Why Peyton Manning's Move to Denver Won't Work

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Broncos executive vice president John Elway Reuters

The Denver Broncos put Peyton Manning through an extensive physical exam before starting contract talks with him this week. Apparently, no one in Denver thought to check Manning's head. And while they were at it, they should have checked the heads of every Broncos official, including VP John Elway.

If both sides had sat down and created a computer-perfect blueprint for disaster, they couldn't have done a better job. I can't begin to penetrate the Byzantine salary cap of the NFL. And I'm not really sure if the failure of the San Francisco 49ers or Tennessee Titans or anyone else who has been on the Peyton prowl since the Colts released him, to land Manning has to do with the amount of money they have available under the cap. You'd think that if, say, the 49ers—who were, after all, by far the best team vying for the Manning sweepstakes—would have made it clear to Peyton that they have the most to offer, or at least they do if Manning's goal is to win one more Super Bowl ring. (And if that isn't why he's not retiring after four surgeries on his neck, what could it possibly be? Unless he just wants to pony up, as it were, from the Colts to the Broncos.)

The 49ers, who were just one fumbled punt away from the Super Bowl when they lost to the New York Giants and Peyton's brother in the NFC championship game, made a huge gesture that Manning should have appreciated: They backed up their pledge to upgrade their passing game a few days ago by signing Super Bowl hero receiver Mario Manningham.

So what was the problem? Did San Francisco not have enough money to satisfy Peyton? Would it perhaps have been prudent on his part to take a little less in order to have his best shot at going to the big game? Instead of the expected $90 million plus over five seasons—Five seasons? Really? Manning will be 36 this Saturday—would it have made that much difference to him if his contract was for a mere $80 mil? Just think of all the extra loot—endorsements, commercials, hosting SNL again, et al—you can get if your team wins the Super Bowl. And with Manning on the team, surely the 49ers would have been everyone's pick to go all the way.

Of course, there's never an easy path to the Super Bowl, but the San Francisco organization, with their colorful coach, Jim Harbaugh, had revamped the team in just two seasons and very nearly got to the final game with a mediocre quarterback, Alex Smith. No one who watched the Niners last year doubts that they were just one player away from the Super Bowl, and that player was the guy who takes the snaps from center.

I do know that the Denver Broncos are not just one player away—even if he is a superstar quarterback—from the Super Bowl. In fact, the Broncos are something of a mess, with an undistinguished set of receivers, an on-and-off defense, and a killer 2012 schedule, facing 7 teams who had better records last season than the 8-8 Broncos. Six of those teams won at least 10 games, 2 won 12, and 2 more won 13. The Broncos may actually have to improve this year just to finish 8-8 again.

All of that is nothing compared to the problems Denver has now made for themselves over the next several seasons. A couple of weeks ago the rumors were hot that the New York Jets were going to sign Peyton and dump their young quarterback, Mark Sanchez, in favor of the quick fix that Manning would presumably guarantee. For once, the Jets did the smart thing. They knew from their earlier experience of signing an aging star quarterback, Brett Favre, that taking on an old veteran merely puts off the inevitable process of developing a new young quarterback when the veteran fades, usually after a season or two.

The Jets were in almost precisely the same situation as the Broncos, an 8-8 team frustrated by the inconsistencies of their young passer or, at any rate, the inability of their offensive lines to give those passers protection. Sanchez finished 23rd in the league in passer rating, while Broncos QB Tim Tebow was 28th. Yet, Tebow showed flashes of brilliance in the second half of the season, throwing 12 TD passes against just six interceptions and running the ball better than any Denver running back. He isn't going to get any better sitting on the bench, which almost certainly means a trade, if for no other reason than to scrap his salary and clear some space under the cap.

Now, the Broncos will have to admit that the time and experience they put in with Tebow has gone to waste, that the money they've paid him has brought the franchise nothing, and they squandered a draft pick two years ago. That's a huge amount of baggage to toss overboard, all for a chance to make a truly bad bet: that Peyton Manning, who could win only one Super Bowl in 14 seasons with what was arguably the best franchise in football—or at least one of the two best, along with New England—is, at age 36 and after missing an entire season, going to resurrect the morass of mediocrity that is the Denver Broncos into champions.

I wish Peyton well. And for that matter, I hope Tim Tebow winds up with a team that appreciates him and will show him patience while he learns a brand-new system.

But it didn't work for Johnny Unitas, who was 39 when he left the Colts for the Chargers in 1972, it didn't work for Joe Montana, who switched teams at age 36 when he went to Kansas City in 1993; it didn't work for Brett Favre when he went to the Jets in 2009 when he was 39. History says Peyton Manning can't do it, and history has a mean pass rush, which eventually gets all old quarterbacks.

History says you can't teach an old Colt new tricks.

The Super Bowl-winning quarterback is too old, and the Broncos are too weak.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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