Fowler was 7-years-old when Manning made his NFL debut in 1998, and Fowler caught what turned out to be Manning’s last pass when he reeled in a throw on a two-point conversion in the Broncos’ 24-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50.
More than anything, though, Fowler was another NFL fan who had watched Manning do his Hall of Fame work.
“It’s just going to be weird not to have him in the NFL at all this year," Fowler said Monday. “But I’m happy for him.”
Manning’s exit will leave a rather large void, as he has been such a high-profile player, a five-time MVP whose team always seemed to be in the playoff hunt. Since he signed with the Broncos in 2012, his teammates have held him in the highest possible regard.
“It’s always sad, but it’s better when you think about the 18 years that he’s put in the game and the type of influence that he’s had -- not just on the Denver Broncos or the [Indianapolis] Colts, but the whole sport of football," Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. “He revolutionized how you play the position of quarterback. There have been so many greats that have come before him, but he totally changed the quarterback position. You can’t say quarterback without Manning. It just goes together. I think that’s the brighter side of things."
Manning's departure leaves the Broncos in a difficult position with Trevor Siemian the only quarterback under contract. Siemian, a seventh-round pick in the 2015 draft, was inactive for all but one game this past season.
Brock Osweiler is an unrestricted free agent and would be the Broncos’ starter if he agrees to a deal. But Osweiler has drawn interest from other teams, and it’s possible one of those teams is willing to pay more than the Broncos.
Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has said Osweiler “knows what we have to offer," and Elway has consistently said the Broncos would like to keep moving forward with Osweiler, who they've developed for four years.
The Broncos have offered Osweiler a three-year deal that would average between $13-14 million per season, according to sources. In the past, Elway has increased offers to try to retain players, but in other cases, such as wide receiver Eric Decker and tight end Julius Thomas, the Broncos let players leave.
“There are always tough choices," Elway said, and it will be no different at quarterback now.
If Osweiler departs the Broncos move into scramble mode a bit and face the prospect of diving into the free-agent market as well as using an early pick in this year’s draft at the position.
Quarterback has not been a homegrown position for the Broncos recently, as 91 of the past 112 regular-season games (81.3 percent) dating back to 2009 were started by a quarterback who arrived as a free agent.
Their hope has been that Osweiler, who made his first seven career starts this past season when Manning was injured, would take the ball from Manning this time around. He still might if the money is right and if he has found a way to reconcile being removed from the lineup in the regular-season finale, which set up Manning’s postseason ride.
All of that was on the backburner Monday, as Manning’s time in Denver was celebrated and appreciated.
“I think it was a really tough decision and, like he said, he wanted to have some time to enjoy the Super Bowl," former Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley said. “The guy just won the Super Bowl. It's a big decision because he's not the guy that's going to flip-flop back and forth on retirement or not. He wanted to make the right decision, and I'm happy for him. … Whatever he decides to do, he'll be great at."
As Fowler put it: “Peyton’s done so much in his career, seen so much. We all feel lucky to have played with him and we know when we get back on the field we have to be ready to perform for another quarterback, Brock or whoever. It’s hard to replace Peyton, but somebody will have to try."