raging. They had John Elway, they had a flexible offensive coordinator, in Mike McCoy, a veteran-friendly coach, in John Fox, and it’d become increasingly clear talking to those in the know that Denver was looking for an exit strategy from the wildly-popular-but-clearly limited Tebow.

Everyone knows the result now—but there was no straight line from Point A to Point B on this one, even if Denver was seen very much as a favorite when the Colts cut him.

First, there was Manning retreating from Indy to a place he had in South Florida, and his commute there from the executive airport (Jim Irsay lent Manning his plane), which was covered like the O.J. chase. Then there was another plane—Pat Bowlen’s—picking Manning up and bringing him to Stillwater, Okla., where he’d meet the Broncos brass, there for Oklahoma State pro day, before flying back to Denver with them.

After that? The Titans pulled an okey-doke on the press in working Manning out in his college town, Knoxville, first planning the workout at UT’s indoor, then moving it to a local high school. Then, there was a secret workout the 49ers had with Manning in Durham, N.C., in Duke’s indoor, where San Francisco (trying to keep its interest quiet) assessed Manning, in part, by watching him play catch with Jim Harbaugh.

And there was action on the periphery, too. There was Washington’s de facto concession announcement with the Griffin trade. There were the Dolphins, sensing they were out of it, bringing un-signed 49ers QB Alex Smith in for a visit. There were the Titans (Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker) and Broncos (Tebow) holding tight with their own quarterbacks as they waited for an answer. There were the Cardinals, with a $7 million roster bonus due to Kevin Kolb that March 16, one they wound up paying to take themselves out of the chase.

Each team had something going for it. The Dolphins had weather and cap space. The Titans were close to Manning’s college home, and had decision-makers (including coach Mike Munchak and Mike Reinfeldt) who were Oiler teammates of Manning’s dad. The Cardinals had proven, under Ken Whisenhunt, they could effectively breathe life into an older QB’s career with Kurt Warner a couple years earlier, and brought Larry Fitzgerald to the table. The 49ers had Harbaugh, and had a loaded roster coming off an NFC title game appearance.

But Denver had everything. Elway. Fox. McCoy. Receivers, in Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. Cap space. And a defined plan to win in a city that appealed to Manning.

So on March 20, almost two months after that initial meeting I’d had with my producers in Indy, and after almost seven weeks of Marriott points, Manning signed with the Broncos. I still have the tweet from ESPN's Chris Mortensen, who broke that one, burned in my brain.

And just as we were wrapping up, one of my favorite parts of covering the whole thing came about. Through those seven weeks, I’d talked to just about everyone imaginable, but I never got to Manning himself. After the presser in Denver, Broncos PR boss Patrick Smyth took me into a small room with Manning. He then immediately said, “You’ve been stalking me for a while, huh?” before proceeding to run through details of stuff even I’d forgotten I’d reported.

Which probably says something about who he is, and why after four neck surgeries, and in his late 30s, he still had an MVP, two Super Bowl appearances, and a championship in front of him. And as for me? I wound up proposing to my girlfriend six weeks later, because I figured if she could put up with me through that, I should probably try and keep her around.

On to your mail …

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From Tom Peterson (@peter334tom): What about teams from red states getting a competitive edge by starting earlier than blue states?

Tom, it’s an interesting question, but one I don’t think we’ll have to worry about answering for a while. There are less than six weeks left in offseason programs—they run through June 26—and I don’t think you’ll see much of players in team facilities, if they go in at all, between now then. Based on re-opening timelines in states like Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington, the idea of having players back en masse before training camp seems to be a pipe dream at this point for a sizable chunk of the league.

Could the league bend a little bit to allow guys back in to their facilities in states that are open while other teams can’t do the same? I think if it happens before camp—when these issues will have to be confronted more directly—I believe it’ll only be done to test protocols and see how everything works before having to do it for real in July. And I have heard the NFL could allow players back in June for a week, and my guess that having that sort litmus test would be the motivation for it.

At the same time, to maintain equity between teams, I’d bet there’d be seriously limitations on what teams would be able to do with players during that time.

And then, come summer, the rubber will meet the road. At that point, teams might have to take camps off campus to sidestep rules in their home states, which certainly would make for a bit of an uneven playing field league-wide. The fact is, for now, the NFL has the luxury to be patient—a luxury many teams are hoping the league takes advantage of. Eventually, they won’t have that luxury anymore.

From Matthew Kovach (@MKovach12): What are the chances that all this buzz around Jarrett Stidham is a redux of the Ryan Mallett hype promoted by Belichick & Mike Mayock a few summers ago?

Matthew, this is a wholly different situation than that one. That was about pumping a guy’s trade value up—Mallett was going into the final year of his rookie deal and was at one point seen as a first-round type, before falling to the third round of the 2011 draft. The Patriots had Jimmy Garoppolo on the roster and were clearly trying to get value for a guy who wasn’t going to be on their team. They’d tried something similar with Brian Hoyer a few years earlier. In the end, they dealt Mallett to Houston for a 7 three weeks later.

In this case, really the reason to pump Stidham would be different. In this case, it would be selling the idea to your locker room that the sky didn’t start falling when Tom Brady signed with the Bucs. And it’s worked before. Belichick actually cancelled a slew of quarterback workouts the week after Brady got hurt in 2008 to project confidence in Matt Cassel. In 2016, he stuck with Garoppolo and rookie Jacoby Brissett in the face of a Brady suspension. In both cases, New England wound up rallying.

As for the truth on Stidham, that remains to be seen. The Patriots were very happy with Stidham’s progress last summer, and spoke very highly of him privately. That leveled off a little during the season, but that’s to be expected since, really, all his on-field work from September on was with the scout team. What we know is that there is talent there. And based on how they’ve handled the offseason, we know the Patriots wanted to get a good look at what they can do with that talent.

From DefenseWinsSuperbowlLIVRings (@ChiefCardinalkc): If you could go back, what would have been the classes you would have taken to streamline your career journey a little better.

It’s May, so I’m happy to answer off-beat questions like this one, Defense. And I can honestly tell you that I don’t know that I’d change anything. Going to Ohio State, half my major was working at the school paper, where I got to cover the football team, which prepared me for covering the NFL. And I could say that doing a big newspaper internship or two might’ve accelerated my progression through the business, but then I wouldn’t have gotten the experience I did in local journalism.

That last part did three things for me. One, it taught me work ethic and that I’d have to give up stuff (working past midnight five days a week) to make it. Two, it taught me how to be responsible for pretty much everything as a reporter, because that’s how it is when you’re covering high school sports. And three, it taught me to value the steps I did take forward—when I got on the Patriots beat in 2005, my editor Craig Larson told me he’d take me off it if my local work slipped at all, which meant I’d have to work a lot of 16-hour days.

Now, the interesting thing is taking the path I took would mean making some decisions that probably were, in the moment, the wrong ones. But I genuinely believe that I’d have been worse off if I’d walked out of college and into a major beat at a big paper—I think my ability to pass some people who did was my willingness to outwork them, which I 100% learned because of how I came up in the business.

And that’s why it drives me crazy when I hear people talk about work/life balance in their 20s. Those, to me, are the years when most successful people don’t worry about work/life balance, which is a term, quite honestly, I’d never heard until I got past that stage of my life.

From Conor Orr Fish (@ConorOrr): Albert, who is the best Ohio State player in the NFL ever? I have only heard of Vernon Gholston and Art Schlichter.

When I copy-and-paste questions into plain text, emojis convert into descriptions of the emoji. Normally, I delete them. But just for Conor, I let this one stand. And I’ll answer his question.

If you want to go on current players, I’m not sure which of three Defensive Rookies of the Year over the last four years I’d pick. Or maybe it’d be the two-time rushing champion? Or the reigning Offensive Player of the Year/new receptions record-holder? I’m not sure. My take could change, too, with the second or third pick in this year’s draft coming into the league (I won’t count the first pick, even though he was at Ohio State for three years).

But if this is an all-time thing, then I guess you have to go with one of the 10 guys who made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Orlando Pace? Cris Carter? Sid Gillman? Lou Groza? Maybe you even go with Ed Sabol? It’s really a hard question to answer, so credit to Conor for asking it.

From End Zone Geekz UK (@endzonegeekzuk): What’s your plans for training camp this year if you are allowed to travel/enter teams’ facilities?

End Zone, my plan is to do my job, and whatever’s allowable. If we’re all let out to practice in the summer, and into the locker room in the fall, then I’ll be at practice in the summer and in locker rooms in the fall. If we’re not, then I won’t be. But I do think there’ll be some interesting dynamics at work here, with how U.S. sports are typically covered.

To put it plainly, covering pro sports in America means being in a lot of cluster-bleeps—be it overcrowded press conference rooms, scrums around a player or coach, or the tight quarters of a visiting locker room postgame. Those, to me, are where you may see the adjustments. And in this area, like a lot of other areas, the NFL will have the luxury of watching what does and doesn’t work in other sports over the next few months.

From Thaddeus Brown (@HotSeatThad): Do you think we will ever see a market again where a majority of RBs are viewed highly of? (Not just top 5) The league has obviously turned in to a passing game. What will happen to player such as Derrick Henry, Leonard Fournette, etc.?

Thaddeus, I think what we’re seeing, and have seen, is the blurring of lines from one position to the next—and the most valued backs going forward will need to have value in the passing game, which really is how this has trended since guys like Roger Craig, Thurman Thomas and Marshall Faulk were blazing the trail. That’s why I’d say a guy like Christian McCaffrey has greater value in today’s game than his draft classmate Fournette.

The overarching way to look at it is pretty simple. Offensive coaches at all levels now want to be able to break the huddle with defenses having to guess where their skill players will line up. That was part Rob of Gronkowski’s value in New England—he could line up almost anywhere in the formation. It’s why certain teams value receivers who can play inside and out. And it’s why McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook are so value.

It’s also how Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott have become the new prototype, 230-pound backs with three-down versatility—guys who can, in essence, toggle between old school and new school on a dime.

But does that mean the market itself will change for veteran backs? It does not. The super elite, like Elliott and McCaffrey, will get rewarded because they naturally will carve out center-of-the-offense roles where their teams almost have to pay them. With the rest, questions regarding longevity at the position will continue to motivate caution for teams in paying players at the position.

From Stephen Ogrodnik (@Chileanstud11): Is in game attendance still declining? Any ideas on how to boost? Do you think the NFL would ever look at realigning the teams in the divisions with an emphasis on geography?

Stephen, I don’t have all the attendance numbers offhand, but there’s no question that the NFL’s had problems getting fans in the stands for years now—and that, in a certain way, the competition for that audience is coming from within. Over the last 20 years, with the growth of Sunday Ticket, fantasy football and HDTV, and a ton of technological improvements, the at-home product has simply been improving at a much faster rate than the in-stadium product.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was first to come up with an answer to this, in how he basically turned AT&T Stadium into an over-the-top Taj Mahal. We’ve seen others follow suit since, and it’ll be very apparent in the look of SoFi Stadium, when it opens up later this year in L.A. The bottom line is that teams know they’ve got to do more than they ever have before to get butts in the seats, because they’ve given fans more and more reasons to stay home.

So that’s one way it’s been attacked. Another way has been with the NFL’s involvement in the secondary ticket market, which is a tacit acknowledgment that fewer fans are interested in going to all their games (the old season-ticket-holder model), and that they need to attract the fan who wants to go to maybe a game or two a year.

As for the other part of your question: In the end, I don’t think much of this has do with the alignment of the divisions, so I’d be surprised if those change.

From Matthew Lownes (@LownesMatthew): In regards to Cam Newton, had he been released prior to free agency would he be a starter right now?

Matthew, I don’t think so. I think the biggest problem for guys like Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco has been that all were in this sort-of in-between going into the offseason—clearly having the resumes to be starters, or at least be competing for starting jobs, without there being any available (after Tom Brady signed in Tampa and Philip Rivers signed in Indy).

This is actually where guys like Case Keenum and Chase Daniel had an edge in March. They knew what they were going in, and that allowed them to move quickly because they weren’t waiting for starting jobs to materialize. As a result, Keenum got a nice deal in Cleveland and Daniel got a nice deal in Detroit, with both guys pulling down more than Dalton did in Dallas or Winston did in New Orleans.

So if Newton was available on March 1, would Tampa or Indy have gone and gotten him over Brady or Rivers? The answer to that is no. And given that those were the only two starting quarterback jobs that went to veteran free agents, I don’t know how being free earlier would’ve made much of a difference at all for Cam.

From Don Ridenour (@DonRidenour): Josh Allen has a cannon, what are the bills and he doing to improve his accuracy?

Don! Last year, Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll had Allen study Tom Brady tape, and the team signed slot receiver Cole Beasley and drafted tight end Dawson Knox with a specific aim—Buffalo wanted to do more to create easy completions for Allen, and convince him to take them when they were there. And adding that to some mechanical adjustments, Allen has seen incremental improvement.

I think it’s fair to expect more steps in those areas, with the addition of Stefon Diggs, a guy who can affect things at every level of the field, not only unlocking Allen’s strengths as a downfield thrower, but also opening things up for the aforementioned guys underneath. I think the way Sean McDermott’s staff has managed Allen has, overall, been pretty well-conceived. Now, it’s up to Allen to capitalize on it.

From BradyForcesJetsFansToCry (@Pats_1988): Question for your next mailbag. How does this work for a team like the Pats, who have officially no DC and promote most of the time internally?

And we’ll finish up here with our buddy from Austria—he’s referencing the proposal that was tabled on Tuesday, to incentivize minority hires. Had it passed, the Patriots would’ve benefitted in a couple different ways. They’d have gotten a third-round comp pick for Brian Flores getting the Miami job in 2019. And if, say, Bill Belichick had left in 2019, and Flores got the job, they’d have gotten a six-pick jump in their slotted third-round pick in 2020.

Obviously, all this is moot now. I’d be surprised if the idea was brought back to life without some major adjustments, if it is at all. Most coaches and scouts I talked to thought the idea was somewhere between illogical and crazy.

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