When Peyton Manning became a free agent for the first time in 2012, he was pretty clueless about what to do.
“I have no idea who wants me, what team wants me, how this process works," he said at the time. "I don't know if it's like college recruiting where you go take visits. I mean, this is all so new to me."
Manning decided that if he were going to find a new home, he would be thorough about it. He wouldn’t just take the top dollar or join the team that did the best in the playoffs the year before.
Manning went on a two-week barnstorming tour, meeting multiple times with five teams to go through workouts, medical checks, and most importantly, get to know the coaches, general managers, and owners.
“I really appreciate and am grateful for the time that was given to me by several very impressive organizations and individuals throughout this process,” Manning said after signing with Denver. “Talking football with John [Elway] and with coach [John] Fox and his staff helped me realize that this is a great place to be. In the end, I felt the Broncos were just a great fit.”
Now it’s Tom Brady’s turn to hit free agency for the first time. And the timing and rules of free agency, combined with the coronavirus pandemic, conjure an interesting question about Brady: Is he really going to join a new team without visiting it first?
Free agency is still slated to begin at 4 p.m. Wednesday (for now), and for all the teams interested in Brady in free agency, they likely want an answer soon. The teams — believed to be the Chargers, Titans, Buccaneers, Raiders, and possibly 49ers, as well as the Patriots — will want to know before Wednesday whether they will be going all-in this year with a 43-year-old quarterback, or if they need to move on to Plan B, and what type of players they need to be targeting.
NFL rules state that Brady and anyone from his camp are not allowed to have any contact with teams outside of the Patriots until the tampering period begins at 4 p.m. Monday. Of course, Brady probably has a good idea of which teams are interested in him, and where his best landing spot could be in 2020, through back channel or possibly even direct communication.
But even before Covid-19 hit, the NFL’s rules prevented Brady from having any direct contact with a new team or visiting its facility until this Wednesday (Brady’s agent can start talking to teams on Monday, but not Brady himself). And now that the coronavirus has grinded travel to a halt and forced several teams to close their facilities, Brady may not be able to jump on a plane and go visit with a team before deciding to sign.
Most A-level free agents sign without a visit — such as Stephon Gilmore with the Patriots in 2017 — but it’s different for a quarterback such as Brady, who essentially would be in a management position with a new team.
Manning in 2012 is the best comparable for Brady, and Manning certainly did his diligence before signing with the Broncos.
He was released by the Colts on March 7, and was immediately contacted by 12 teams, per reports at the time. Manning turned down the majority of the overtures, but kept five teams in the running, and gave each of them his time.
On March 9, Manning made his first visit, traveling to Denver. Manning, coming off major neck surgery, didn’t work out for the Broncos or talk financials. He simply wanted to get to know Elway and Fox, and “to familiarize himself with the team’s facilities, organization, and geography,” per ESPN.
On March 11, Manning took his tour to Arizona, where he met with owner Michael Bidwill, coach Ken Whisenhunt, and several team executives and coaches. That night, he had dinner with a group that included receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
On March 12, Manning met all day with the Dolphins in Indianapolis, meeting coach Joe Philbin, defensive coordinator Mike Sherman, and others. The fact that the meeting was in Indy, and not in Miami, was not a good sign for the Dolphins.
On March 13-14, Manning traveled to North Carolina for a secret meeting with the 49ers. He quietly worked out in front of coach Jim Harbaugh and several other team members, then got checked out by the 49ers’ doctors.
Later on March 14, Manning flew to Nashville and spent seven hours with the Titans’ coach, GM, chief operating officer, and owner. Tennessee’s governor, Bill Haslam, also called in to woo Manning.
Titans owner Bud Adams offered the world to Manning, who starred at the University of Tennessee, and offered him a $25 million annual salary, which was $6 million more than the deal he eventually signed with the Broncos. Manning later acknowledged “I was pretty close” to signing with the Titans, and Adams later fired COO Mike Reinfeldt after the 2012 season because he couldn’t seal the deal with Manning.
On March 16, Manning worked out for the Broncos’ brass at Duke. And on March 19, a full 10 days after Manning’s free agency tour began, he decided to sign with the Broncos.
“I’ve really spent a lot of time on the football side of it,” Manning said at the time. “Sitting down with [offensive coordinator Mike] McCoy and [quarterbacks] coach [Adam] Gase and Coach Fox, talking football and talking offensive philosophy, and those are the things I really wanted to get comfortable with.
“You’re talking about a guy that was with one team for 14 years. The Indianapolis Colts are the only team that I’ve ever known. I told John Elway and Coach Fox that I will need their help to kind of get me through this transition. I know they’re going to help me in this process. I think the sooner I get started going to work, going to lift weights, going to my new locker, putting on some Denver Broncos gear, getting going — that will make this process easier for me.”
Joining a new franchise also would be a major transition for Brady, who has spent his entire 20-year NFL career with the Patriots. But teams will want a decision soon. Would Brady really join a new team before thoroughly checking everything out first? It would be a hasty way to make an important decision.