INTO THE GREAT UNKNOWN

Reinvigorated Super Bowl--ready quarterback, or injury case in inexorable decline? Peyton Manning in 2012 will be the most intriguing NFL story in years
March 19, 2012

Weekends in March are normally quiet at NFL facilities. Players are on vacation, coaches and scouts are often on the road evaluating draft prospects. But on Sunday at the Cardinals' training complex in Phoenix, satellite trucks jammed the parking lot and passionate fans waited behind barricades for a glimpse of players coming and going. The last time All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald had seen such activity around the facility was in January 2009, "when we were making our Super Bowl run. It's crazy."

Not really. Because inside the three-story building was a player who could go a long way toward giving Arizona, or another team, a shot at a championship: free agent quarterback Peyton Manning. Released by the Colts on March 7 after 14 seasons, 11 Pro Bowls, four league MVPs, two Super Bowl appearances and one NFL championship, Manning was concluding the second stop on his recruiting tour; he had spent parts of Friday and Saturday meeting with the Broncos' staff in Denver before boarding a private jet for Phoenix.

Manning emerged on Sunday with an overnight bag on one shoulder and an 8½-by-11-inch notebook in hand. What he'd inscribed inside it would go far in determining the next stage of his storied career, because that's where he jotted down answers to the numerous questions he'd posed to coaches and team officials about their personnel, their offensive systems, their organizational structure—you name it.

"He was Peyton," Fitzgerald said on Sunday afternoon. "He was real thorough. I spent eight or nine hours with him over two days, and I got a sense that he was comfortable with [coach Ken Whisenhunt]. But none of us knows anything. He didn't give me any indication which way he was leaning or what he was thinking."

REGARDLESS OF where he suits up, there remains a belief that, if healthy, Manning will shift the balance of power, turning the Broncos, for instance, into immediate favorites to win the AFC West, or improving the Cardinals to the extent that they could supplant the defending NFC West champion 49ers. While those were the only teams he visited over the weekend, talk remained of possible meetings with the Titans and the Dolphins as well as continued interest from other clubs.

But there are skeptics concerning Manning's potential impact in 2012 and beyond. He turns 36 on March 24 and missed all of last season with a neck injury that has required four surgeries in the last two years. "I'm scared to death to get in the hunt on him," said one general manager who was not pursuing Manning though his team could use an upgrade at quarterback. "Everybody reaches a point where they start to go down, not up. He's at that point. He's got to be at that point."

When it comes to iconic quarterbacks who change addresses late in their careers, history is no guide. For every Joe Montana, who led the Chiefs to the AFC Championship Game in his first season in Kansas City, there is a Donovan McNabb, who lasted only one year with the Redskins and six games with the Vikings. For every Brett Favre, who came within an overtime loss of taking the Vikings to the Super Bowl, there is a Johnny Unitas, who was benched four games after being traded from the Colts to the Chargers and retired at the end of that 1973 season.

As to the perception that Manning's abilities were on the decline even before his neck injury, one longtime personnel man who reviewed his 2010 performance believes he has plenty of quality throws left. The scout, who at the request of SI studied selected Colts game tapes from that season, focused on the stretch run—Week 10 versus Cincinnati, Week 13 versus Dallas, Week 16 at Oakland and Week 17 versus Tennessee. In those four games Manning threw just seven touchdown passes and had six interceptions, two of which were returned for scores, but the stats tell an incomplete story. Manning, the scout contends, was forcing passes because of an anemic running game (Indy ranked 29th in the league) and a receiving corps that because of injury was almost entirely different from the one he'd started the season with. "Based off that year, certainly the guy is still an elite passer," said the evaluator, who noted that Manning was hurt by numerous drops. "He had everything you look for in an elite quarterback, and arm strength wasn't an issue.

"But this is still a situation in which you have to be a little careful. Normally when a guy misses a year, you'd think it's a positive because he's had no wear and tear on the arm. However, his surgery was unique in that it affects his neck and the nerves in his arm. It has cost him some arm strength, and you don't know how long it will take to return. A knee, a shoulder—you can gauge those. But we're talking about his nerves. Does he compromise his normal throwing mechanics? Is he still that guy with that nice over-the-top motion, or is he trying to push it now? Is he trying to sidearm it or use his body more with the throw?"

Sources say Manning did not throw for either the Broncos or the Cardinals, although in Denver he did toss balls informally to wideout Brandon Stokley, his former Colts teammate. "Anyone who's interested in spending a serious amount of cash on him is going to have to see him throw a lot of different throws," said the scout. "Short stuff, long outs, seams and go routes. And even if he can throw them initially, how long is it going to take for his arm to fatigue? There will be a lot of projecting there."

There's also the issue of emotional scars. Manning (who did not speak to the media over the weekend) was reported to be hurt by his release and to have believed up to the last few days that he could be returning to Indianapolis. Suggestions were there. Owner Jim Irsay told The Indianapolis Star after the Super Bowl, "We would love to have him back here if he can get healthy, and we can look at doing a contract that reflects the uncertainty of the ... healing process." But when Irsay and Manning met last week, sources say the decision was out of Manning's hands. The Colts were moving on. In fact, Andrew Luck's personal quarterbacks coach, George Whitfield, had already been in contact with Indianapolis offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to discuss what the team wanted the Stanford product, and presumed No. 1 pick, to work on.

A dozen teams contacted Manning's representatives after he was released. A general manager for one of them said the quarterback phoned and thanked each of the clubs for their interest, but the G.M. believed Manning already had whittled his list to a handful of teams. Even that didn't stop officials around the league from envisioning the alltime great wearing their colors. The owner of one 2011 playoff team told SI that while his club was not pursuing Manning, it would seriously consider signing him (pending a positive medical report) if he phoned and said he wanted to play for them.

Wherever Manning goes over the next weeks and months, satellite trucks, giddy fans and great expectations are sure to follow. As for a Lombardi Trophy, that's much further from a sure thing.

BUY BEWARE

PASSER RATING, LAST SEVEN ACTIVE SEASONS

2004 121.1

2005 104.1

2006 101.0

2007 98.0

2008 95.0

2009 99.9

2010 91.9

3

QBS WHO HAVE WON A SUPER BOWL AT 36 OR OLDER (JOHNNY UNITAS, JIM PLUNKETT, JOHN ELWAY)

36

AGE AS OF MARCH 24

4

NECK SURGERIES IN THE LAST 19 MONTHS

97.7

PASSER RATING AT HOME WITH INDY

88.5

PASSER RATING OUTDOORS

.678

REGULAR-SEASON WINNING PERCENTAGE

.474

POSTSEASON WINNING PERCENTAGE

3.10%

PERCENT OF DROP-BACKS ENDING IN SACKS (2ND LOWEST ALLTIME)

263.6

PASSING YARDS PER GAME (2ND ALLTIME)

9

CONSECUTIVE SEASONS LEADING THE COLTS TO 10 OR MORE WINS

54,828

CAREER PASSING YARDS (3RD ALLTIME)

399

CAREER TOUCHDOWN PASSES (3RD ALLTIME)

5

ALL-PRO SELECTIONS

PHOTOPhotograph by BOB ROSATOCHECKS AND BALANCES The conflicting stats surrounding Manning reflect the uncertainty regarding what to expect when he returns to the field. PHOTOROSS D. FRANKLIN/APPASSING THROUGH Manning met with Whisenhunt (right) in Arizona as part of his weekend recruiting tour.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)