The arrival of the late great Peyton Manning I

Surely it is a sign of a small-market sports city that generates such a bold, inch and a quarter headline that says in all caps: “MANNING IN TOWN.”

The headline appeared this morning in the Arizona Republic, heralding the arrival of another past-his-prime football player visiting the NFL Arizona Cardinals.  Manning, a cinch Hall of Fame quarterback after many wonderful seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, is a free agent seeking a contract with a new team.  The Colts released him last week.

The Cardinals have a history of signing fading superstars like running backs Emmett Smith and Edgerrin James.  Neither did much for the team and moved on or retired.  And then there was Kurt Warner,  the former St. Louis Rams great, who did do something very nice here.  He led the team to the Super Bowl several years ago before retiring.

Phoenix has gone ga-ga over Manning’s brief fly-in.  It was big on the 10 o’clock news tonight.  Some fans even hung out at the Cardinals training facility in Tempe to see if they could catch even a fleeting glimpse of the former star.  This town is more hungry for celebrity and autographs than it is football talent.

Manning didn’t play last season because of a neck injury.  No one seems to know for sure if he has made a recovery.  And there is talk his throwing arm is weak.  Any contract he would sign in Arizona or elsewhere would no doubt be laden with incentives.  If he can not measure up, perhaps the team Manning signs with will owe him very little money.

Where or who Manning will visit after he leaves Arizona, that too is unknown.  He has already spent time in Denver with the Broncos who seem ready to grab him as a replacement for Tim Tebow.  That’s the same Tebow who led them to the playoffs last year and created a national celebration of “Tebow mania.”   The Miami Dolphins are also said to be in the running.

Last week, a few days after Manning was released by the Colts, someone at ESPN did a handicap of the five teams most likely to sign the late, great star.  The best fit was the Cardinals, the show’s expert said.  The Washington Redskins were seen as the worst.  Denver, the Dolphins and the New York Jets were somewhere in between.

My personal opinion is this.  Manning will not sign with the Cardinals.

Yes, they have a great receiver in Larry Fitzgerald and a defense that played well the last half of 2011.  But I harken back to Kurt Warner.  The Cardinals did not know what a gem they had in Warner until their “quarterback for the future,” Matt Leinart, became injured.  Surely, if Manning has done his homework he remembers the Warner situation, and how badly that reflects not only on the coach, Ken Whisenhunt, but the entire organization which was oversold on the weak-armed and limited Leinart.

I would question too, if I were Manning, how seriously the Cardinals are in building a strong supporting cast around the quarterback.  The organization has a long history of refusing to pay big bucks to keep talent.  In a short time the Cardinals let key players like wide receiver Anquan Boldin, linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Antrel Rolle slip away.  The exodus was an obvious effort to cut spending and hold the budget to the liking of the Bidwills, the family who owns the Cardinals.

If I’m Manning I’m looking to Denver.  That the Broncos see Tebow for what he is, an over-achiever who may never be more than an average passer in the pass-happy NFL, is a plus in their favor.  No matter that the Mile HIgh City adores Tebow.  And the Broncos will, you better believe it, do everything possible to build up a top group of supporting players for Manning.  They seem to have the money and the will to do that.

So I say, “Manning’s in town,” all right.  But he ain’t staying.

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