The Seattle Seahawks owned the NFC West for years because their owner, Paul Allen, was so clearly superior to his peers in the division.
It was Allen who pushed through a stadium referendum precipitating his purchase of the team in the late 1990s. It was Allen's ownership that enabled the team to hire Mike Holmgren in 1999, another watershed moment for the franchise.
Those two owner-driven events set up the team for seven division titles during a 12-year period, including five in a row beginning in 2003.
Visions of Allen's Seahawks squirming while Peyton Manning visited the Arizona Cardinals over the weekend might not mean much if Manning signs outside the NFC West or agrees to visit Seattle after all. But with Arizona holding a clear edge over the Seahawks at this point in the process, the shrinking ownership gap in the division is worth our attention.
Allen hasn't necessarily slipped even though his fortune, once estimated to exceed $30 billion, has reportedly shrunk to less than half that amount. He remains the wealthiest NFL owner by a wide margin. He helped finance a state-of-the-art waterfront facility that opened in 2008. He gives football decision makers wide latitude and ample resources.
But with the Cardinals' Michael Bidwill and the San Francisco 49ers' Jed York securing new stadiums and winning division titles recently, the Seahawks' competitors have gained ground. Stan Kroenke's ascent in St. Louis has brightened the Rams' outlook as well.
For Arizona, getting Manning to visit was nice. Getting him to sign with the team would more emphatically validate the the Cardinals' progress as an organization.
Bidwill, like York, has a familial reputation to live down.
"(Bidwill) is hugely aware of our fan base and how his dad is viewed," a team source told ESPN's Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter over the weekend. "He came to work with this team to get the stadium built. It took him a long time to get that done, but he did. He is a driven young owner that wants to totally change this franchise's image."
Winning back-to-back division titles while making a Super Bowl appearance affirmed Bidwill's long-held stance that stadium revenue would change how the team could operate. But the Cardinals' 13-19 record over the past two seasons has lent credence to the idea that the team basically lucked into Kurt Warner's career revival.
Beating out John Elway and others for Manning would be another game-changer, comparable to the day Seattle landed Holmgren and, to an extent, when the 49ers secured Jim Harbaugh. Holmgren and Harbaugh were the hottest coaching candidates at the time. Manning, though coming off neck surgeries that might still threaten his career, outranks both in NFL history.
The Cardinals need him. They bet big on Kevin Kolb last offseason, and are running a fat deficit on the investment, with few promising signs. John Clayton's recent report about the team losing confidence in Kolb sounded ominous. Coach Ken Whisenhunt might still need to win the bet on Kolb, but the cost of losing it would disappear if Manning signed with the team.
Finding a quarterback requires taking chances. Manning would be the safest bet in NFL history without the neck surgeries. He still appears to be a safer gamble than putting down another $7 million to continue the relationship with Kolb, a payment that comes due at week's end. Paying Kolb in the absence of Manning would not necessarily prevent John Skelton from winning the starting job.
A year ago, the Kolb experiment gave the Cardinals an opportunity to find out whether Whisenhunt could identify and develop quarterbacks. To what degree had he shaped Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and, later, Warner in Arizona? That question becomes far less relevant if the Cardinals can close a deal with Manning.
Bidwill's father made a run at Joe Montana in 1993. This time, the Cardinals appear to have a legitimate chance. Times have changed, but by how much? Manning's decision will provide one measure.