Rocky Mountain High
Today I woke up smiling for the first time in two weeks because yesterday marked the conclusion of a process that in some aspects felt like it lasted longer than this past NFL season. A gamut of emotions swirled during that time as the uncertainty of where Peyton would land grew more frustrating by the minute. I knew the time he took was necessary. He is meticulous with his decisions because he doesn’t want to make the wrong one. He doesn’t want to have regrets. I get that, but it was still frustrating. Of course I never once thought NO ONE would want him. That’s just silly, but patience is not my virtue and just gives my wandering mind more time to come up with horrible scenarios about his future. Sure the questions came from various friends, acquaintances, and co-workers about where I wanted him to end up, and again I did my best to answer them without giving a concrete answer on what I was hoping for. I had selfish reasons for not publicizing my opinions. I knew that if I publicized my choice and it didn’t happen that it would be that much harder to accept, and I didn’t want to add to the emotion unnecessarily. So here it is…staring at the future in Mile High Stadium, and the only way I could be happier is if Peyton was still a Colt. Understand that it’s going to be a very long time, if ever, before I can talk completely and fully about what happened on March 8th because every time I start to talk about it, I get emotional, again. I seem to not have as much trouble talking about the future though because at least that seems promising. But how did we get here, and what has been running through my head in the last two weeks?
When Peyton said this free agency process was all new to him, well it was new to me, too. I’ve never been through the free agency process with a player I followed this closely…let’s be honest…I’ve never followed a player this closely, period. When speculation first started months ago, I originally warmed to Arizona mainly because I thought the match up with Larry Fitzgerald would be a perfect fit. Plus their franchise seemed the most palatable. Flash forward to the beginning of Peyton’s free agency tour. A rumored listed of possible teams was released. It included, in no particular order: the Jets, the Chiefs, the Seahawks, the Redskins, the Dolphins, the Cardinals, the Broncos, the 49ers, and the Titans. Everything from blank checks being tossed on the table to ownership offers were released from various “sources,” and this is where I started to get scared and worried that he’d end up somewhere that I would absolutely hate. Of course, I knew I had no control over this. It was nobody’s decision but his, but I desperately wanted to still be his fan to the end. I knew in the end he would make the right decision and I would support it no matter what, but that didn’t keep me from hoping for my choice to be his choice. So, let’s go through that list.
- The Jets ~ At one time in my life, I was a Jets fan but only because a guy from my hometown was their kicker. With the addition of Rex Ryan as their head coach, any appreciation I had for that franchise went severely in a negative direction. So this team fell into the “God Help Me…Not On Your Life” category. I also knew that Peyton wouldn’t want to be in the same city as Eli. NY is Eli’s town and he deserves to have that.
- The Chiefs ~ This one was palatable. I’ve never had a problem with them. In fact, I pretty much respect the heck out of their franchise. The number of Alabama players they’ve had play for them over the last several years didn’t hurt either. However, I didn’t think the pieces were in place for them to make a run to the Super Bowl with Peyton. So this team fell into the “I Can Make This Work If I Have To” category. The Chiefs were one of the rumored “blank check” offers, but from what I hear were quickly told that Peyton wasn’t interested.
- The Seahawks ~ I used to respect this franchise a great deal when Shaun Alexander played for them. In recent years, not so much. Throw in that I’m not a fan of Pete Carroll and that their team is not in a position to either protect Peyton in the pocket nor are they prepared to win a Super Bowl, and it lands them in the “Not A Good Fit…I Hope You See It Too” category. Rumors of a $30M signing bonus surfaced and the Seahawks even flew to Denver when Peyton was there for his visit with the Broncos, but Peyton refused to meet with him. Peyton doesn’t like to be bombarded. He doesn’t like a circus…well…a circus more than the one that already follows him. He doesn’t like to be pushed or told what to do, either. So as I sat back and watched I could see certain teams drowning in their own grand gestures.
- The Redskins ~ I could spend the rest of this blog explaining why this was not a good idea both in franchise and in football terms, but rather than do that let’s just say they fell into a hybrid category of the “God Help Me…Not On Your Life” category that I like to call “Hell No…Over My Dead Body.” I also knew he wasn’t interested in playing in the same division as Eli where he’d have to play him twice a year. That is Eli’s division and Peyton wasn’t going to mess with that. So, the Redskins moved on and traded the world to the Rams to move up to the #2 overall pick presumably to take RGIII.
- The Dolphins ~ This was the second team I warmed to after Arizona. Though I grew up in a Tampa Bay Bucs household, the Dolphins weren’t an awful franchise. What concerned me was the pieces they had in place to support Peyton. I mean this was a team that was fighting for ownership of the #1 draft pick with the Colts for a good part of last season. And while I believe the Colts are much better than their record and that the Dolphins probably are, too, I still in my mind need him to go to a team that can protect his almost 36-year-old body. In the end, I let them fall into the “I Can Make This Work If I Have To” category. Turns out the Dolphins didn’t make the cut for the top 3.
- The Cardinals ~ I already stated the reasons I liked this possibility, but after further review, their ability to protect Peyton came into question. I need an O-line that understands the value of the commodity standing behind them. It can’t be a team that thinks, “oh hey we’ve got Peyton. He’ll make everything better and I just have to sit back and watch it happen.” No…you have to work and work hard. So, in the end they fell into the “Not A Good Fit…I Hope You See It Too” category. Turns out that the visit was the polar opposite of what Peyton wanted to see when he visited teams, so I was starting to think maybe we were on the same wavelength.
- The Titans ~ This one scared me more than any other team on this list. As a Colts fan, there are certain things that come with the territory: understanding that the people of Baltimore will always despise you, Johnny Unitas is to be revered, and the Patriots and the Titans are always to be hated no matter what. They easily fell into the “Hell No…Over My Dead Body” category. I’m not gonna lie. The evil part of me relished the idea of Peyton getting to play the Colts (for revenge) twice a year, but that’s not what this process was about. It was about finding the place where Peyton could continue and extend his career. Bud Adams, the owner of the Titans, laid out a pretty hefty offer and in his favor was the state of Tennessee where Peyton played college ball and where his wife Ashley is from. That’s why it scared me. That hometown feel was a big pull and it was a ready-made fan base of people who adore him. But even Bud Adams couldn’t stop himself from creating a circus. The Tennessee Legislature passed a resolution in support of Peyton’s signing. Bud Adams offered to give him part ownership of the team to be carried out after his retirement, which actually needs unanimous consent from all 32 teams in the NFL. It seems to me that the circus of it all and Bud Adams basically dictating the next 10 years or more of his life is what killed the option in the end. Peyton’s trying to make a decision for the next 3-5 years of his life…not for the rest of his life.
- The 49ers ~ This was the team that everyone said should be interested but kept saying they wanted no part of it. Then about 4 or 5 days ago we find out that he did actually work out for them and that they were interested. From a football standpoint, this team had all the pieces in place. They just needed the elite quarterback. I was thoroughly enthralled with them. On the surface, it was all tied up in a nice bow, so even I had to wonder if it was too good to be true. I also felt a little pain for Alex Smith. I’ve always believed his injuries and the revolving door of offensive coordinators he’s been through during his NFL career ruined how good he could’ve been. I’ve always thought he was a much better QB than his circumstances, and I felt like he deserved a fairer shake than being pushed out by Peyton Manning. They still landed in my top 2. I could see myself pulling for the 49ers and fully believing in them. I thought that their ability to keep quiet their interest and Peyton’s workout with them actually worked in their favor because Peyton sees things like that as a strength.
- The Broncos ~ And then there was 1. Many years ago I considered being a Broncos fan, and then I got my heart broken for reasons that had nothing to do with the team but nonetheless separated me from that possibility. So, I didn’t immediately warm to this idea. I was far from a John Elway fan ever in my life, but even I could appreciate the audacity he had to wait all that time and then win two Super Bowls to close out his career. How dare he save the best for last. 🙂 This was the first visit Peyton took because of his friendship with John Elway. And even still I couldn’t tell if he was just comfortable with his friend or if he was truly comfortable there. He was certainly happier than he’d been in the days prior to his visit. So, I began to look at what they could offer. I liked the O-line. The defense was good enough to keep the team competitive in a lot of their games last season, and of course I know the kicker can hit from 50+ yards. I knew the fan base was strong and supportive of their team. I knew Denver was a great city, and I knew that Pat Bowlen was a great owner. I was sold, but now I needed to get Peyton on board.
Over the years, I’ve learned who my sources are…who I can trust to give me the information that I can bank on. I studied those sources constantly over the last two weeks. After that first weekend of visits, before the Titans reared their ugly heads, my source basically said that unless the sky falls, the choice is Denver. But after the 8 hour visit with the Titans that same source said that this could be the sky falling because he started to waffle about the decision he thought he’d already made. I stayed the course though. I hung on every word and hoped upon hope that in the end he’d realize his original choice was original for a reason. Then Monday came and I got out of my weekly staff meeting to find Twitter blowing up with reports that he’d chosen Denver.
By now, we all know the story. He woke up Monday morning and just knew in his gut Denver was it. He called the Titans and 49ers first to tell them he wasn’t coming and then he called the Broncos to say he’d like to join their team. We’ve seen the breakdown of the very generous (to both sides) and practical (with respect to the injuries) contract. We’ve seen him stand before the Denver media and explain himself in Peyton Speak no less (if you need anything translated, let me know). But there was one thing that struck me and told me that this was the right decision. He mentioned that he knew there would be a lot of analysis about whether he’d chosen the right team, and his response wasn’t that people should trust him or that this that or the other was the reason why it was the right choice. He simply said that it was now his job to go out and work as hard as he could to MAKE this the right decision. Making that phone call to say he wanted to join the Broncos isn’t the end of the story. It’s just the beginning. He won’t be outworked. He won’t be out prepared. Because remember no one loves his job more than Peyton does. Peyton even got me to like John Elway who, interestingly enough, is funnier than I ever imagined he was. John said at the introductory press conference that his goal was to take what Peyton had already given the NFL and add to it and to make sure Peyton retired as the best QB to ever play the game. Now how on earth could I possibly hate a guy who makes THAT his goal. Denver is excited to have Peyton, and when this whole process started, all I really wanted was for him to go somewhere that appreciated him the way he deserved to be appreciated.
I think he found it somewhere among the Rocky Mountains.