In the early days of the AFC South, Tennessee Titans defensive coaches often dreamed up new, meaningless alignments for games against the Indianapolis Colts just to confuse quarterback Peyton Manning. The thinking was that if Manning had seen it, he knew what to do, so they gave him something he had not seen.
Such was the challenge of trying to play against one of the NFL’s all-time great quarterbacks.
These days it is the imagination of Titans fans that is racing as they ponder the possibility that — a little more than a month from now — the sure-fire Hall of Famer will be released and become a free agent. At issue is the neck injury, which caused him to miss all of the 2011 season, and a $28 million bonus he’s due if he’s on Indianapolis’ roster on March 8.
Thoughts of Manning (who played his college ball in Knoxville) joining the Titans have inspired at least one website, comehomepeyton.com, much debate on sports talk radio and speculation in the national media.
Let us break it down for you:
THE CASE FOR SIGNING MANNING
• Numbers, numbers and more numbers: Manning is the NFL’s only four-time most valuable player. In 13 seasons, he has thrown for 54,828 yards and 399 touchdowns, and it’s not as if he’s slowing down. He threw for more than 4,000 yards in each of his past five seasons, including a career-high 4,700 in 2010. He has thrown more than 30 touchdown passes six times in his career, including four times in his past five seasons. Some of that he did with a wide receivers group that does not measure up to what currently is on Tennessee’s roster.
• Good publicity: When the Titans first took up residence in Middle Tennessee, many fans wistfully talked about the need for Manning to be the quarterback. Reality set in over the years, and fans came to grips with the fact that — in a professional football sense — he belonged to another fan base. It’s not as if the Titans ever have had trouble selling tickets either, but the addition of Manning undoubtedly would create a fervor that would spike merchandise sales and the like locally and would lead to more national television appearances that would raise the franchise’s overall profile.
• Rundown running game: One sure-fire way for running back Chris Johnson to regain his status as a consistent big-play threat would be to have opposing defenses back away from the line of scrimmage. With Manning under center, stopping the pass becomes the top priority. Plus, his savvy in diagnosing a defense prior to the snap and his ability to change play calls as needed almost certainly give Johnson more opportunities to take advantage of a defense’s weakness and, in turn, to put his high-end speed to much better use.
• If you can’t beat him … : Assuming Manning is available and gets medical clearance, somebody is going to sign him. If the Titans elect not to be that somebody, it’s possible he could end up back in the AFC South. Blaine Gabbert hardly established himself as the long-term answer in Jacksonville last season, and Matt Schaub has one year remaining on his contract in Houston, which means the Texans could make a move. The Titans have lost five straight and 13 out of their last 16 to Manning. It might be worth it just to make sure they no longer have to face him twice a year.
THE CASE AGAINST SIGNING MANNING
• More pressing matters: The Titans dealt with the quarterback position last offseason. After five years of Kerry Collins and Vince Young, which resulted in just two playoff appearances (no wins), franchise officials addressed the present when they signed free agent Matt Hasselbeck and the future when they drafted Jake Locker. This spring and summer they figure to seek upgrades at defensive end and must replenish the defensive backfield, particularly at safety. In that regard, adding Manning would be a step backward.
• By a neck: At this point, there are no guarantees about Manning’s health. Before last season he never had missed a game in his NFL career, but three neck surgeries and the extended absence created by the last one create legitimate questions about his ability to endure the rigors of another 16-game season. The salary he will command seems like a much riskier venture against that backdrop.
• Developmental detriment: No one doubts that Manning could teach most anyone a thing or two about playing quarterback. Whether or not he actually can impart any of his wisdom in a usable fashion remains unclear. His two primary backups with the Colts, Jim Sorgi and Curtis Painter, have not exactly set the world on fire. Part of that has to do with the fact that Manning steadfastly refuses to come out of games, even with his team comfortably in front. So his backups get no practical experience. With the development of Locker still a high priority, that sort of dynamic seems counterproductive.
• Lightning does not strike twice: Legendary quarterbacks who have tried to extend their careers with a new franchise typically have failed to live up to their performance standards. Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas had completely forgettable stints with the Rams and Chargers, respectively. Brett Favre got Minnesota to the NFC championship game followed by an utterly forgettable season and preceded by an equally disappointing one with the Jets. Joe Montana went 17-8 and won two playoff games with Kansas City but never got the Chiefs to the Super Bowl.