Fourteen years ago, when NFL rookie-to-be Peyton Manning sat down with teams to answer questions during pre-draft evaluations, it wasn’t a one-sided interview process. Manning brought along a notebook, and the young quarterback asked questions of his own, seeking to learn all he could about each of his prospective employers, according to a person who witnessed one team’s interview with Manning in 1998.
Four league most valuable player awards, one Super Bowl triumph and more than 54,000 passing yards later, Manning could be about to look for his next NFL employer. The Washington Redskins and other teams appear poised to pursue him if Manning, who missed all of last season after a series of surgeries on his neck, is released by the Indianapolis Colts, who must pay him a $28 million bonus if he is still on their roster Thursday.
But as the deadline nears and the potential suitors ponder lining up, the most relevant issue is not which teams will have interest in Manning. The biggest question is where would he be willing to play. This time, after all, the choice will be his.
When it comes to the Redskins, would Manning be willing to sign with a team that has only 11 wins in Coach Mike Shanahan’s two seasons, doesn’t seem to have the other necessary pieces for offensive success and couldn’t make things work with the last highly regarded veteran quarterback it brought in?
Opinion around the league is divided. The person who recalled Manning’s rookie interview said he would expect the quarterback, now only weeks from his 36th birthday, to be equally inquisitive and discerning this time around.
“He will have studied each organization and he’ll have a list of questions for every one of them,” said that person, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the deliberations. “He’ll look for a team that’s competitive and balanced. He’ll look for an established coach and a stable organization. I don’t know that he’d want to go into an unstable situation.”
What does that mean for the Redskins? They are coming off a season in which they went 5-11 and finished in last place in the NFC East. They didn’t have a 1,000-yard receiver and surrendered 41 sacks, tied for 11th-most in the league.
“Do the Redskins have a wide receiving corps where you look at it and say I want to throw to them? No,” said former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, an analyst for the NFL Network. “Do they have an offensive line where a pocket passer like him can feel comfortable standing back there? No.”
Theismann said it makes more sense for Manning to sign with the Arizona Cardinals (leaving the Redskins to trade up in the NFL draft to select Baylor’s Robert Griffin III). In Arizona, Manning would have a superb wide receiver in Larry Fitzgerald, Theismann said, and would play his home games in a retractable-roof stadium, the same sort of passing-friendly environment he had while playing indoors in Indianapolis.
“If you look at the NFC East, every team plays outside except for Dallas,” Theismann said. “With Peyton, he has played in a dome upwards of 10 games a year. It won’t be that way if you go to the NFC East. . . . Even if his neck is healed, you’re talking about regaining arm strength and demonstrating that’s there. I would think he would want to go into a more controlled environment.”
Signing with the Redskins would require Manning to play two games per season against his younger brother, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. Some who know the family say they aren’t sure how comfortable Peyton would be doing that.
Former NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck, once Eli Manning’s backup in New York, recalled the fanfare that surrounded the 2006 game when the brothers faced one another on the season’s opening weekend.
“The buildup started when the schedule came out,” said Hasselbeck, now an NFL analyst for ESPN. “It was painful, the amount of attention it was getting. I don’t think it would be his preference [to play in the same division as Eli]. I think he prefers to stay in the AFC.”
The Redskins also would have to work out the details of the offensive system in which Manning would play. Manning had great autonomy over the offense for much of his tenure in Indianapolis, according to people in the sport.
“That guy,” Hasselbeck said, referring to Manning’s prospective new offensive coordinator, “is going to have to be very comfortable doing what Peyton wants to do.”
The Redskins’ 2010 trade for the Philadelphia Eagles’ established quarterback, Donovan McNabb, didn’t work out. Shanahan benched McNabb in favor of Rex Grossman after 13 games. McNabb exited after one season in Washington.
“If you bring him in, whose offense does he run?” Theismann said. “That’s another problem. From Peyton’s perspective, I think you’re looking at a pretty small window. I think you’re looking at about a two-year window, maybe three at the outside.”
But others think there is more about the Redskins that could interest Manning.
“There are two things that are attractive about the Redskins,” said Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Redskins and Houston Texans. “They were doing well playing defense and the running game was coming on at the end of the year. Now, you add to that their high position in the draft and the [salary] cap room they have, and the question is: What are you going to do to get better?”
The league source familiar with Manning’s situation said the Miami Dolphins could be intriguing to Manning but the Redskins could interest him as well because of the growing organizational stability under Shanahan and General Manager Bruce Allen.
The source said Manning has thrown the ball relatively well during his rehabilitation and is intent on playing next season if at all possible. Any team doctor would have a difficult time advising against signing Manning, the source said, after the quarterback was told by orthopedic surgeon Robert Watkins that his neck had healed sufficiently for him to play once his arm strength returns.
The source said Manning might try to bring along several former Colts teammates to make a run at another Super Bowl title in a new city. Colts wide receivers Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon are eligible for unrestricted free agency. The Redskins, sources have said, seem intent upon adding a high-profile wideout through free agency, with Garcon a leading contender.
The list of teams that could be interested in Manning also includes the New York Jets, Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks and Cleveland Browns. Hasselbeck said he believes Manning might like to play in a big market and might even enjoy sharing New York with his brother.
Others said, however, that they don’t think the size of the market will matter much to Manning.
In the end, “no one wants to go to a bad team,” Hasselbeck said. “And I’m not saying money will be the determining factor, but money matters.”
If the Redskins want Manning, they’ll have to convince him that he can have success in D.C.
“If you can take care of those things — quarterback, receivers, tight end and right tackle — you now have a legitimate chance to be a wild-card team in the playoffs,” said Casserly, an NFL analyst for CBS.
“It’s not insurmountable to have that discussion.”