Five neck procedures and an early entry into the 2012 NFL Draft by Andrew Luck sent Peyton Manning from the Indianapolis Colts to the NFL transaction wire as a cap casualty after a Pro Football Hall of Fame career.
If Manning had retired after 2011, he would already be in Canton with a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He would be wearing gold jackets at every significant appearance.
Instead, Manning decided to make a comeback to football after his significant neck procedures, and took a free agent tour across the country to find his new team after leaving Indianapolis.
Manning’s free agency courting period was one of the most intense in NFL history. It’s not often a four-time NFL MVP hits the open market.
The Broncos won the sweepstakes just months after Tebowmania ended. Instantly, the team became Super Bowl contenders.
The Broncos signed Manning to a five-year, $96 million deal. After a 1-2 start in Manning’s first season with the team, he and the Broncos turned it on. They ripped off 11-straight wins to finish out the 2012 season, where Manning completed the highest percentage of passes he had in his entire career (68.6).
In 2013, Manning won the NFL MVP award (his fifth) when he threw for 5,477 yards, 55 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions, as the Broncos set an NFL record for most points scored in a single season.
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In 2014, Manning was again an NFL MVP candidate, but the Broncos fell short of their goal in all of those first three seasons.
In 2015, Manning had physically declined to the point that he was almost a liability. He spent a few games recovering from an injury and was replaced by his backup Brock Osweiler, who held the fort down in his place.
With the top seed in the AFC on the line in the 2015 season, the Broncos pulled Osweiler at halftime of the last regular season game of the year in favor of Manning. The all-time great’s presence galvanized the team.
Denver didn’t lose a game after Dec. 20, 2015, ripping off five straight — including three in the playoffs — to win Super Bowl 50 over the Carolina Panthers.
Manning should go down as not only the greatest free agent signing in Broncos history, but arguably the greatest free agent signing in the history of professional sports.