Peyton Manning and Broncos face difficult decisions, ticking clock

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In 2012, when Peyton Manning arrived at an executive airport near the Denver Broncos’ suburban complex for his first team visit in his newfound role as legend on the open market, there were news helicopters in the air to chronicle it all.

Four years later, Manning’s travels are again part of the conversation as the Broncos quarterback’s decision about his playing future is one supersized question mark. Manning is in Jacksonville, Florida, on Wednesday night for a speaking engagement at an event for the Wolfson Children’s Hospital.

He has another event Friday in Las Vegas, where he is a featured speaker. Manning also visited John Elway’s house for an extended football conversation last week before Elway went to the scouting combine.

And all of this is framed by Manning’s mother, Olivia, saying minutes after the Broncos won Super Bowl 50 that she hoped her middle son would retire from the NFL. Since then, even those close to Manning have tried to frame what they think about what he thinks.

At the combine, Elway said: "We're going to afford him that time. He deserves that after 18 years in this league, but we're going to afford him that time to figure out what he wants to do."

Time is winding down and officially hits a deadline, given the rules of business engagement, at 4 p.m. ET Tuesday. That’s the day before free agency opens and the official start of a new league year. Manning’s $19 million base salary in the final year of the contract he signed in 2012 is guaranteed on the first day of the league year. And to this point, the Broncos have been careful to consistently say the decision is Manning’s.

However, on Tuesday the decision becomes the Broncos' to make. The team is continuing to negotiate a long-term deal with Brock Osweiler because they’ve invested four years into his development and need a quarterback beyond the coming season. They are expected, barring a break-the-bank offer from elsewhere, to write the necessary check. The Broncos like what Osweiler has done and think he has room to grow into that role as the long-term starter.

The Broncos -- Elway and coach Gary Kubiak included -- haven’t publicly outlined a scenario in which Manning and Osweiler are on the roster together for the coming season with Manning's contract intact. That’s because, at least at the moment, that scenario appears least likely. It hasn't been ruled out, because anyone who has watched the Broncos do any sort of business in Elway’s tenure shouldn’t really rule anything out, but it's not likely.

Manning’s base salary was $19 million in 2015, but part of the negotiations in his return for that season was a $4 million pay cut following a season in which Manning had thrown 39 touchdown passes, 30 more than he threw in 2015. Manning missed seven starts this past season with a foot injury that may still need time to heal.

When the injury resulted in him being pulled from the game on Nov. 15 against the Kansas City Chiefs, Manning led the league in interceptions with 17 in nine starts. It was the first time since he was a rookie in 1998 that he finished a season with more interceptions than touchdown passes. Manning's nine touchdown passes were the fewest in his career, by 17, in any season in which he started a game.

Toss in the fact that he will soon turn 40 and even if Manning wants to play, and even if he and the Broncos were amenable to staying together for 2016, the pay cut in the conversation would figure to be bigger than $4 million. The Broncos love and respect Manning’s leadership and his ability to still play big in big moments. His resume has few historical peers.

But he is not the hub of the offensive wheel anymore and needs a good team around him to get where he and the Broncos just went with a historically good defense. So if Manning truly does want to continue to play and the two sides can’t agree on a contract with the Broncos also trying to close the deal on Osweiler, the specter of Manning's release becomes the proverbial elephant in all of the rooms. It would not be the deserved outcome for all involved after one of the greatest runs in franchise history, but it is a possible outcome nonetheless.

In the end, there are plenty of folks who have known and been around Manning since he was a student at the University of Tennessee who hope he announces his retirement in the coming days, when the decision is still his. That the ending of a football sunset with a Super Bowl trophy in hand is the best it can be. That he has taken more public-relations salvos this year than in all of the years in his career combined and that the sight of him in the open market, trying to put together the best one-year or two-year deal he can, is not one they’d like to see.

For his part, when he last spoke on the matter, Manning said he'll be "at peace" with the decision he makes, but all that time he had to make it has just about run out.