MIAMI -- Comparisons, like expectations, have followed Peyton Manning from Tennessee to Indianapolis and now to Miami.
At first, when he was leaving the University of Tennessee and vying to become the No. 1 overall pick, Manning was compared to Ryan Leaf.
Later, after he had established himself as one of the game's top players and as he clashed in the postseason with New England, Manning was compared to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Now, 60 minutes from his second Super Bowl title, Manning is being compared to Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, John Elway, Dan Marino -- the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game.
But maybe the most appropriate comparison is one that's far less obvious but even more pertinent. Manning has turned into the NFL's version of Michael Jordan.
Think about it. After Chicago drafted Jordan in the first round of 1984, he listened to doubters and skeptics until he won his first NBA championship during his seventh season.
After Indianapolis drafted Manning in the first round of 1998 -- the year when Jordan won his sixth and final NBA championship -- he listened to doubters and skeptics until he won his first Super Bowl during his ninth season.
During his 15 seasons, Jordan won five NBA Most Valuable Player awards and was selected to the All-Star Game 14 times.
During his 12 seasons, Manning has won four NFL Most Valuable Player awards and has selected to the Pro Bowl 10 times.
Assuming the 33-year-old Manning plays about five more seasons, he will have a chance to match, if not pass, the number of MVP awards and all-star selections that Jordan had.
Each has been the most unstoppable force in his sport for a long stretch of time -- one becoming "Air Jordan," the other building his reputation and legacy through the air.
Each has been the most marketable player of his era in his sport. Jordan became a major spokesman for, among others, Wheaties and Gatorade.
Manning has become a major spokesman for, among others, Wheaties and Gatorade.
In a city with a rich sports history -- with memorable men such as Shoeless Joe Jackson, George Halas, Ernie Banks and Walter Payton -- Jordan is Chicago's sports king.
In Indianapolis, Manning now trumps Bobby Knight, Roger Brown and Reggie Miller in terms of popularity and productivity.
The glaring difference between Jordan and Manning is, of course, the number of championships. Jordan won six NBA titles -- five more than Manning, who now has the chance to narrow the gap to four. But it's easier for one player dominate in basketball than in football.
So while Manning gets compared to Unitas and Montana, there is one other comparison that will become more relevant should the Colts find a way to beat New Orleans and win Super Bowl XLIV. Manning moves into Jordan's court.
It's a little funny because, during their time together in Indianapolis, Manning has played multiple rounds of golf with Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird. But Manning is about to be paired with Jordan.
And now this week's 10 Spot.
For all those teams attempting to rebuild their offensive lines, New Orleans and Indianapolis provide a fine example of how to do it. The two starting offensive lines have no first-round picks and three undrafted free agents, all from Indianapolis. In fact, the highest drafted offensive line starter in Super Bowl XLIV will be Saints right tackle Jonathan Stinchcomb, whom New Orleans drafted out of Georgia in 2003 with the 37th overall pick. Otherwise, each team's offensive line is filled with scrap-heap pieces that few wanted.
Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod was drafted out of Towson State University in 2007 with the 125th overall pick, left guard Carl Nicks was drafted out of Nebraska in 2008 with the 164th overall pick, center Jonathan Goodwin was drafted out of Michigan in 2002 with the 154th overall pick, right guard Jahri Evans was drafted out of Division II Bloomsburg in 2006 with the 108th overall pick, and Stinchbomb rounds out the Saints' offensive line.
The Colts' offensive line was even less touted, if that's possible. Left tackle Charlie Johnson was drafted out of Oklahoma State in 2006 with the 199th overall pick; left guard Ryan Lilja was claimed off waivers from the Chiefs in 2004, after he was an undrafted free agent from Kansas State; center Jeff Saturday was an undrafted free agent from North Carolina whom the Ravens released; right guard Kyle DeVan was an undrafted free agent from Oregon State whom the Redskins and Jets waived; and right tackle Ryan Diem was drafted out of Northern Illinois in 2001 with the 118th overall pick. Let this be a lesson as teams attempt to rebuild their offensive lines this offseason.
Once again, the Saints and Colts have proved that the most effective way to build a champion is through the draft. For a team to reach the Super Bowl, it has to hit on any number of picks, along with having at least one signature draft. The Saints' came in 2006, when New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton found four starters and one backup. In Round 1, New Orleans picked starting running back Reggie Bush; in Round 2, it picked starting Pro Bowl safety Roman Harper; in Round 4, the Saints picked starting Pro Bowl guard Evans; and in Round 7, the Saints picked starting wide receiver Marques Colston. As if that weren't enough, the Saints drafted backup offensive tackle Zach Strief. One draft planted NFC champion seeds that sprouted this season.
Behind president Bill Polian -- one of the great executives in NFL history -- the Colts have drafted Pro Bowl players such as Manning, tight end Dallas Clark, wide receiver Reggie Wayne, defensive end Dwight Freeney and safety Bob Sanders.
But one of the finest drafts Polian and the Colts ever had came last offseason -- a class that helped propel Indianapolis into Super Bowl XLIV.
The Colts used their first-round pick on Connecticut running back Donald Brown, their second-round pick on USC defensive tackle Fili Moala, their third-round pick on Auburn cornerback Jerraud Powers and their fourth-round pick on BYU wide receiver Austin Collie. Some believe it will become one of Polian's finest drafts. Actually, it already is.
By now, the decision to draft Manning ahead of Leaf seems so obvious. But back in 1998, it wasn't. Scouts and front offices actually were divided about which quarterback would turn into a better pro, Manning or Leaf. The Colts were conflicted enough over their decision that, just days before the draft, they actually posed a simple question to each of the quarterbacks: If we were to make you the No. 1 overall pick, what's the first thing you would do?
Manning briefly mulled the question over before telling the Colts he would request their playbook so he could immediately dive into learning it. Leaf listened to the question and told the Colts he would head to Las Vegas to party. And for all the intensive scouting and film work they had done, the Colts had their answer. One question helped produce the pick that helped Indianapolis win one Super Bowl, revitalize a downtown, build a new stadium and stand on the brink of winning a second Super Bowl.
How Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans has to be especially galling to Miami, where the Saints quarterback returned this week to play in Super Bowl XLIV. Miami passed up the chance to land Brees not once but twice -- each with enormous ramifications for the Dolphins. First, needing a successor for Dan Marino, the Dolphins bypassed Brees with the 26th overall pick in the 2001 draft to select Wisconsin cornerback Jamar Fletcher instead -- even though Brees wowed Miami's coaches at the Hula Bowl.
Then, in March 2006, Miami made a decision that shaped the lives of men, franchises, colleges and cities. After putting Brees through a rigorous six-hour physical, the Dolphins decided not to sign the free-agent quarterback and instead opted to trade a second-round pick to Minnesota for quarterback Daunte Culpepper. As a courtesy, the Dolphins told Brees they would wait two hours to announce the trade for Culpepper so he would not lose any leverage with the Saints. A short time later, Brees and the Saints agreed on a six-year, $60 million deal.
Had the Dolphins ignored their doctors and signed Brees -- who at the time preferred to play in Miami -- two franchises would have reversed course, and the football world would look very different today. Nick Saban might still be coaching in Miami rather than Alabama. Bill Parcells probably would not be in Miami with all the coaches he brought with him. And New Orleans might not be thriving the way it is now. Had Miami just gone ahead and drafted Brees in 2001 as it should have, the team wouldn't have the wide receiver issues it does, and it wouldn't have had to use second-round picks on quarterbacks in four successive years from 2005 through 2008.
In 2005, instead of trading a second-round pick for A.J. Feeley, the Dolphins could have drafted Vincent Jackson. In 2006, instead of trading a second-round pick for Culpepper, the Dolphins could have drafted Greg Jennings. In 2007, instead of using a second-round pick on John Beck, the Dolphins could have drafted Sidney Rice. And in 2008, instead of using a second-round pick on Chad Henne, the Dolphins could have drafted running back Jamaal Charles or tight end Jermichael Finley.
How would the Dolphins look today with Brees at quarterback and Jackson, Jennings and Rice at wide receiver, along with another offensive weapon such as Charles or Finley? It might just be a Dolphins-Vikings Super Bowl. But alas, Miami passed on Brees -- a decision akin to drafting Leaf ahead of Manning.
Miami has provided football with some of the most significant moments in Super Bowl history. Jets quarterback Joe Namath issued the most memorable guarantee in sports history, saying his underdog New York team would beat the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III and then doing it. In Super Bowl V, Colts kicker Jim O'Brien connected on a 32-yard field goal with five seconds remaining to beat the Dallas Cowboys 16-13, the first game-winning field goal in Super Bowl history. In Super Bowl X, Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann reeled in one of the greatest juggling catches in NFL history, finished with 161 receiving yards, and claimed the MVP award during Pittsburgh's 21-17 win over Dallas. In Super Bowl XXIII, San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana fired a 10-yard touchdown pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds remaining that capped a 92-yard drive to give the 49ers a come-from-behind, 20-16 win over Cincinnati. In Super Bowl XXIX, 49ers quarterback Steve Young threw a Super-Bowl record six touchdown passes against the Chargers. And now, the Saints and Colts take their turn at each other and history.
No team has been tougher on quarterbacks this postseason than New Orleans. First Saints defensive end Bobby McCray flattened Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner after an interception in an NFC divisional playoff game. Then McCray and Saints defensive tackle Remi Ayodele high-lowed Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, forcing him to be helped off the field during the NFC Championship Game.
Now the Saints will try to complete the hat trick against Manning. Already New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has fired warning shots, letting it be known on a Nashville radio station that his defense will be targeting Manning just as it did Warner and Favre.
"I sure hope so, and I am not going to apologize for it, either," Williams told WGFX Radio. "You kill the head, and the body will die. That's usually how it goes, you hit the quarterback and the whole team feels it. We are hoping to continue it this week. You know this guy [Manning] has a great clock in his head. The big thing is he throws the ball so early that we are going to have to do a good job of finding ways to get to him. And when we do get to him, we are going to make sure to have a couple of remember-me shots on him when we get there."
There's some frank, candid and revealing talk. Williams did everything but declare that there's a bounty on Manning. And Manning knows the Saints will be coming after him -- it might be the surest way for New Orleans to win this game. It also should be known that, for a 25th-ranked defense, New Orleans packs a punch.
Anyone who needs evidence that the NFL has de-emphasized the running game needs to look only at this and last year's Super Bowls. Last year, Arizona advanced to the Super Bowl despite having the league's 32nd-ranked rushing attack. This year, Indianapolis advanced to the Super Bowl despite having the league's 32nd-ranked rushing attack. But this further validates the value of a franchise quarterback. Warner and Manning don't need a great rushing attack to make it to the season's final Sunday. All they need is the ball in their hands, not someone else's. Yet for as little as a top-rated rushing attack has been needed to qualify for the Super Bowl, New Orleans is going to need running backs Bush, Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell to come up big Sunday. Without an effective running game, it will be difficult for New Orleans to win.
Thankfully, little labor talk seeped into this Super Bowl. When it did, few cared. Nobody wanted to hear about "uncapped years" and "revenue sharing," at least not now. But next season, fans will have no choice. Next year's Super Bowl could well be about whether Super Bowl XLV will be the last football game for a while and when fans might see the sport they love again.
For now, the signs are not encouraging. An uncapped year in 2010 is a virtual certainty. The offseason as we know it is about to change. The rules of the game will too. Players who would have been unrestricted free agents after four seasons now will have to play six seasons to achieve that status. The final eight teams -- Baltimore, San Diego, the New York Jets, Indianapolis, Dallas, Arizona, Minnesota and New Orleans -- will have limitations in the free agents they sign. Teams that made the elite eight but not the final four -- Dallas, Arizona, San Diego, Baltimore -- can sign one free agent for roughly $5.5 million in Year 1 of the contract, meaning those teams could make a run at a free agent.
The teams in the final four -- Jets, Indianapolis, Minnesota, New Orleans -- cannot sign a free agent unless they lose one. But these are issues that will be tackled after Super Bowl XLIV, what could be the last big game in which talk does not focus on labor peace.
Football players are paid handsomely -- and they deserve every penny they earn. But there also are benefits beyond what most fans would imagine. Each Saint and Colt stands to make anywhere between an additional $101,000 to $142,000, depending on Sunday's result. Each player on the roster for the divisional-round game received $21,000; each player on the roster for the conference title game received $38,000; each player on the roster for the losing Super Bowl team will receive $42,000; and each player on the active roster for the winning Super Bowl team will receive a whopping $83,000.
Football is coming off the best back-to-back Super Bowls in NFL history. Two years ago, the New York Giants defeated the unbeaten New England Patriots in one of the biggest upsets and most exciting games in NFL history. Last year, in a game nearly as good as the Super Bowl that preceded it, the Pittsburgh Steelers rallied for a last-minute victory over the Arizona Cardinals. If the Saints-Colts matchup is anywhere close to Super Bowl XLII and XLIII, then the football world is in for another Super Sunday. Enjoy.
Thanks to everyone for reading the 10 Spot this season. Hope to be back next season with more. Enjoy the offseason.
Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.