With results ranging from Albert Haynesworth to Brett Favre, it can be hard to tell whether a high-priced and high-mileage star player can take an NFL franchise from on-the-precipice to the promised land. Can one huge signing, like Peyton Manning maybe, put your favorite squad over the top? Somewhat surprisingly, the answer has (in recent history) been "yes."
Sure, NFL lore is filled with over-the-hill veterans playing one last gasp in a different uniform and many of those situations resulted in painful memories for players and fans alike. In fact, the less said about the Haynesworths of the world, the better. The Arizona Cardinals' error with Emmitt Smith is likewise best forgotten. Jevon Kearse to Philadelphia in 2004 was designed to put Donovan McNabb's Eagles on the Super Bowl-winning slate. It did not happen.
Pessimistic fans also point to Desmond Howard and Larry Brown as famous free agent failures, but seriously, did anyone not named Al Davis ever think that a return man or a DB was going to get you to the Super Bowl?
Nonetheless, successful free agent catapults are not difficult to find--beginning with the granddaddy of them all: Reggie White to the Green Bay Packers. White defined the "missing piece" theory of veteran acquisitions. Before the Hall of Fame sackmaster arrived, the Packer defensive line was stocked with players who should have been better: Santana Dotson, Sean Jones and Gilbert Brown. When "The Minister of Defense" joined them in Cheesehead land, the 1996 World Champion Green Bay Packers allowed 19 touchdowns. All. Year.
Brett Favre said of White: "He may have been best player I've ever seen and certainly was the best I've ever played with or against."
Favre himself went on to fulfill the "missing piece" role in Minnesota in 2009, when he was one Bounty Gate away from the Super Bowl. Famous No. 4 had the best season of his career at age 40. He threw 33 touchdowns, seven interceptions while completing 68.4% of his passes on the way to a QB rating of 107.2.
Favre also brought the ever-illusive "winning culture" to the Vikings. Detractors may always label the wing-and-a-prayer passer a reckless gunslinger, but 186 victories have a way of making believers out of a clubhouse.
Kurt Warner took the "Tinker Bell theory" of quarterbacking to a new level twice in a single career. Bagger to MVP to washed-up benchwarmer to a second record-setting Super Bowl. If that doesn't make you believe in miracles, you have no business being a sports fan. Who knew all he needed was a glove?
Of course, Denver fans devoutly hope that Peyton Manning as a Bronco will turn out to be a combination of Warner and Joe Montana. After losing his job to injury (sound familiar?), Montana asked to be traded to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1993.
President and General Manager Carl Peterson remembered:
My 80-year-old mother [called and said], 'Why are you trading for a 37-year-old quarterback who is coming off of two major surgeries?' ... But you can't pay for that kind of experience or success... [or leadership]. I don't know that I've ever seen players play as hard for an individual.
None of these success stories happened in a vacuum. White had Farve, Farve had Adrian Peterson, Warner had Larry Fitzgerald. And Joe Cool had Will Shields, Marcus Allen and an exceptional defense.
What will Manning have as he tries to finish his own Hall of Fame career at Mile High?
• He'll have a defensive guru head coach with an improving second-year 4-3 D. If Champ Bailey can produce for another year or two, he'll have a secondary that doesn't give up too much. But the Broncos need to do something at defensive tackle: Broderick Bunkley's departure is a problem in light of D.J. Williams' six-game suspension. Run D will be in the hands of uneven Kevin Dickerson and Justin Bannan as well as rookie Derek Wolfe. Stay tuned.
• Manning may have a decent rushing attack if Willis McGahee can also keep the cylinders churning for another season. Denver is looking to rookie Ronnie Hillman to, at the least, compete with disappointing Knowshon Moreno and, at best, become the Darren Sproles-type of speedster that offenses currently dream of. Just imagine what Peyton Manning could do with one of those. Or ask Drew Brees.
• Manning will not lack for wide receiving talent with Eric Decker and DeMaryius Thomas plus whichever rookies shine in the next months. He'll also have two pretty good TEs in Joel Dreessen and former Colt Jacob Tamme. He'll even have stalwart, smart Brandon Stokely in his camp. It's too bad that Stokely isn't the athlete that he once was, because this faithful Manning friend will have the shortest synchronicity curve with his once and present quarterback.
• And Peyton will have an offensive line that was terrific in 2011--at run blocking. In pass protection, let's just say that there is room for (much) improvement. It's time for LT Ryan Clady to earn the contract extension he's about to get. Maybe they should give him a copy of The Blind Side.
Manning has two Baylor University centers auditioning for the role of Jeff Saturday: Philip Blake and J.D. Walton. Good luck living up to that.
Without a Thomas Moore or Howard Mudd in sight, the building job falls to second-year O-line coach, Dave Magazu. But no pressure, dude, it's only Peyton Manning back there.
The same Peyton Manning who has had four neck surgeries since his last live snap. This fact has resulted in similar concerns to those expressed by Mr. Peterson's mama. Peyton Manning is guaranteed $18 million for the 2012 NFL season. The rest of his third loaded NFL contract depends almost entirely upon health.
Manning's performance this offseason has gone a ways towards allaying fears. The quarterback's accuracy has returned in full force, although he did not throw deep in May OTAs. At least not publicly. Manning is already molding the Denver offense into an approximation of the no-huddle, flying-audible, wide-tight end unit that used to wear blue and white. It appears that the anticipated "learning of a new offense" in Denver will be done by the rest of the offense. Gee, what a surprise.
Montana and Favre led their last teams to the Conference Championship Game; Warner led his to the Super Bowl. Will Manning be the one to take the crown with separate teams? If anyone can win the Big One wearing two different uniforms, it will be No. 18.