NEW YORK -- 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.
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.
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."
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.