Best bets for Peyton Manning's future

Wednesday was the fond farewell to the only franchise Peyton Manning has ever known. By Wednesday night, Manning's next mission was on, and the drive remains the same – ring or bust.

The tears of Wednesday afternoon aside, even with all the emotional churning that accompanied the divorce from the Indianapolis Colts, Peyton Manning remains a fairly dispassionate man.

The voice broke some on Wednesday but, at least as a player and decision-maker, the four-time most valuable player likely won't crack when the time comes to choose where he will resume his brilliant career.

Assuming his surgically repaired neck will permit him to return to the field -- and beyond the suggestions and video evidence that Manning has made great strides of late, and that the nerves in his triceps have begun to regenerate, the iconic quarterback made it clear in exiting the Colts that he has no plans to retire -- the decision on where to sign as a free agent will be a largely pragmatic one.

Essentially, Manning wants what he has always coveted, a chance not only to win, but to challenge for a championship. And that, as much as any element, will play the biggest part in determining where he plays next.

Sure, money will be a factor, and we'd all be naive to believe that Manning and longtime agent Tom Condon won't consider the big numbers on any proposal. After all, a man as prideful and controlling as Manning isn't going to play for nothing. It was a bit disingenuous, in truth, for both Manning and owner Jim Irsay to repeatedly contend that dollars didn't enter into the sense of their decision to part ways.

One of the most genuine and generous men we know, a close friend who once offered to send his private jet to ferry me home from Phoenix after open-heart surgery four years ago, Irsay is nonetheless a businessman. And Manning, inarguably one of the most football-obsessed players we've met in more than three decades of hanging around NFL locker rooms, is hardly unaware of his value, even coming off a season of inactivity. Those "circumstances" to which the two men incessantly referred on Wednesday probably would have been far different minus a $28 million option payment.

Yeah, Manning, with whom we've enjoyed countless discussions concerning football at all levels (he used to grill me at length, because of living in Atlanta, about the state of affairs in the SEC), might be one of those guys who contends he would "play for nothing." But he won't, and any of his potential suitors over the next week or so are aware of that, certainly.

At the Super Bowl run-up last month, Irsay told us that, "reasonable men can come to reasonable agreements if they both want." Wednesday was hardly an example of Manning and Irsay being unreasonable as much as it was neither man desiring to extend a charade. Irsay during the farewell news conference acknowledged that the Colts, who he said were "a few years away," are committed to rebuilding mode, and allowed somewhat candidly that the roster for 2012 won't even be as good as the tattered one Manning joined in 1998. Manning wants to win -- his little brother, after all, now holds the family lead in Super Bowl rings -- and the team with which he enjoyed so much success is being summarily deconstructed.

Manning is also fueled by a competitive mien, and a compulsion to be known as the best. He is calculating, in the most positive sense of the word, controlling, bent on the pursuit of excellence. One of the things, in fact, that used to rattle some of his Indianapolis teammates was the real sense that Manning expected them to be as dedicated to chasing perfection as was he. Their frustrations at not being able to approximate his unattainable standards was a frequent gripe. He set the bar at a lofty perch and expected everyone to high-jump to clear it. The perception of Manning as the puppeteer who expected everyone else to react accordingly when he pulled the strings is not an inaccurate one.

That is not to say that Manning is a manipulator, nor that he expects any new teammates to accept him as the unquestioned director of a bunch of marionettes, but the 14-year veteran at heart is a creature of habit. And no matter where he winds up, the players must be prepared for the withering stares that can often accompany a poorly-executed route, the head-shakes that suggest dissatisfaction, the unending quest for doing things the right way.

And they must be prepared to want -- no, to expect, perhaps -- to win.

In that sense, there could be a surprisingly finite number of franchises Manning will seriously consider, and which at the same time should consider him.

A few years ago, during a visit to Indianapolis for a minicamp, Manning espoused privately about coaches for whom he might like to play. Granted, this was well before Tony Dungy even considered leaving the Colts, so the lengthy talk was little more than speculation. And since it was just two guys simply chewing the fat, and was as much off the cuff as off-the-record, it would be a violation of ethics and a longtime relationship to disclose it. This much we will allow: None of the coaches discussed by Manning are with the franchises most linked to him the past few weeks in speculation. A few aren't even currently in the league.

And so where does Manning land?

As noted in The Tip Sheet a couple weeks ago, there aren't as many franchises in pursuit of a starting-caliber quarterback as the gnashing of teeth about the dearth of quality at the position might indicate. But there are a few and most of them likely spent Wednesday afternoon internally discussing the nuances of the chase.

Three of the teams rumored to have some interest -- Washington, Miami, and Kansas City -- each possesses more than $30 million in salary cap room. But the Redskins' offense might not be a good fit and the Chiefs, while probably more competitive under Romeo Crennel and in a suspect division, still have some holes to fill.

It's hard to imagine Manning playing for the blowhard Rex Ryan, isn't it? Although the specter of him sharing a city and headlines with Eli might not be so difficult, and the New York tabloids will doubtless play up such potential on Thursday. Houston, we've been told, is out of the question. Arizona is intriguing, particularly with the presence of Larry Fitzgerald, and coach Ken Whisenhunt's preference for an upfield passing game, but the Cardinals invested last year in Kevin Kolb. Seattle has the lure of a wealthy owner, and some pieces in place, but is a long way away.

If we were betting, and we're not, we might lay a buck or two on Miami. The Dolphins have a new coach who would probably cede some clout to Manning, a Pro Bowl left tackle, one talented receiver, a running back who approximates the mold of Joseph Addai, and a competitive defense. And they've got an owner, in the very conspicuous Stephen Ross, who wants to make a splash beyond the one created by the Dolphin on the team insignia.

There were even some rumblings Tuesday night that Ross wouldn't object all that strenuously if Manning wanted to bring along some of his buddies who are either out of work already, or soon would be. Manning has never struck us as a South Beach kind of guy, but there could be worse places than a reunion with the likes of Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Jeff Saturday, and others, in the sun. The bottom line, though, for Manning, is winning. And the team that convinces him it has the best chance to do so, not necessarily offering the most money, will have a leg up.

During the Wednesday press conference, Irsay recalled that, when Manning and the Colts went on the road, it was "like the circus coming to town." And, Irsay noted, "Peyton was the ringleader."

Most big-top barkers, though, preside over a three-ring circus.

Manning's overriding incentive instead will be getting to a franchise where he can earn a second ring.

Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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