It’s hard to imagine Peyton Manning wearing any other uniform than the blue-and-white of the Indianapolis Colts.
If by some twist of fate, stroke of luck (not the Andrew Luck kind), or divine intervention, the San Francisco 49ers beat out the Tennessee Titans and Denver Broncos in the teams vying to sign the 35-year-old signal caller, the 49ers immediately become Super Bowl contenders.
At least that’s what the hype will be. In truth, no matter who the quarterback is next season, the 49ers will be on the short list of teams favored to be in the Super Bowl. If they land the biggest free agent prize since Reggie White, the Niners will become the prohibitive favorite.
Truth is, getting Manning in his mid-thirties is not like getting him in his early twenties, but even a older Manning is worth a look and the 49ers would be stupid not to at least kick the tires on Manning to see how many miles he has left. Whether it’s for two or three years, Peyton Manning on the downside of his career is still light years ahead of Alex Smith, last year’s incumbent.
Smith, the former Number One draft pick, showed marked improvement under coach Jim Harbaugh and he can play in the NFL, but Smith isn’t in Manning’s league. Despite the jeers from opponents that Smith is little more than a “game manager” who is basically told not to make mistakes and cost the Niners, Smith showed he can win a game with his arm and legs as he did when the Niners beat the New Orleans Saints 36-32 in the best game of the season.
The NFL has been rocked by the scandal involving the Saints’ system of setting bounties to deliberately injure opposing players. The league is extremely image conscious and for the Saints, a former Super Bowl champion and the kind of feel-good story that’s hard to pull against to deliberately trying to take guys out is indefensible. That’s why the “Where will Peyton play?” storyline is such a welcome distraction.
If Manning chooses the 49ers he’s going to have some questions he wants answered. Who is he going to throw the ball to? The Niners have an All-Pro in tight end Vernon Davis who is probably drooling at the prospect of being on the receiving end of Manning’s passes and Michael Crabtree, whose potential to become a great wide receiver exceeds his production. Then there’s Randy Moss, once the best wide-out in the game, but trying to revitalize his career after a year off. Manning-to-Moss could be the best tandem the Bay area since Steve Young was throwing to Jerry Rice.
What the Niners don’t have is a right guard to protect Manning. Last year’s starter, Adam Snyder split in free agency and his backup, Chilo Rachal probably won’t be resigned either. The team could use another threat at wide receiver other than the aging Moss and the streaky Crabtree. There are still a few left in free agency and if Niners don’t grab one they will probably look for a stud in the April draft.
My expectation is Manning will stay in the AFC with the Titans or Broncos than join the Niners in the NFC where he would at some point butt heads with the New York Giants and brother Eli, the owner of two Super Bowl rings to Peyton’s one and the team that beat the Niners in the NFC Championship.
Still, it’s nice to have these expectations. If Manning goes elsewhere, Smith is probably the second-best option for the 49ers. He’s a nice QB, but he’s no Manning and every Niner fan knows it. Young agrees as he told Pro Football Talk, “I know Peyton Manning is looking for a team to join now and win a division now and go to the Super Bowl now,” Young said. “That team is the San Francisco 49ers.”
Which is true. All of the three teams can afford to pay Manning the multimillion dollar contract he can command. But which team gives him the best chance to get back to the Super Bowl? The Titans are in the same division as the Colts. If Manning doesn’t want to face off against his brother, does he really want to play his old team twice a year and the Titans are good, but not yet a contender. The Broncos made the playoffs with Tim Tebow, but they aren’t deep or skilled at a lot of key positions.
The Niners made their first priority to keep their defense together. Their biggest needs are on the offensive side of the ball, but Manning has to be intrigued at the possibility of playing with Davis, Crabtree, Frank Gore, and a motivated Randy Moss.
I’m not getting my hopes up. I’d love it if the Niners won the Manning lottery, but am I expecting they will? No.
Still, I’m going to be crossing my fingers anyway that this time next week the future Hall of Famer is sporting crimson and gold with a “SF” helmet and a big smile.
- Report: 49ers Emerge As Darkhorse To Land Peyton Manning (tracking.si.com)
- Decision 2012: Peyton Manning (twitchy.com)
- Kawakami: 49ers’ pitch for Peyton Manning is a shocker (mercurynews.com)