Commentary

What if Peyton never left?

If Jim Irsay had paid Peyton Manning, the Colts might be set up nicely

Originally Published: September 14, 2012
By Adam Schefter | ESPN.com

Just as every one of us sometimes faces life-altering choices, last offseason Colts owner Jim Irsay was faced with a franchise-altering choice.

Irsay could keep quarterback Peyton Manning, pay the $28 million option bonus in Manning's contract and stockpile a minimum of three extra first-round picks and one extra second-rounder in return for the No. 1 overall pick.

Or, cut Manning loose and start over with Andrew Luck, widely regarded as the top college quarterback prospect since Manning himself.

Luck, or Manning and a surplus of picks. Irsay's choice.

The football world knows the choice Irsay made. Luck is readying for the Colts' home opener against Minnesota while Manning and the Broncos are preparing for "Monday Night Football" in Atlanta, and the NFL still is processing its new world order. One Denver executive even sent a text this week saying, "I still can't believe he's our quarterback."

But think about how different the NFL landscape would be and what could have happened had Irsay opted to hold on to Manning.

By paying Manning his bonus and retaining his rights, Irsay then could have auctioned off Indianapolis' No. 1 overall pick, as valuable a pick as any team ever has had. In return, Irsay would have gotten just as much as, and quite possibly more than, St. Louis received from Washington when the Redskins sent the Rams three first-round picks and one second-round pick in return for the second overall pick in the 2012 draft. Indianapolis would have been flush with picks -- and hope.

Think about it: The Colts would have used their first-round pick in April not on Luck but an impact player at another position. They would have had an extra second-round pick to combine with tight end Coby Fleener, whom they drafted with their second-round pick in April. They would have had two extra first-round picks in each of the next two years to stockpile even more talent. But maybe most important, they would have had Manning, who during Denver's regular-season opener versus Pittsburgh looked like the old Manning, not an old Manning.

The idea of Manning matched with so many young players is as enticing as it is intriguing. But Irsay opted against this route. He chose Luck over Manning plus at least three first-round picks and a second-round pick.

It doesn't mean Irsay made the wrong choice, not at all. It's just interesting to contemplate how different Indianapolis, Denver, whichever team would have traded for the No. 1 overall pick and the NFL as a whole would have looked today had Irsay made a different franchise-altering choice.

On to this week's 10 Spot:

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesGriffin enjoyed a nearly flawless debut in throwing for 320 yards and two touchdowns at New Orleans.

1. Washington's return on investment: The March night when the Redskins agreed to send three first-round picks and a second-round pick to St. Louis for the right to go up to No. 2 in the draft and select Robert Griffin III, Washington's brain trust celebrated in a style that was beyond grand. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder boarded his private plane with general manager Bruce Allen and head coach Mike Shanahan, and the men flew to the Bahamas to celebrate their franchise-altering acquisition. The men spent the weekend toasting their trade, playing golf and celebrating a deal that neither Cleveland nor Miami could get done. And now, after Griffin's debut, it's easy to understand why.

Griffin became the first quarterback born in the 1990s to start an NFL game, and he also is the first quarterback in history to compile more than 300 passing yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in his NFL debut. For the first time since Joe Theismann's career ended in 1985, the Redskins appear to have a quarterback they can build around. And it dated back to the deal they made this past offseason with the team they will play Sunday in St. Louis. Yet when word of the Redskins' weekend trip to the Bahamas filtered back to St. Louis last winter, Rams officials kiddingly wondered out loud, "They're celebrating? Maybe we didn't get enough."

2. Jones worth the price:When the Falcons investigated whether to trade up for wide receiver Julio Jones in the 2011 draft, one of the conversations they had with Alabama head coach Nick Saban persuaded them to do the deal. Saban told the Falcons that Jones was one of his favorite players, if not his favorite, he ever coached. Hearing Saban speak so glowingly made it easier for the Falcons to surrender two first-round picks, one second-round pick and two fourth-round picks to Cleveland for the Browns' sixth overall pick, which they used on Jones. Now that the Falcons have had Jones for two seasons, they say some of the same things Saban did.

Falcons officials and coaches say Jones, 23, has a work ethic to match his talent. He showed that talent in Atlanta's opening-day win, reeling in six catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns. Jones now has at least one receiving touchdown in each of his past five games, the longest active streak in the NFL. And now Jones gets ready to face Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Meanwhile, the price that Atlanta surrendered to Cleveland to get Jones can be fully computed. Cleveland turned Atlanta's 2011 first-round pick into defensive tackle Phil Taylor, the Falcons' 2011 second-round pick into Greg Little, the Falcons' 2011 fourth-round pick into fullback Owen Marecic, the Falcons' 2012 first-round pick into quarterback Brandon Weeden, and the extra fourth-round pick as part of the package to trade up for Jones' former Alabama teammate, running back Trent Richardson. Suddenly, the picks Atlanta surrendered don't seem so steep.

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
Ed Szczepanski/US PresswireAlex Smith has been flawless this season. Is his team the NFL's best?

3. Niners in NFC driver's seat? In each of the past six seasons, an NFC team from the division that played its non-division games against the AFC East during the regular season has wound up in the Super Bowl. In 2006, the Bears played their non-division games against the AFC East and advanced to the Super Bowl; in 2007, the Giants did it; in 2008, the Cardinals did it; in 2009, the Saints did it; in 2010, the Packers did it; and last season, the Giants did it again. This season, the NFC West is slated to play its non-division games against the AFC East, which seems to mean the 49ers must be considered a favorite to become the NFC champion. So far, the trend looks right on course.

Earlier this week, ESPN analyst Merril Hoge said the 49ers -- not the Packers -- have the best offense in football. His opinion is debatable, but this much is not: When the 49ers beat the Packers, San Francisco stamped itself as the team to beat in the NFC. Until running smack into the Niners, the Packers had won an NFL-best 13 straight regular-season games in Green Bay and 19 of their past 20. Along with New Orleans and Baltimore, Green Bay was one of only three teams to go unbeaten at home during the 2011 regular season. San Francisco snapped that streak and the Packers' air of invincibility.

Plus, San Francisco's offense has some impressive stats of its own. The 49ers have gone six straight games and 26 regular-season quarters without turning over the football, and quarterback Alex Smith has not thrown an interception on his past 185 attempts.

"Well, it's a great streak to have," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "That's one that any quarterback, any quarterback, would be proud to have. And a lot goes into that. Talent. Taking care of the ball. Knowing where everybody is on the field. Knowing defenses. And that's a heck of a streak. Like to keep that one going."

Any team that plays the type of ferocious defense the 49ers do, without turning over the football and with what Hoge calls the NFL's best offense, just might be the best team in football.

4. Watt earning high praise: An early-season favorite for NFL's Defensive Player of the Year is Houston defensive end J.J. Watt. Everyone saw what a factor he could be last postseason, when the Texans beat the Bengals and Watt picked off a pass and returned it for a touchdown. But Watt has picked up right where he left off. He made huge plays against the Dolphins, leading one NFL scout to compare Watt's game to that of San Francisco Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith. Another NFL general manager said simply, "Watt is a beast."

5. Romo the road warrior: The last time Dallas traveled to Seattle, as it will for Sunday's game, was the 2006 NFC wild-card game that is best remembered for Tony Romo's botched hold on a late field goal attempt in what turned out to be a 21-20 Cowboys loss in Bill Parcells' final game as a head coach. Since then, so much has changed for Romo, yet not much has changed. He has compiled some of football's top stats but failed to lead Dallas to the championship it covets.

Lately, Romo has played like a road warrior. For starters, he played his most clutch game as an NFL quarterback on the road in the Cowboys' regular-season opener when Dallas defeated the defending world-champion Giants. And in his past five road games he has completed 71.4 percent of his passes, averaged 287.2 passing yards per game while throwing 12 touchdowns and only two interceptions. If Romo can sustain his road success and Dallas can open its season with two road wins, it will be nicely positioned in the NFC East.

[+] EnlargeLogan Mankins
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarLogan Mankins' toughness serves as motivation for his teammates.

6. Peterson can't top Mankins' toughness: Vikings running back Adrian Peterson had one of the most remarkable comebacks from a devastating knee injury in recent memory, but Patriots Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins didn't come back from his torn ACL -- because he never left. One year ago, in the opening Monday night matchup between Miami and New England, Mankins tore his right anterior cruciate ligament, according to a source familiar with the situation. Not only did Mankins finish the Monday night game, he finished the season, becoming the rare player -- perhaps only -- to have played an entire 16-game season with a torn ACL.

Mankins' problems only multiplied in the playoffs. In the Patriots' postseason win over Denver, Mankins tore the medial collateral ligament in his left knee, leading him to play the Super Bowl against the Giants with torn ligaments in each knee. One NFL head coach said he never heard of a player playing that long with a torn ACL, and an NFC general manager called it "incredible." Now Mankins is an inspiration to his Patriots teammates. New England quarterback Tom Brady said if Mankins can play a full season with a torn ACL, then the quarterback can play through a bloodied and bruised nose.

7. Did Kolb sway Manning? Once Indianapolis released Peyton Manning, one organization in hot pursuit was Arizona. But before Manning made his decision, the Cardinals decided to pick up the $7 million option bonus payment in Kevin Kolb's contract, believing at the time they would be unable to land the former Colts quarterback. But, as colleague Chris Mortensen pointed out, Manning never told the Cardinals they were eliminated during his two-week free-agent run. The Cards eliminated themselves when they chose to pay Kolb the $7 million roster bonus due March 16. Manning wasn't prepared to make a decision on that date, but sources say the Cardinals likely would have been a co-leader with the Broncos, the team he chose three days later. Nobody will ever know whether Manning's thinking would have swung back to Arizona, but as is the case with Jim Irsay's big decision, it's interesting to contemplate the enormous ripples if it would have.

[+] EnlargeRyan Fitzpatrick
Tim Heitman/US PresswireGiven Ryan Fitzpatrick's struggles, the Bills might rethink their draft strategy.

8. Buffalo's quarterback issues: At a time when so many franchises have emphasized drafting quarterbacks -- see all the rookie quarterbacks starting this season -- it does not seem that Buffalo has done the same. Since the Bills drafted Jim Kelly in the seventh round in 1983, they have drafted only seven quarterbacks -- and only three since 1995: Tulane's J.P. Losman in the first round in 2004, Stanford's Trent Edwards in the third round in 2007 and Troy's Levi Brown in the seventh round in 2010. If Ryan Fitzpatrick were shining, Buffalo would be able to ignore its inattention to the quarterback position. But in his past five starts, Fitzpatrick has thrown 12 interceptions. Now Buffalo needs to find a way to win Sunday's home game against the Kansas City Chiefs, or it will face an 0-2 record and more questions about its quarterback play and direction.

9. Schiano working some magic: Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano returns to New Jersey this weekend, where he made his mark as the head coach at Rutgers. And just as he righted Rutgers, he is doing the same with the Buccaneers. Last season, Tampa Bay allowed a league-worst 156.1 rushing yards per game and a league-worst 30.9 points per game. Yet the Buccaneers opened their season holding Carolina to 10 total rushing yards and 10 total points.

"It felt like old times, when we were a great defense back in the day, when guys played so fast," Buccaneers defensive back Ronde Barber told reporters. "You turned the film on and people would say, 'This film is sped up, it can't possibly be this fast.' That's what it felt like out there."

Now Schiano takes his Tampa Bay team on its NFC East mini-tour, with the game Sunday at the Giants, then at the Cowboys before returning home for a game against the Redskins. But Schiano's experience shines through not only on the field but also off it. Asked about his team's role reversal, Schiano told reporters, "It's all about the players, their commitment to doing what we ask them to do." He's putting it all on the players, and so far, they're responding.

10. Ease off the panic button: A lesson for all the panicked fans in New Orleans, Carolina, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and elsewhere. Back in 2003, the Patriots lost their season-opening game 31-0 to the Bills. Patriots fans panicked. Fans overreacted. And yet the Patriots went on to beat Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Lesson: One game is one game. There are 15 more.

The Schef's specialties

•  Game of the week: Denver at Atlanta -- Probably the most anticipated home opener in Falcons franchise history.

•  Player of the week: Eagles running back LeSean McCoy -- Philadelphia needs its running back, not its quarterback, to be its dominant offensive player.

• Upset of the week: Indianapolis over Minnesota -- Colts quarterback Andrew Luck in line to earn his first NFL win.