With the possible exception of the NFL’s first true free agent, Reggie White, there has not been a player like Peyton Manning available as a free agent in the history of the league. Teams have been proactive in extending their top players, especially franchise quarterbacks, long before the possibility of free agency. For instance, when I was in Green Bay, I would make sure Brett Favre’s contract always had at least two years remaining; the Packers have continued that proactive stance with Aaron Rodgers.
On Sunday, Manning returns to play the Colts in Indianapolis, where he was the signature player for 14 years before he was released. Now 18 months removed from his unprecedented free agency, it is interesting to review the teams that showed interest—publicly or privately—and examine how Manning’s choice shifted the quarterback landscape in the NFL with aftershocks that still reverberate today.
Manning did not play in 2011—when he made $26.4 million—due to multiple neck surgeries. Largely due to Manning’s absence, the Colts finished with the NFL’s worst record and top pick in the 2012 draft. His contract included a decision point for the Colts in the offseason: a $28 million bonus due prior to the league trading and free agency period.
The Colts’ loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the final game of the 2011 season was the most important loss in franchise history. It saved the organization tens of millions of dollars and secured a seamless transition from one franchise quarterback to another, the rarest of NFL organizational windfalls. Had the Colts won that game and drafted in, say, the third position, it would have been very thorny to release Manning and tell their fan base they were cutting Manning for a player at another position. As luck would have it, they did not have to face that choice.
Andrew Luck would have likely been the top pick in the 2011 draft, ahead of Cam Newton, had he decided to leave Stanford early. Rather, he opted for another year in Palo Alto (as a Stanford grad, I can’t blame him). Luck’s deferral until 2012 allowed the Colts a grooved path to a truly rare player and person.
What if Manning had not been released: The Colts would have paid Manning $35.5 million in 2012 to continue his five-year, $90 million contract. (By contrast, Luck is making $21 million total over four years.) They also would have likely retained some of the many veterans shipped out along with Manning. Andrew Luck would be the present and future star of another franchise and the Colts would be continuing their search for Manning’s eventual replacement.