A Car Chase, Cheeseburgers and Everything In Between: The Titans' Quest To Sign Peyton Manning
He dropped Peyton Manning's first pass of the morning.
More than eight years later, that memory sticks with former Tennessee Titans wide receiver Marc Mariani when he thinks back to one of the more surreal days in franchise history.
Only hours earlier, Mariani had been rubbing the sleep out of his eyes in Orlando, Fla., readying for a crack-of-dawn offseason flight that whisked him to Nashville, where he was shepherded into a waiting car and driven three hours to Knoxville.
The Titans were hunting their great white whale, Manning, who was in the midst of a highly publicized 2012 free-agent tour that had already included contact with Denver, Arizona, Miami, San Francisco and Seattle. In order to do their due diligence on Manning's health – he'd missed the previous season following neck surgery – the Titans needed to secretly work out one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the game.
Which is why the call went out to Mariani, who along with a host of Titans coaches and executives – including former general manager Ruston Webster, former head coach Mike Munchak, and former strength and conditioning coach Steve Watterson – somehow found themselves on a muddy practice field at an off-the-beaten-path Knoxville high school.
Mariani pulled on his practice gear in a storage facility under the grandstand and emerged into the mist of that St. Patrick's Day. He stretched reluctant muscles for a few minutes, then stepped onto a grass field soaked by the previous night's rain.
His first route for Manning? A slant. The wet football struck Mariani's hands and dropped in the slop.
That's when everything hit home for Mariani – the lack of sleep, the highway cat-and-mouse game he'd endured from Nashville to Knoxville, his empty stomach, the strange and silent surroundings and, of course, playing a professional game of catch with a man who was already on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“It was the first one out of the gate, when everyone was like, `Alright, here we go!'” Mariani recalled with a laugh. “Then that ball gets dropped and I was like, `Noooo!' I didn't drop another one, but it wasn't a great way to start. And I'm just kind of thinking to myself, `What the hell am I even doing out here?'”
Like nothing I'd ever seen before
The Titans' great Peyton pursuit had kicked off publicly about a week earlier, when former owner Bud Adams declared his intent to sign the former University of Tennessee star no matter what. “I want Manning,” Adams told The Tennessean. “I'd love to see him in Titan blue after watching him so many years with the Colts. ... I want him. I am ready to do what it takes to get him aboard.”
So, three days later, the Titans' brass piled into Adams' private plane and flew to North Carolina to pick up Manning and return him to a Volunteer State that was wild with anticipation in hopes the former Heisman Trophy runner-up would return for good.
A member of the Tampa Bay organization before his tenure with the Titans, Webster had seen some enthusiastic crowds, for the arrival of Jon Gruden as that team's head coach and for the Buccaneers' Super Bowl victory in 2003. But the mood in Nashville when Manning touched down and traveled to the Titans' facility was something else.
“I don't know what it would have been like with the Beatles – I was too young for all of that,” Webster said. “But Peyton Manning coming back to Tennessee was an event. There were people at every intersection and hanging on the fence, helicopters following us. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before.”
Manning spent more than six hours that afternoon and evening with the Titans, learning all he could about the organization in meetings with then-vice president Mike Reinfeldt, along with Webster, Munchak, former offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and former quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains.
Famous for his preparation, Manning already knew the Titans' personnel inside and out. What he wanted to do was watch hours of video on the team and pepper coaches with questions about routes, protections and schemes.
“Normally you wouldn't expect to watch that much tape, but we watched a ton of it,” said Munchak, now the Broncos' offensive line coach. “He wanted to talk about stuff he'd done and what he'd like to do, how he'd fit in. He was really trying to take it all in – what we were doing, things that might have been different than what he'd done.
“It went really well. It was natural. We seemed to get along. There seemed like a good chemistry for the group. Everything was real positive.”
The next step in Manning's recruitment was a highly entertaining one, a saga that sounds at times like something out of a John Grisham novel.
Manning had left Nashville after the Wednesday meeting at the team's facility. But he knew he had to show the Titans how much progress he'd made from the neck surgery, and team officials knew they needed an eyeballs-on viewing before they could commit massive amounts of money to Manning. So, the sides agreed to meet again for a private workout on Saturday, the specific site still to be determined.
Munchak placed an immediate call to Watterson, his right-hand man and scheduler, telling Watterson he needed to return from a family vacation in Arizona to help organize the Manning workout. Watterson did not hesitate and in turn called Mariani, telling the veteran of two years that he, too, needed to fly Nashville to spend the day as Manning's personal pass receiver. Mariani had some familiarity with Manning. Both played in the Pro Bowl following the 2010 season.
One issue: Mariani had just arrived in Cocoa Beach, Fla., where he was visiting his grandparents. He wasn't thrilled about an offseason call-to-duty, especially since the Titans kept secret the exact reason they needed him. The team was doing all it could to limit publicity of the workout, knowing a Manning appearance – especially one in the eastern portion of the state – would turn into a circus of fans and media.
“I thought to myself, `This is really weird,'” Mariani said. “There was so much they weren't telling me, and finally I just had to say, `If you guys don't tell me what's going on, I really don't want to just drop everything and go.' So, they told me about the situation then, and about how private it's going to be because there was so much media interest and speculation at the time.”
A couple hours later, Watterson called Mariani back, letting him know he was booked on a 5:30 a.m. flight from Florida to Nashville the following morning.
The middle of nowhere
Titans representatives headed east early Saturday. Watterson went to the airport to pick up Mariani. Another team car carried the likes of Webster, Munchak, Palmer and Loggains. Originally, the workout had been scheduled near Chattanooga, where Manning had a home, but it appeared a hungry media was already snooping around that neck of the woods. A decision was made to change the site to Knoxville, the exact location to be communicated when all parties drew nearer.
How cloak-and-dagger was the expedition? After Watterson picked up Mariani at the airport, they believed they were being followed by media on I-40, as one car kept appearing in their rear-view mirror no matter how quickly – or how slowly – Watterson drove. Eventually, the two took evasive action.
“I remember saying, `Alright, this is B.S., we're going to put an end to this,'” Watterson said. “So, I pull off on an exit ramp, and then I go back in the other direction. I'm kind of joking about it, like we're really being sneaky. But I ended up driving around the back of a Wal-mart, where all the cardboard is, and then coming back out.
“When we came back and hit the ramp back to the highway … if there had been a cop anywhere around, I definitely would have been busted. I'm not even going to tell you how fast we were going. But we didn't see anyone behind us after that.”
Only moments later, Manning called the Titans to reveal where everyone would meet. It wouldn't be anywhere near the University of Tennessee campus, as media had already staked out positions near every field they could find. Instead, Manning chose a high school – later reported as Webb School – which was about half an hour away from the college.
“It was kind of in the middle of nowhere,” Munchak said. “I know I couldn't find it again if I was asked to.”
Added Watterson: “It was off in the boonies. We were driving down backroads, the next thing you know we're going through this high grass, and then we pull back in front of this school. It was a very nice school, but the practice facility was very obscure. There was no reason for you to be there unless you knew something was going on there.”
Manning's muddy moment
Webster recalls a memorable image just before the workout, as Manning – wearing old grey sweatpants -- was sitting in a puddle stretching as he prepared to throw.
Mariani, fresh from changing clothes in the storage room, had his eye on a more practical matter: Since the group had further secured its privacy by gathering at a practice field – instead of the school's actual football field – there were no numbers, boundary lines or hash marks that would help him run Manning's patterns.
“Everything in a receiver's brain is about spacing and steps and yards,” Mariani said. “Here we were running on a blank piece of grass. But the goal wasn't really precision. It was just to see him throw the ball.”
Munchak worried that the soggy conditions – the persistent mist had followed Friday night rains – might cause Manning to postpone the workout. No quarterback likes to throw water-logged footballs. Instead, Manning, just a week before his 36th birthday, attacked the drills as if he hoped to earn the final spot on his high-school roster.
“Here's a guy who had won a Super Bowl and was already so accomplished, but he was working out like he had to prove something all over again,” Munchak said. “His determination, his focus. We kept asking him, `Do you want to cut back here or there?' But he wanted none of that.
“You watch the way he worked out and how important it was to him, even though it was bad conditions and muddy, like a typical high-school stadium. He just wanted to compete. That's how he was.”
Manning threw about 40 or 50 passes on a schedule he'd devised and hit Mariani on the money nearly every time.
“We were there to see if he could still spin it,” Mariani said. “He definitely didn't disappoint in that category.”
Manning walked to the sideline amidst praise from the Titans contingent, pleased with his progress despite the fact Manning was still months away from regaining full strength. Perfectionist that he is, however, Manning also sought the evaluation of Watterson, who'd previously undergone the same neck surgery as Manning.
“I remember saying `The footwork looks just as good as always,'” Watterson said. “But I said, `As you (continued throwing), your elbow started to drop.' He was like, `Dammit, I know it, I can feel it.' He asked if that (lessens) in time and I said, `Absolutely. It's nothing that can't be trained out of you. It's going to take time, but it will come back completely,' and he was very intrigued by that.”
An old, boarded-up restaurant
The hour-long workout over, Mariani and Watterson jumped in their car, ready to head back to Nashville. But Manning called an audible. He invited all the Titans representatives for cheeseburgers. In keeping with the themes of the day – privacy and secrecy – the hole-in-the-wall lunch joint was about as off the trail as possible.
“It was on the outskirts of Knoxville, an old, boarded-up restaurant,” Mariani said. “We come shuffling in the door and then here comes Peyton shuffling in the door, and it was so awkward for a minute.”
It soon became clear, however, that Manning knew the spot well, as the owners had cleared the place out for him prior to the visit. The workers who were there knew not to harass Manning and his guests with pictures or autograph requests either. All involved could relax and enjoy themselves.
“Once everybody gets inside, it's just totally normal, everyone having a good time, laughing, whatever,” Mariani said. “He was hugging the owners. It was pretty awesome, a pretty intimate conversation, just a good time. And the cheeseburgers were absolutely phenomenal.”
Some of the mealtime chatter was related to Xs and Os, some to dollars and cents, and some to medical matters. Manning was interested in a 30-page report Watterson had put together on neck-surgery recovery, so intrigued in fact that he asked Watterson if he could keep it.
“Absolutely,” Watterson replied with a mischievous smile, “as long as you sign with us.”
When plates were cleared, handshakes exchanged and the Titans headed back to I-40 West, they did so as a confident bunch, pleased they'd made a strong impression in the Manning sweepstakes. The five-time All-Pro let them know he planned to make his decision on Monday, two days later.
“I thought it was a great day for us,” Munchak said. “We felt good about it. There wasn't much more we could have done to sway him, I don't think. I remember thinking at the time we were in a great place. It was down to us and Denver, and we felt like we had a great opportunity.”
We had a shot
The good vibes continued Sunday morning, as Munchak and Manning exchanged a number of text messages. But as day progressed into night and the communication lessened, Munchak began to realize it was unlikely Manning would sign with the Titans.
“You're hoping to get that text on Sunday like, `Hey man, I'm coming there,'” Munchak said. “But you start thinking, `Ah, maybe we missed.' And you don't want to oversell anymore. I think we did everything we could have done.”
Sure enough, Manning signed the following morning with the Broncos, who'd always been considered the favorites, in part because of the presence of former great John Elway, Denver's general manager and team president.
“We had a shot, but we just didn't get him,” Webster said. “He probably went to the best place for him, which was Denver. They had a good defense and they had some things going for them.”
Manning's decision sent the two franchises in decidedly different directions. The Broncos went 45-12 under Manning over the next four seasons, advanced to two Super Bowls and won one. The Titans, meanwhile, missed out on their top defensive free-agent targets after putting all other business on hold to chase Manning. After finishing 9-7 in Munchak's first year, the Titans went the next four seasons without a winning record, averaging just 4.5 victories along the way.
Still, nearly a decade later, the Titans believe they did all they could to land Manning and that they gave the Broncos a run for their money.
They always will be able to look back at a memorable few days in Tennessee, one in which Manning and the Titans did what many might have thought impossible – cloaking one of the state's favorite sons in shadow on an afternoon he put on a show in his adopted hometown.
“It really was an insane experience, mostly because of the privacy factor and the secrecy, like something I've never been a part of,” Mariani said. “I remember turning on SportsCenter on Sunday, and you realize that nobody else has an idea what's going on.
“Everybody is like, `Where's Peyton? Where's he been? Who's he been talking to?' And I'm saying to myself, `Well, I was with him all day yesterday. He's not so hard to find.'”