Even now, a few days later, it is still hard to comprehend that Peyton Manning is a free agent. Players of his pedigree and caliber simply do not become available in the NFL ever. In my time as vice president of the Packers, it was important to me that our signature player, Brett Favre, never got close to the finish line of his contract and seeing free agency in the distance.
Of course, Manning is a former Colt due in large part to the contract he signed six months ago. The Colts inexplicably forced themselves to make a decision before the 2012 trading period began. Thus, no matter what happened, they could not receive any trade value for a four-time MVP.
It's also remarkable how lucky the Colts were to avoid having to exercise the option on Manning. Had they won one more game in 2011 and were picking, say, third in the upcoming draft, the Colts could not have walked away from Manning. Imagine Jim Irsay telling his fan base: "We are releasing Peyton Manning, but don't worry because we are drafting this amazing offensive lineman."
Having a grooved path to Andrew Luck saved Irsay from a massive financial commitment to Manning.
Let's look at what's next for Manning.
Manning will have options, thus he will have leverage. Some have suggested Manning's next contract will be an incentive-laden contract. Uh, no. Incentive-laden contracts are for players without leverage.
This is not to say that there will be no performance bonuses in Manning's next deal, but those incentives will be layered over heavy guarantees because of multiple bidders. Any incentives will not count against the salary cap, as cap treatment of incentives relate to a player's performance in the prior year and Manning had no performance in 2011.
How much of it will be guaranteed? That's difficult to predict, not knowing whether Manning (1) has a clean bill of health from team doctors, or (2) would take less money to sign with a team he feels to be a better fit.
Manning -- according to the contract the Colts just terminated -- was worth $90 million over five years with $70 million in the first three years. But that was before an additional neck surgery. Logically, he should be worth less now. The reality is, however, this may be more an auction than a negotiation.
Manning's agent Tom Condon -- also embroiled in a tense negotiation with the Saints for Drew Brees -- will seek to equal the $28 million guarantee Manning had with the Colts for this year and potentially surpass the $20 million average per year (APY) barrier, which would set a data point for Brees as well.
Manning presents an enticing prospect to NFL owners who are prone to emotional and impulsive decision-making, and to the owner willing to pay dearly to "win the press conference" to set its franchise's new course. On Friday, one of those teams, the Redskins, reportedly set a new course thanks to their deal with the St. Louis Rams for the No. 2 pick in the draft.
The other team I see fitting in that category – one that does not have an emotional or a financial commitment to an existing quarterback – is the Dolphins.
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has shown an affinity for name brands, bringing in minority owners such as Serena and Venus Williams, Gloria Estefan and Marc Anthony. Manning is as name brand as there is in the NFL and it would allow Ross to compete in a market replete with other entertainment options. This puts Miami in the pole position to sign Manning at this point.
As for the other teams:
49ers: This is an interesting one, should the 49ers acquire Manning, as they were already looking to acquire a marquee wide receiver -- Vincent Jackson, perhaps and maybe add another one in Reggie Wayne or Pierre Garcon. The difficulty here is that Niners coach Jim Harbaugh has professed his loyalty to Alex Smith, who also happens to be a client of Condon's. Awkward.
Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald, the division and the weather will be appealing to Manning, but this is a team with cash and cap concerns. They also made a commitment to Kevin Kolb -- who has a $7 million bonus due on March 17 -- six months ago, so Manning's deliberate timing may work against them.
Seahawks: Unlike the Cardinals, they are flush with cash and cap room to acquire Manning. But I just don't see him going there.
Chiefs: See also, Seahawks.
As far as his priorities in mapping out his strategy with Condon, Manning will be very analytical. He is looking at the schemes run by opposing defensive coordinators in the division, the schedule of opponents outside the division, the way existing players on the team's offense are now used, the team's ability to compete in the short term and long term, the cap and cash resources of the team, the draft plan and so on.
These issues are more important than the others being mentioned such as the money, how often he is playing his brother Eli, which conference he is in and the weather. My sense is they are not going to be overriding factors to Manning.
Again, free agency has rarely, if ever, seen a name like Peyton Manning enter the market.
Let the bidding begin.