In 1998, before Peyton Manning had ever played an NFL game, the Carolina Panthers tried to trade for him.
That never worked out, and both Manning and the Panthers went their separate ways. They collide again on Sunday in Super Bowl 50 – a game that could be Manning’s last in the NFL.
Manning was one of the star attractions Monday night at the Super Bowl’s media day, surrounded by hundreds of reporters and cameras. He will become the oldest quarterback to ever start a Super Bowl on Sunday and said he planned to embrace every moment in the run-up to the game. He even hopes he can take a break from his pregame routine to stand beside brother Eli Manning when the NFL honors all the living Super Bowl MVPs.
“It’s important to enjoy Super Bowl week and not just try to get through it,” Manning said. “I’m very grateful to have one more opportunity in a season in which our defense has led the charge to get here.”
At 39, Manning is a far different quarterback than he was when Carolina attempted to get him 18 years ago. His arm isn’t as strong. His mind is stronger. And the biggest sentimental favorite in this game can still win, as evidenced by his two playoff victories this postseason.
Tony Gonzalez, who played 17 years in the NFL before retiring, knows what Manning is going through trying to play at an advanced age.
“Oh, it sucks,” Gonzalez said. “The older you get, the harder it gets. The more preparation, the more time it takes to get ready. and you start having to play the game with your mind than your body, because your body can’t do what it used to do.”
‘Old Peyton is gone’
Still Gonzalez said, he believes Manning could muster up enough to win what the quarterback told New England coach Bill Belichick after the AFC Championship Game might be his “last rodeo.” Said Gonzalez: “I’m never counting out ‘The Sheriff.’ I’m never counting out one of the best players to ever do this. ... I’m not saying he’s going to put up 400 yards. That old Peyton is gone. But I think he can be efficient, not turn the ball over and ride the defense. If he does that, there’s no reason why Denver can’t win this game.”
Manning was in a fine mood Monday night, saying he was in “no hurry” for Sunday to get here. One of the most immobile quarterbacks in history, Manning joked that he thought the Panthers would probably use one of their linebackers as a “spy” on him because of an improbable run he made for a first down against New England.
On a more serious note, Manning also said he had “no doubt” Cam Newton would be revealed as the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Saturday night and said he thought Newton and his celebrations were “good for the game.”
Potential trade included Collins, Moose
Once, long ago, the Panthers dreamed of celebrating with Manning instead of trying to beat him to get their first-ever Super Bowl victory. Like everyone in the NFL, Carolina recognized Manning’s potential in 1998.
The Panthers – then run by coach Dom Capers, who also served as the team’s de facto general manager – tried to trade for the No. 1 pick held by Indianapolis. They thought they had a chance because the Colts’ football operations were run by Bill Polian, a future NFL Hall of Famer who had left the Panthers following the 1997 season for more power and more money with Indianapolis.
Polian was a big Kerry Collins guy. He had drafted Collins originally as Carolina’s first-ever draft choice in 1995. And so the Panthers wanted to send a package to Indianapolis that included Collins, wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad and a slew of draft picks for the right to draft Manning.
“I thought Bill would do it because he wanted Kerry,” Panthers owner Jerry Richardson told The Observer in 2012.
But Polian decided not to pull the trigger on that deal and to draft Manning instead, and Indianapolis benefited for more than a decade from that decision. In his 18th year, Manning already has done just about everything a quarterback could do in the NFL. But his playoff resume is spotty – he has won only a single Super Bowl in three tries and has suffered a number of playoff upsets. Many in America outside of Charlotte would like to see him go out on top Sunday.
‘He’s had enough’
The Panthers, of course, aren’t a bit sentimental about what is widely considered to be Manning’s last game – although he won’t say whether it is or not. (The Broncos, who already benched him once this season, would have to pony up more than $20 million to keep him next season. So if Manning does play, it may well be elsewhere).
“We don’t really care if this is his last game,” Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert told me last week about Manning. “He’s played what – 18, 19 years? He’s had enough, you know what I’m saying? It’s our turn.”
Manning had career lows in touchdown passes (nine) and quarterback rating (67.9) this season. Never the strongest-armed quarterback to play the game, his throws flutter more than they used to. But he still is the master of pre-snap adjustments and played well against New England, with two early TD passes that held up for the victory.
“He’s still Peyton,” Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “I don’t care what anyone says.”
Phil Simms, the former Super Bowl MVP quarterback who will call Sunday’s game for CBS, said he believes Manning will play a conservative game Sunday and count on the Broncos’ relentless defense.
“Peyton will check and call plays a lot of time according to how games are going,” Simms said. “It’s not just ‘We’re going to try to score all the time’ like it was at Indy. Now he knows he’s playing with a Super Bowl defense and that changes his thought process.”
The Panthers are favored to win Super Bowl 50 largely because Newton had an MVP season and Manning had one so inconsistent that the Broncos actually benched him for awhile.
But even his 18th season, the Panthers know they can never discount No. 18.