It would be foolish for the Denver Broncos to re-sign Peyton Manning for the 2016 NFL season — at a price tag north of $10 million.
Yes, Manning holds the NFL records for pass attempts, pass completions, passing yards (71,940) and passing touchdowns (539), along with the single-season marks for passing yards (5,477 in 2013) and passing touchdowns (55).
Yes, the University of Tennessee alum owns two Super Bowl titles and redoubtably stands as the only five-time MVP in NFL history.
And yes, Manning will be a unanimous, first-ballot Hall of Famer in his first year of eligibility — whenever that time comes (2022 or 2023).
But it’s still an unwise move for the Broncos — with roughly $13 to $18 million in cap room for free agency — to keep Manning around for another season. Not at the expense of potentially losing key parts from a championship-level defense.
As presently constituted, the Broncos certainly have the core pieces to capture another title (or two) over the next four years. In fact, after the Super Sunday win over the favored Carolina Panthers, many pundits were lauding Denver for having one of the greatest defenses of the Super Bowl era — right up there with the 1970s Steelers (take your pick which year), 1985 Bears, 2000 Ravens and 2013 Seahawks.
But for Denver to remain on the cusp of football immortality (collecting back-to-back Lombardi trophies), the club has some crucial decisions to make in the coming weeks:
a) The Broncos have until March 9 to decide on Manning’s $19 million base salary for next season. If the quarterback officially retires before then (not likely) … Denver would be spared the public awkwardness of dumping Peyton.
b) Super Bowl MVP and Texas A&M alum Von Miller (60 career sacks, 17 forced fumbles) will likely receive the ‘franchise’ tag from Denver before hitting free agency next month. But it’s possible that another NFL team would forfeit two first-round picks to sign Miller (two-time All-Pro), if the Broncos don’t attach an “exclusive” label to the linebacker’s tag.
c) Defensive starters Danny Trevathan (Kentucky alum; one TD, two INTs, 73 tackles) and Malik Jackson (5.5 sacks, seven pass deflections in 2015) should also be priority signings for the Broncos next month.
d) Denver could re-sign QB Brock Osweiler (eight-game sample: 1,967 yards passing, 10 TDs in 2015) for half or even one-third the Manning money (annual basis), believing the 2012 draftee has significant upside for the next five or six seasons.
Which brings us to this: Of course, no one can say anything to take away Manning’s Lombardi Trophy in his age-39 season. It was a marvelous feat, especially for a quarterback with declining arm strength and a marginal completion rate (55.1 percent) in his final eight games — including the playoffs. At times during that span, Manning bore the uncomfortable look of another aging icon at the tail end of a Hall of Fame career — quarterback Johnny Unitas with the floundering Chargers, circa 1973.
But Manning got out of that tailspin and recovered in time to complement the Broncos’ stifling defense during the playoffs.
That said, the Broncos offense was more balanced (and dangerous) with the 25-year-old Osweiler under center.
Of his first six starts (only one outing of multiple INTs all season), including victories over the Bears, Patriots and Bengals, Osweiler eclipsed 250 yards passing and/or multiple touchdowns five times. He was particularly lethal against the Steelers on Dec. 20, accounting for 315 yards (296 passing) and four total touchdowns.
By comparison sake, the Manning-led Broncos were 1 for 14 on third-down conversions against the Panthers; and in the 50-year history of the Super Bowl … the winning team has notched less than 200 total yards just once — Denver’s ugly win over Carolina from last week.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.