One of the greatest players in the NFL's history wrapped up a storybook ending to his career in Denver on Monday, and it's got me thinking about the future of the Dallas Cowboys.
Apologies in advance to Peyton Manning. It feels somewhat disrespectful to turn the spotlight away from him on the day he officially retired. Even without his latest Super Bowl win, his career will go down as one of the greatest we'll ever see.
But how can you not draw parallels between Manning's tenure in Denver and the situation currently facing the Cowboys?
Wind the clock back to 2012. Manning, then 35 years old, had just missed the entirety of the 2011 season with a severe neck injury that required multiple surgeries. Without him, the perennially competitive Colts slumped to a horrendous 2-14 season.
After amicably parting ways with Indianapolis, Manning signed a five-year, $96 million contract in Denver. At the time there was no shortage of speculation about his health and durability, and how realistic it was to expect him to play out that contract.
Is any of this starting to sound familiar?
Manning turned 36 the spring before that 2012 season, which is exactly the same timeline awaiting the Cowboys' own Tony Romo.
It all comes back to Romo, and that will continue to happen until we see how the Cowboys handle their present situation. Romo is reportedly about to have surgery on his thrice-broken collarbone, and he's got a history of back injuries on top of that. His injuries are the primary reason why Dallas is picking No. 4 overall in the NFL draft, and they're also the reason we're all debating whether the Cowboys should use that pick to acquire his successor.
Looking at Manning's stint in Denver, I'm more convinced than ever that they shouldn't.
Rewinding once again, the numbers are impressive. Manning played every game of that 2012 season, leading the Broncos to a 13-3 record and a first-round bye in the playoffs. The next year was even more impressive, as Manning was named the 2013 NFL MVP after throwing for an absurd 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns while leading Denver to Super Bowl XLVIII.
He wasn't able to sustain that level in 2014, but he still led the Broncos to a 12-4 record while throwing for 4,727 yards and 39 touchdowns. Injuries took their toll down the stretch of that season, and they hampered him to a pedestrian season last fall – though he was effective enough to help the Broncos win Super Bowl 50.
So, to reiterate: Peyton Manning rebounded from a major neck injury to play 58 more regular season games and eight playoff games between the ages of 36 and 39. Technically, he didn't finish that five-year contract, but I hardly think the Broncos are complaining.
If Romo plays four more seasons, it'll bring him to the end of his current contract, just before his 39th birthday.
Of course, there's no guarantees in a league as violent as the NFL, but is it really so unrealistic to think he can manage that – or at least come close?
That's not to say you don't need an insurance policy. The Cowboys learned how important a backup quarterback can be last year, because they didn't have one. Conversely, the Broncos proved how smart it can be to invest in a backup quarterback. Brock Osweiler started seven games last season while Manning was injured, and he helped guide the Broncos to a playoff bye.
It makes me wonder about the cost of a backup quarterback, though. Osweiler was taken No. 57 overall in the 2012 NFL Draft – six picks away from the start of the third round. That's a much more reasonable price for a quarterback that's expected to sit for several years.
In fact, you'll find a similar trend if you study the drafting habits of teams boasting "elite" quarterbacks.
Since discovering Tom Brady in 2001, the Patriots have drafted seven quarterbacks to play behind him – using picks No. 62, 74, 94, 117, 201, 230 and 250. The Packers have drafted five quarterbacks since selecting Aaron Rodgers No. 24 overall in 2005, and those were picks No. 56, 147, 148, 208 and 243.
The Broncos have clearly had an eye on the future ever since they signed Manning. They drafted Osweiler with that No. 57 pick just a month after signing Manning, and they drafted quarterbacks in the 2013 and 2015 NFL Drafts, using picks No. 234 and 250.
That also raises thoughts about what the future holds for Osweiler. The Broncos look incredibly prescient for drafting him, as he served his purpose and helped them achieve the game's ultimate goal. But thanks to Manning's durability, they now find themselves in a situation where they're faced with paying $15 million or more for a quarterback with seven career starts.[embeddedad0]
It's not hard to imagine a similar scenario for the Cowboys. What if they were to draft Jared Goff with the fourth pick, and in 2018 they have to consider picking up his fifth-year option – which will be worth roughly $16 million, if not more – despite not knowing just how good he actually is?
At the end of the day, I guess that's a good problem to have. I'm sure Denver won't mind overpaying for Osweiler's services, given that they have a third Lombardi Trophy to showcase. But when we look back at this fantastic era in Denver's history, it'll be Manning's success – even in the twilight of his career – that we remember.
It's obviously important that the Cowboys reinforce the quarterback position. I've said for a while that they'd be smart to sign a veteran in free agency and draft a rookie to develop. But I'm not sure you need to overthink it, and I certainly don't think you need to use a premium draft pick on the future when your current quarterback still has plenty in store for the present.