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Tuesday, January 28, 2014
What if Peyton had joined the Jets?

By Rich Cimini

Cue the dream sequence.

NEWARK, N.J. -- Peyton Manning arrives at the Prudential Center for Super Bowl XLVIII media day, sharing a few laughs with his coach, Rex Ryan, as he walks to his designated interview podium. Manning, wearing a white and green-trimmed No. 18 New York Jets jersey, appears totally at home.

Because he is.

Manning is only 30 minutes from the Jets facility in Florham Park -- a.k.a. Peyton's Place, where he hopes to add a third Lombardi Trophy to the showcase. Coincidentally, the Jets' team hotel is the Manning Tower in Jersey City -- a breathtaking high rise on the Hudson that he co-owns with his not-so-silent partner and close friend, Donald Trump. Manning, as you might know, inhabits the entire 18th floor.

"I'm excited to be in another Super Bowl, representing the New York Jets," Manning begins.


* * *


Well, it could've happened.

Peyton Manning
What would have happened if Peyton Manning was holding a Jets jersey instead of this Colts one?
In the winter of 1997, Manning ostensibly snubbed the Jets by deciding to stay in school for another year. The Jets owned the No. 1 overall pick, and Bill Parcells, new on the job, could've started one of the most daunting rebuilding projects in NFL history by drafting Manning and making him the centerpiece.

After much consideration, Manning decided he'd rather remain a Tennessee Vol than a Parcells volunteer.

In the tortured history of the Jets, it remains one of the most haunting what-if questions: What if Manning had turned pro in '97? By staying true to his school, he altered the landscape of the league.

Parcells, in an interview this week with ESPNNewYork.com, said he didn't try to convince Manning to leave school because of a "strong mandate" by the league, which didn't want teams attempting to influence underclassmen.

"I kind of laugh when people say I should've talked him into it," Parcells said. "I wasn't capable of doing that."

Why didn't he attempt to recruit Manning through his father, Archie? Parcells paused.

"I think they had a pretty good idea of what would've happened if they came out," Parcells said.

The Hall of Fame coach hasn't revealed too much over the years about that chapter -- some believe he would've traded the pick to accumulate extra draft choices -- but he strongly hinted he would've selected Manning.

"Obviously, we had an interest in a quarterback, so, had he been available, I'm certain he would've been very, very strongly in the mix," said Parcells, claiming he always had a "gut feeling" that Manning would stay at Tennessee.

But Manning kept people guessing, which fueled hope among Jets fans, many of whom already were tired of Neil O'Donnell after one season. On the morning of his announcement, the local paper in Knoxville, Tenn., ran a front-page headline that said its favorite son was prepared to jump to the NFL.

A poker-faced Manning added to the drama in his news conference, speaking of Tennessee in the past tense as he made his opening remarks. After about a minute, he cracked a smile and declared his intention to stay. The room exploded with applause. There were mini-eruptions across the campus, which stopped to watch the announcement on closed-circuit TV. Remember, this was long before Twitter.

At the same time, Manning crushed Jets Nation.

"There are times when good fortune strikes, and there are times when it doesn't," said Parcells, who eventually traded the pick and selected linebacker James Farrior at No. 8 overall.

Not surprisingly, Manning has always taken the high road, claiming that Parcells' arrival in New York that winter actually complicated the decision for him.

"Parcells shook things up for me a little, but when he was hired there, it made this decision a lot tougher, knowing he was there." Manning said at the time. "I had no negative thoughts about the Jets whatsoever."

Manning went No. 1 overall in 1998, and things have worked out quite nicely for him. If he beats the Seattle Seahawks for this second Super Bowl title, he will fuel debate on whether he's the greatest quarterback in history.

Parcells is an admirer, for sure, but he wasn't ready to anoint Manning back in the day. Asked if he knew Manning would be special, the old coach showed his gruff side.

"I'm not too quick to judge guys," he said. "The guy picked right behind him [Ryan Leaf], somebody thought he was going to be special, too."

The football business is inexact, and it's difficult to predict how players would fare in different situations, but let's be real: Manning would've been huge in the New York market.

"I think he would've had a long, long run there," said agent Leigh Steinberg, who once represented the biggest quarterback stars in the sport. "He would've been very dominant in New York, probably the biggest football personality in that city since Joe Namath."

The Jets have been searching for the next Namath for 40 years. Two years ago, they made another pass at Manning, but it was a brief flirtation. It lasted as long as a belch.

When the Indianapolis Colts released Manning in March 2012, then-general manager Mike Tannenbaum placed a call to Manning's agent, Tom Condon.

"It was a quick, cursory call," recalled Tannenbaum, performing due diligence. "We had a young quarterback [Mark Sanchez] we felt good about, but when a player like Peyton Manning becomes available, you have to check it out. I had a very good sense right away that he knew what he wanted to do."

In other words, Manning wanted no part of the Jets.

Again.

Later that day, the Jets announced they had signed Sanchez to a contract extension, an affirmation that backfired.

This week, Manning is practicing at the Jets' facility as the Denver Broncos prepare for Sunday's game at MetLife Stadium.

Some blows never stop stinging.