Thoughts on Peyton Manning and where the Titans stand in free agency

We’re now officially three-plus days into free agency, and I thought it would be useful to take a look at where the Titans stand. I also haven’t weighed in on here on what’s become the biggest focus of Free Agencypalooza 2012, Peyton Manning Watch, and figure it’s time to do just that.

While I listed the holes on the roster, I ended up not putting together a post with parameters for what I would have considered a “successful” free agency period for the Titans. One of my high priorities would have been adding talent at defensive end, both to fill the holes and to upgrade the anemic pass rush. Mario Williams, my highest-priority defensive end, is off the table, and the only free agent I identified as a top-level defensive end remaining is Andre Carter. I haven’t heard much about Carter, his current health, or what the market for him looks like in free agency. He may sign tomorrow or at the end of the month without it surprising me. I expressed an interest in two bodies at the position, but wouldn’t be surprised if a second player wasn’t signed until possibly even after the draft.

With Jordan Babineaux re-signed, I didn’t expect them to enter into the overheated safety market, and they of course did not (any market where Brandon Meriweather gets much more than the league minimum is by definition overheated). My outlook on the guard position was relatively grim, especially when it came to right guards. They did sign Steve Hutchinson, but he still doesn’t fill the right guard vacanacy. Paul Kuharsky has mentioned (learned? speculated?) the plan is for Leroy Harris to play right guard, which I freely admit doesn’t thrill me. With Mike Brisiel signing with the Raiders, there’s not an available right guard I like. The Titans also reportedly pursued centers Chris Myers and Scott Wells, but both have now signed elsewhere. I’ll write about how I think the offensive line could shake out probably next week. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them sign Jeff Saturday if Peyton Manning comes to town.

I’ll stick my thoughts on Peyton Manning after the jump, because, frankly, that’s where I think they belong.

Welcome, Nashville, to Crazy Bud! As those of us who’ve been fans of the team since the days in Houston and/or know the franchise history know, Bud Adams is capable of sticking his head into things and making a mess of them. He’s been pretty invisible the last fifteen years or so, and somehow the Titans in that time have looked like a normal NFL team and not had an extended run where they win 10 games in three seasons or anything like that.

Bud’s hallmark, though, is that he will fall in absolute lust at times and pursue a person to the detriment of everything else. We caught a little bit of that in Nashville, when he reportedly told the front office to draft Vince Young third overall in 2006 or he’d fire everybody. (To be honest, I was in favor of drafting VY then too.) He did it with Warren Moon, luring him away from the CFL with what I believe was the biggest contract in NFL history at the time, and he was still in love enough with Moon to give him a big extension in 1988. He did it a lot in the early days of the franchise, doing his best to replace George Blanda with the new hotness, until finally getting rid of Blanda. As longtime Houston Chronicle scribe John McClain noted, the last person Bud gave a lifetime contract to was coach Bill Peterson. He lasted 18 months.

As to Peyton as a Titan, well, I’d be a liar if I said the idea wasn’t intriguing. If he’s healthy and can throw, he’s still an older but very good NFL quarterback. At 36, realistically, he has potentially three good seasons left, but you can’t count on those and getting more than that is rare. Quarterbacks who started a full season at quarterback in the NFL at 39 or older and weren’t terrible were (a) Warren Moon, (b) Brett Favre, and (c) that’s it. Manning may want to play long enough to break Favre’s records (the good ones), but history says that even historically great quarterbacks like Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Dan Marino generally can’t play that long.

Getting a read on exactly what kind of quarterback Peyton Manning could be in 2012 is difficult. We last saw him with the 2010 Colts, a team he more or less personally carried to the postseason with the help of an aging core around him. That team didn’t have much speed outside of Pierre Garcon, though, didn’t have a back who played and who could run the ball effectively, and had a pathetic offensive line. Peyton threw a lot, and threw short an awful lot, almost Tom Brady-like, but a lot of that looked like it was out of necessity more than out of desire. Still, when he did throw downfield, he made decisions that were at times shockingly un-Peyton Manning-like, and he didn’t seem to be as effective on deep passes as he was even a couple years earlier.

Mind you, I’m not saying Peyton would be Matt Hasselbeck. But I’m guessing he’s a lot closer to Matt Hasselbeck’s arm now than he was in 2006. You can still play quarterback at a pretty high level without great arm strength, as Tom Brady has shown. The better comparison for Peyton Manning might be good/healthy Chad Pennington. Pennington never had a laser rocket arm for throws like the deep out, but was still pretty good at times. Peyton could do that sort of thing.

One of the big keys to success in doing that sort of thing, though, is repetitions between the quarterback and the receiver, so that each knows exactly where the other will be in every situation. Chris Palmer’s implementation of extensive use of option routes and automatic adjustments moved the Titans a lot closer to what the Colts with Manning were doing than they were doing previously. The stop-and-start progress of players like Jared Cook, Lavelle Hawkins, and Damian Williams last year might mean better things in 2012. Kenny Britt’s development and rehab obviously matters here as well.

Beyond Britt, the player that has people envisioning touchdown dances in their head with Peyton is Chris Johnson. I’m not sure I’ve seen this parallel made explicitly, but the thinking seems to be CJ could be the late-career offensive enhancer that Terrell Davis was for John Elway. I don’t agree with this position at all. In fact, I think Chris Johnson is a horrible match for Peyton Manning. Manning’s extensive system of check-with-me audibles and changing plays at the line of scrimmage between run and pass depends on the running back getting what’s there when it’s available.

Even discounting the parts of 2011 where his performance was indistinguishable from that of player who wasn’t trying, that’s never been what Chris Johnson has been. At his best, he got you ten yards when ten yards was just barely available. He’s never been the kind of player who got you two yards when you had to squeeze out two yards. The ground game in Indianapolis at its best was the perfect Peyton Manning complement, punishing the defense with consistent successful plays as teams focused on defending the pass. CJ’s boom-and-bust style just doesn’t work for that.

The other evidence from Indianapolis is that running backs who play with Peyton Manning rarely go boom. Yes, some of that is who guys like Edgerring James, Dom Rhodes, and Joseph Addai were/are as runners, but the running game’s strategic use was part of the cause of that. The reason they could get five yards every time was the defense. The reason they rarely got more than ten was the same defense that allowed them to get five in the first place. That’s the Peyton Manning tradeoff.

The other part is that with Peyton Manning changing plays, you don’t know for sure if the back will be a runner or involved in the passing game. The Colts spent first round draft picks on players like James and Addai because they were superior pass protectors and capable or better receivers. CJ is adequate at best as a pass protector, I don’t think he’s run an actual route (as opposed to “just get over there in space” or “just run down the field”) in his entire Titans tenure, and he’s not great at catching the ball. The only time he’s been a real plus as a receiver was in the well-tuned scheme game the second half of 2009.

I’m not sure just what the Titans would do at running back if they signed Peyton Manning. Joe Addai is a free agent. While he still knows how to pass block, he’s no longer an effective rusher or receiver. I could see the Titans picking him up, at least as insurance, but doubt he would play that much. In my mind, Javon Ringer would be a big beneficiary, and I’d expect him to play an awful lot, quite possibly as much as or more than CJ at the high end.

The other big question a Peyton Manning acquisition poses is what it means for Jake Locker. My expectation Peyton plays for a minimum of three seasons takes you up to the end of Jake Locker’s rookie contract. I’d pretty much guarantee you that the only way Jake Locker is on the Titans in year five of his career is he’s getting paid like a starting quarterback.

If you sign Peyton, you have two options with Locker. First, he can be a fairly reasonably-priced backup for the next three seasons. Most of his money came in the form of signing bonus, which is on your cap one way or the other over the next couple seasons, and I believe his salary maxes out at just under $2.1 million in his fourth year. Second, you can try to trade him. He was the eighth overall pick in last year’s draft, and while I think he was over-drafted (yes, even if the Vikings had taken him at 12, I’d still call it an over-draft), he might be worth something. Personally, I wouldn’t expect more than a pick maybe somewhere in the latter half of the first-round, or a rough equivalent (trade-up in this year’s draft, or a second plus future pick?).

I’ve seen the topic of trading Locker raised elsewhere, and the reaction has been somewhere between shock and horror. Frankly, I think it makes a lot of sense. Backup quarterbacks under Peyton Manning, outside the preseason, simply don’t get work. He’s been on the field (outside of 2011, obviously), except when deliberately sitting because of game situation-related reasons. Further, he takes every rep in practice he can get. If the Titans sign Peyton and Kenny Britt catches a pass in practice in 2012 or 2013, it will be from Peyton Manning unless Peyton Manning is physically not capable of throwing that pass. Locker’s development more or less comes to an effective halt, which is another reason trading him is something you have to consider.

While Locker showed some encouraging signs in 2011, I’m not sold on his long-term future, and losing him is far from an absolute impediment to a Peyton signing. The ultimate question is, will signing Peyton Manning bring you a Super Bowl? Obviously with a great quarterback you can do many things, and it’s certainly possible the Titans could win a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning. The answer to this question for me, though, is simply No.

This post is longer than I planned it already, but briefly, the past ten Super Bowl winners are teams that have been capable of playing at an elite level on both offense and defense. Obviously with teams like both Giants champs, these teams haven’t always done so, but they’ve generally had to win at least one game in the playoffs with elite defense and one with elite offense. The Titans’ problem is that, while it was a pleasant surprise in 2011, the defense isn’t good enough to win the Super Bowl, and they’re not that close. Frankly, the Titans don’t have enough very good or great players on defense, and it’s hard to get players like that. Granted, they just let one of those players walk in Cortland Finnegan, but the Titans valued him as a very good player and he thought (and got paid like) he was a great one. That’s why I wanted Mario Williams so much, because he’ll be at least a very good player at a premium position and could be a great one.

Without a defense capable of playing at an elite level, the 2012 Titans would be pretty much in the same place the 2010 Colts were: a team that’s on Bill Belichick’s list of the ten to twelve teams that could realistically start the season thinking about the Super Bowl, but not among the four to six teams best-positioned to make a run at the Super Bowl. The normal fate for those teams is some regular season success, but eventual playoff heartbreak, as Colts fans can tell you.

Ultimately, the question the Titans need to ask is, are my chances of winning better with three years (or more) of Peyton Manning and then what comes after that, or by taking the risk of Jake Locker’s development and potentially having a decade where I could be on the Super Bowl long list at worst. Despite my Locker skepticism, I believe the Titans will be better off playing the long game, betting on Locker’s development and adding impact defensive players over time. Bringing Peyton Manning to Nashville may seem like a delightful dream, but it’s one that I doubt ends in the promise land and is more likely to bring heartache and a darker tomorrow. That is why I say: Just say no to Peyton Manning, Tennessee Titan.

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