In a Texans offseason that has seen some good (Arian Foster's and Chris Myers' multiyear contract extensions), some bad (Mario Williams' leaving, although the Texans have proven they can survive that), and some ugly (the dismantling of the right side of the offensive line), strangely enough, the Texans' hopes and dreams for the 2012 season were probably most inextricably linked to one single potential move of another team.
Specifically and ironically, the floor and ceiling on 2012 for the Texans would take a drastic swing based on whether or not their division rivals and previous tenants in the hearts and minds of our city (back when they operated under the name "Oilers") the Tennessee Titans would be able to acquire Peyton Manning.
While the Texans deserve most of the credit for their breakthrough season in 2011, there's no denying the fact that the absence of Peyton Manning in Indianapolis allowed the Texans to breathe much easier and made an already winnable division a lock cinch once it was clear Wade Phillips' defense was the real deal. Not even injuries to numerous critical players (including quarterback Matt Schaub) could derail the division title train.
So when it was announced that Manning would be returning somewhere other than Indianapolis in 2012, the Texans' could resume gassing up the "If only Schaub hadn't gotten injured we'd have made the Super Bowl" bus. And then, in what appears to be an ongoing effort to have Texan fans shit bomb the front of his Houston-area home, Titans owner Bud Adams thrust his franchise into the Peyton sweepstakes, to the point where many in Nashville considered it a done deal over the weekend.
Well, rest easy, Texan fans. According to reports earlier today (ESPN's Chris Mortensen broke the story), it appears as though the Broncos and Manning are on the verge of consummating a five year, $95 million marriage that has wide reaching impact on various players and teams.
Let's examine each of those, shall we?
6. The Texans Yes, the Broncos are on the Texans' schedule the next two seasons, so we are not completely rid of Peyton Manning, but it could have been much worse. For the regular season, one potential out-of-division game per season beats the hell out of two games per season in the division with (easily) the next best team in the AFC South. For whatever you may think of Mario Williams, Mike Brisiel, and Eric Winston and what their departures may mean to the Texans, all three of their departures combined have a fraction of the impact that Peyton-to-Titans would have had. If it got as close as some Nashville insiders indicate, the Texans dodged a real bullet today.
5. The Titans By all accounts, the effort to deliver Peyton Manning to the Titan fan base was largely spurred on by Bud Adams, who at the age of 146 doesn't have many more early Februarys left in him. The genesis of Tennessee's involvement was somewhat comical: outsider looking in, it almost appeared like Adams was surfing some version of NFL free agency eBay, saw Peyton available, and decided that "You know what? Peyton is good, he's from Tennessee...Dammit, I want that Peyton!!", like Manning was some sort of impulse buy, like a plasma television.
Rumor has it Adams offered Peyton Manning a "lifetime contract," whatever that means. Last I checked, the length of an NFL deal needs to be a finite number of years over which to spread the signing bonus, and "lifetime" is not a finite number. (Although admittedly it would be a hilarious way to see a team try and finagle cap space, by spreading a signing bonus out over the rest of a player's life.)
4. Titan fans Strangely enough, Adams' now-misguided attempt to do the right thing could backfire on him. How will Titan fans react? You know how sometimes you get so close to acquiring something, and even if the chances of getting it were slight to begin with, getting close makes losing out on it even more painful? It's a version of "almost buyer's" remorse. I have to imagine that heading into the season with Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker under center is going to feel like a major comedown for Titans fans, especially if and when Peyton is putting up huge numbers in Denver.
3. Pancakes and moon pies In the "New and Exciting Ways To Circumvent The Salary Cap" department, this one is pretty good, courtesy of al.com:
On Friday, Nashville-based restaurant chain Shoney's took out an ad in the Nashville Tennessean offering Manning free pancakes everyday for the length of his career in Nashville.
Chattanooga Bakery, makers of the MoonPie snack cake, followed suit on Monday offering Manning and his family a lifetime-supply of MoonPies contingent upon his signing with the Titans.
Okay, I don't want any of you reading in Tennessee or Alabama or any other state in the redneck breadbasket of our country to get mad at me now when I joke about your part of the country using chickens and pies as currency, because you obviously do. Hell, I don't know why you even take offense! I think it's pretty cool.
(In other news, Carlos Lee has announced he will begin playing football starting immediately.) 2. The Broncos We will hear from Peyton Manning soon enough as to why he sees the Denver opportunity as a better one than Tennessee or San Francisco. (My guess is that an unspoken reason will be those 95 million little pieces of lettuce they agreed to.) On the surface, here is what Denver has going for it:
-- They went 8-8 and made the playoffs last year with a quarterback who throws like he's swinging one of those huge carnival "feats of strength" hammers.
-- They have an elite defense, including one of the best young players in the game today in Von Miller.
-- They can run the ball with Willis McGahee and they have solid weapons on the outside (Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, both of whom just jumped roughly 40 spots in wide receiver fantasy rankings)
-- Denver is a football-crazed city who will embrace Manning with open arms, especially if they win.
-- The AFC West is imminently average and winnable with the always underachieving Chargers, the always implosive Raiders, and the always meh Chiefs.
-- Peyton is playing for a team president in John Elway who knows exactly what it's like to try and manage the expectations of winning and superstardom late in one's career. (Underrated subplot: This was also one more chance for Elway to twist the knife he jammed into the Colts' backs nearly 30 years ago when he refused to play for them after being drafted first overall. Now, that's a serious storyline arc right there.)
-- Heading into free agency, the Broncos had nearly $45 million in salary cap space available, meaning there would be plenty of room not only to sign Manning, but also bring in virtually any of his Colt buddies who Indy had cut loose. Dallas Clark is probably a lock for Denver now, and you have to wonder if Reggie Wayne is kicking himself for signing early with the Colts for 3 years, $17 million. I would think he could have gotten something similar from the Broncos who just saw their third receiver Eddie Royal walk last week. Oh well.
Here is what Denver has going against it:
-- HOLY SHIT, look at this schedule:
HOME: Chiefs, Raiders, Chargers, Browns, Steelers, Texans, Saints, Buccaneers AWAY: Chiefs, Raiders, Chargers, Bengals, Ravens, Patriots, Falcons, Panthers
Seven of their ten non-division games are against playoff teams, and one of the non-playoff teams they face is quarterbacked by Cam Newton. Ouch.
Glass half empty, is it unreasonable to think that if Manning is rusty and takes time to get comfortable in Denver with his new teammates that they could still go 8-8? Division games are always toss-ups, and while none of the three other AFC West teams is a serious Super Bowl contender, none of them are awful either.
So what if they went 3-3 in the division? I'm guessing that if Vegas put a line out on the Ravens, Patriots, and even the Falcons games this minute that the Broncos would be underdogs. They'd probably be a pick 'em with the Bengals. And I haven't even counted the Texans and Saints at home. It's not a reach to find five more losses out of those seven teams. At all.
1. Tim Tebow One peripheral side benefit to this signing for Elway is it gives him a suitable "out" of his Tim Tebow Situation (Yes, Tebow's stature in Denver deserves proper noun status.). In fact, short of trading for Tom Brady or suiting up himself, it gives Elway damn near the only "out" available for the franchise to divest itself of Tim Tebow.
Bronco football in 2011 was the trickiest and strangest of situations -- Tebow's level of play was like the baseball playing ghosts in Field of Dreams, where Bronco fans and ESPN mysteriously and zealously saw Tebow as an actual NFL quarterback. They were the only ones who saw him in this light, much like Ray Kinsella and his family were the only ones who could see Shoeless Joe, et al. Meanwhile, the rest of the civilized world (and 31 other NFL cities) are all wondering what the fuck everyone in Denver is looking at.
Tebow is a poor passer who benefited from a level of good fortune and elite defensive play from his now team, a combination the likes of which we had never seen occur for one team in one season maybe ever. Elway knows this. That said, Tebow does have value, likely to Jacksonville or Miami, two franchises who desperately need to sell tickets and could solve that problem with one phone call (and the right offer) to Elway. Jacksonville makes the most practical sense with it being Tebow's hometown, but Miami would be interesting only because (assuming they don't land Alex Smith) they are the one truly empty seat in the game of NFL quarterback musical chairs.
All in all, Manning's return is one of about a thousand reasons I can't wait for football season to get here. Today is a good day. Unless you're a Titans fan, Tim Tebow, or apparently this newscaster from Phoenix:
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Um, Kayley O' Kelley, the station general manager is on line one for you.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays, and watch the simulcast on Comcast 129 from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.