Super Bowl 2014: Peyton Manning signing was Denver Broncos' gamble that paid off big

For Peyton Manning, all is as it should be as the Super Bowl arrives. He has had perhaps the greatest season ever for an NFL quarterback and he is expected to be awarded his unprecedented fifth league most valuable player award here Saturday night. If he and his Denver Broncos beat the Seattle Seahawks in nearby East Rutherford, N.J., on Sunday for Manning’s second career Super Bowl triumph, the case that he is the best quarterback in the sport’s history would be bolstered further.

The Broncos’ decision to sign Manning in March 2012 — after he’d had four surgeries on his neck, missed the entire 2011 season and was released by the Indianapolis Colts — has paid off handsomely.

But none of that should obscure the fact that what the Broncos did in signing Manning was a gamble. When Manning left the Colts and was searching for a new team, there were no assurances that he would be the same player again, that he would still be the Peyton Manning that the football-watching world had known for his first 13 NFL seasons in Indianapolis. The best-case scenario has unfolded for Manning and the Broncos. But it was not promised at the time.

“I could never sit here and tell you I knew this would happen,” Manning’s father, Archie, said this week. “We prayed for his health. I wanted him to play at a good level. I didn’t want him to have to quit because he said, ‘I’m 50 percent of what I was.’ I didn’t want him to have to quit under those conditions. It’s been a real blessing.”

Manning had been told by his doctors they were confident they’d repaired his neck injury. But they offered him no assurances that his nerves would regenerate sufficiently to fully restore his arm strength. And although there had been positive signs in that regard by the time Manning began auditioning for teams and was ready to pick his next NFL destination, there was no way for decision-makers with the Broncos and other clubs to know how Manning’s body would react to the rigors of playing football again.

The Post Sports Live crew goes on the record by predicting whether the Denver Broncos or the Seattle Seahawks will win Super Bowl XLVIII. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

“I think the risk was that — and I think Peyton has said this — nobody knew how he would respond to contact,” said Chris Polian, the former general manager of the Colts. “That’s an inherent risk for anyone coming off an injury. That’s true if you’re coming back from an ACL or a Lisfranc [foot injury]. But in those cases, there’s a little more of a road map.”

There had been some speculation at the time that Manning might return to play late in the 2011 season for the Colts. But Polian said that never was a realistic hope. Polian and his father, former Colts executive Bill Polian, were fired by the team in January 2012, and Coach Jim Caldwell was dismissed soon thereafter. But Chris Polian, now the director of pro personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars, said the Colts still would have released Manning even if the team hadn’t undergone a regime change because the decision rested with owner Jim Irsay.

Chris Polian also said of Manning: “There was no road map. He just kept grinding. He saw a lot of people and got a lot of opinions. It wasn’t a situation where there were clear answers. It wasn’t an ACL. It wasn’t an injury where they could tell you, ‘Do this and this, and this is when you’ll be back.’ He’d had multiple surgeries. Age was starting to become a stronger variable. I think Peyton has said it: There wasn’t any single significant breakthrough. It was just daily, incremental improvement.”

Health ‘was just part of it’

The Colts released Manning in early March 2012, avoiding paying him a $28 million bonus about to be due to him under his contract, and he picked the Broncos less than two weeks later, signing a five-year contract worth about $96 million. He passed teams’ physicals and impressed them with his throwing, even while warning them that his arm needed further strengthening based on nerve regeneration. His contract with the Broncos included $18 million immediately guaranteed for last season, according to a person familiar with the deal, plus another $40 million divided evenly between this season and next season that became guaranteed when he passed a physical after last season to show that his neck remained sound.

Although Manning chose the Broncos and John Elway, the team’s front office chief who won two Super Bowls as its quarterback, others were just as willing to take the chance that Manning would be Manning again. The Tennessee Titans and San Francisco 49ers remained in the running until the end.

The Washington Redskins were among the teams to fall out of the Manning sweepstakes earlier. They had interest and met with Manning. But playing in the NFC East would have forced Manning to face his younger brother, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, twice per season. The Redskins just had been hit with a two-year, $36 million salary cap penalty by the league and traded up to be in position to select Robert Griffin III in the 2012 NFL draft.

“That was just part of it, the health part,” Archie Manning said. “There was also the part about him getting cut, him trying to find a new team. I remember he called me once and said, ‘This is just like I’m 18 again. This is just like I’m being recruited again. They all sound good.’ That was hard on him. He said, ‘This thing is not going to be clear-cut. I’m going to have to make a decision.’ You develop a real comfort when you’re in one place for 14 years. To go to a new place, new coaches, new teammates, that was another transition.”

From the matchup to the temperature to the length of the National Anthem, here are the numbers you need to know about Sunday's big game. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

The transition was seamless. Manning, who will turn 38 in March, has thrown for 10,136 yards and 92 touchdowns in two regular seasons with the Broncos. He set single-season NFL records this season with 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns.

Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon, who played with Manning for three seasons in Indianapolis and was with the Colts for the season that Manning missed, said the current version of Manning is “very similar” to the pre-surgeries version.

“He’s throwing the ball well, a tight spiral, calling the same plays that we had in Indy. . . . I’m not surprised,” Garcon said. “I know he works very hard to come back, and he’s definitely coming back to be great, to be the top and in the best shape he can possibly be, and to throw the ball the best he can. He actually got better through the years throwing the ball. Especially from early this year to the end of this year, he’s throwing the ball better. So I’m definitely not surprised because that’s what Peyton works for.”

‘It didn’t happen overnight’

The path back for Manning from his neck surgeries included working out with his former college teammate at Tennessee, Colorado Rockies baseball standout Todd Helton, and Rockies trainers during the NFL lockout in 2011, when players were prohibited from having contact with their teams. It included going to Duke University to work with the school’s football coach, David Cutcliffe, his former quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Tennessee.

“He told us, [his mother] Olivia and I, after the fusion, the fourth surgery, that he was going to try to come back, but if he couldn’t, he couldn’t,” Archie Manning said. “He would quit. He was at peace. That was how he comforted us. However it turned out, he was going to be fine. . . . The question for me was whether he could come close to being the player that he was. If he couldn’t come close, I knew he’d quit. He wasn’t panicky about it. He wasn’t tense about it.”

According to Archie Manning, a former NFL quarterback, Peyton’s comeback was without significant setbacks but was tedious.

“He didn’t really have any hiccups,” Archie Manning said. “It didn’t happen overnight. It still hasn’t totally happened. But there was progress there to where you could see it maybe could happen. . . . I think they [doctors] were pretty honest with him. They fixed his neck. But they couldn’t guarantee anything with the nerves.

“I don’t think anyone ever told him he’d absolutely get back to 100 percent. But I think they told him there was a decent chance, a good chance. I just tried to support him, encourage him.”

Peyton Manning recalled that he and Eli were examined by doctors when their older brother Cooper was forced to give up football after a diagnosis of spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal.

“I would have been a junior in high school and Eli would have been a sixth-grader or something,” Peyton Manning said at a midweek news conference. “They said our necks weren’t picture perfect and didn’t look ideal, but they’re stable enough to keep playing football. Cooper had to give up playing football. In some ways, when I had my neck problems, I thought maybe I had been on borrowed time this entire time.”

Manning also recalled being told after his surgeries that his neck was secure, to the point that a doctor told him he’d clear him to play if he was the doctor’s son.

“As soon as the doctor told me that, that was the end of it for me on the neck discussion,” Manning said. “Now it was simply a matter of performance. Could I get my strength back to play quarterback at the level I thought a team deserved?”

Now he and a Denver offense that ranked first in the league during the regular season face the Seahawks’ top-ranked defense Sunday in the sport’s first Super Bowl in the New York area.

“I think he’s one of the greatest,” Garcon said. “I didn’t watch the other guys that they compare to him. . . . I played with him and I’m a little bit biased. But hopefully he does win this Super Bowl and when he goes out, he goes out on top.”

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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