SEATTLE — It’s just a silly what if — two years later.
Russell Wilson is cozy in Seattle, having established himself as the young franchise quarterback the Seahawks were once desperate to find. Peyton Manning is breaking records in Denver and defying earlier fears that a neck injury would end his career. This is your Super Bowl XLVIII quarterback matchup, the legend versus the wunderkind. And to think, they could’ve been teammates.
Remember two years ago when the Seahawks, before drafting Wilson, were ready to recruit Manning? Coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider were sitting on a plane parked at a Denver airport, hoping to convince Manning to talk with them after he visited the Broncos.
Manning declined. The Seahawks moved on, signing Matt Flynn as a free agent, only to watch Wilson surprisingly win a competition for the starting quarterback job several months later.
Looking back, the Seahawks made a crazy, all-in championship play by going after Manning. And despite the unrequited love, they made a championship play anyway by acquiring Wilson, a third-round selection in 2012 that might go down as one of the greatest draft picks in NFL history.
But what if Manning had hopped on that plane? What if he had been wowed by the recruiting pitch of Carroll and Schneider? What if Manning and Wilson had formed the most intense, studious quarterback room ever?
Hey, the Super Bowl is still 11 days away. Let’s have some fun with this.
According to my imagination — a very reliable source — it could’ve gone three ways.
Scenario 1: Separation is in the reputation
Overwhelmed that Carroll presented him with a signed copy of “Win Forever” and the opportunity to befriend Carroll’s pal, Will Ferrell, Manning spurns Denver’s five-year, $95 million contract offer and accepts $5 million less to join the Seahawks.
“Pete convinced me that I should take one for the team and save the franchise a little money for my coach’s next contract negotiation,” Manning says. “The phrase I remember from him was, ‘Always compete — and Pete’s gotta eat.’?”
In return for his monetary sacrifice, Manning makes Carroll shelve his run-first philosophy. The wide receivers are so giddy they offer to take paycuts to make up for the money Manning left on the table.
During the NFL draft in April, the Seahawks select Wilson in the third round. Asked if there will be a competition between Manning and Wilson, Carroll says, “Absolutely. Russell will be given every opportunity to be the first to grab Peyton’s helmet and carry it onto the practice field for him.”
After one extraordinary practice from Wilson, Manning overhears the rookie quarterback say one of his favorite lines to the media: “The separation is in the preparation.” But Wilson remains the backup.
“Welp,” he says, “in this case, the separation is in the reputation.”
Manning goes on to lead the Seahawks to Super Bowl XLVIII.
Short quarterbacks remain unaware of the possibilities.
Scenario 2: Competition, a pain in the neck
Manning signs with the Seahawks, but the franchise is still enamored with Wilson. After a rookie minicamp practice, a reporter asks if Wilson can develop into a serviceable backup for Manning.
“Backup?” Carroll asks mockingly. “The competition is on.”
Reminded that the Seahawks just gave Manning a mega contract, Carroll says, “But wouldn’t it be cool to make history and bench a guy who makes $90-something million? What kind of message would that send to our team and the league? What free agent could turn down the chance to get paid more to work less?”
Wilson wins the competition even though Manning completes 88 percent of his passes during the preseason.
“Yeah, but have you seen Peyton run the read option?” Carroll asks. “Slower. Than. Carson. Palmer. And. Matt. Leinart.”
Later, it is revealed that Carroll was also upset because Manning kept calling audibles, changing run plays to pass plays.
During a confrontation, Carroll asks Manning, “What about our philosophy? What about the formula?”
“Coach, I’ve had four neck surgeries, and those were less painful than running your offense,” Manning replies.
Wilson goes on to lead the Seahawks to Super Bowl XLVIII.
Charlie Whitehurst calls Manning and says, “Look on the bright side: Nobody pays backup quarterbacks like the Seahawks.”
Scenario No. 3: The ultimate two for one
After an intense quarterback competition, Carroll decides to carve out roles for both Manning and Wilson.
“It’s no big deal,” the coach says. “We rotate our defensive line. What’s so special about the quarterback?”
Manning and Wilson split reps in practice. Whenever they are guaranteed to throw the ball, Manning plays. Wilson gets the nod whenever the Seahawks call a run play or need the quarterback to evade pass rushers by running 50 yards in every direction before throwing a deep pass. Somehow, this strategy works.
Manning and Wilson make the Pro Bowl. The Seahawks lead the NFL in rushing and passing. They pull off an amazing Triple Crown. They are the league’s best offense, the best defense and its most penalized team.
Manning and Wilson go on to lead the Seahawks to Super Bowl XLVIII.
Against Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos.