At that moment, it looked for all the world that Manning would forsake his senior year in Knoxville, enter the NFL draft and likely take part in what would have been a fascinating shotgun marriage with Bill Parcells, who a few weeks earlier had left the AFC champion Patriots for the Jets. But only after making certain the Jets’ No. 1 overall draft pick wasn’t used as compensation to get him.
"That," Phil Simms said yesterday, "would have been a match made in heaven, because you’re talking about two guys who see the game exactly the same way."
Simms had advised both sides in the weeks leading up to that day. He’d told Parcells that Manning was as good a college quarterback as he’d ever seen. He’d told the Mannings that there wasn’t a coach alive who’d be a better mentor to Peyton, that even Simms’ legendary quarrels with Parcells had only helped make him a better player than he otherwise would’ve been.
"I gave them both nothing but thumbs-ups," Simms said.
And so it seemed a done deal.
Right until Manning checked everyone off with his eyes. And with his words.
"I very easily could be sitting here telling everyone I’m leaving . . ."
And like that, the fortunes of two teams were altered, irrevocably. Manning would stay for one more somewhat disappointing season at Tennessee, and he would actually see his stock drop ever so slightly, going from a clear-cut No. 1 to a hard-to-believe-it-now coin-flip debate involving Ryan Leaf. The Colts have a Super Bowl already in tow and are favorites for another, thanks solely to Manning growing into perhaps the greatest quarterback the game has ever known.
It gets worse when you really think about it. Would Bill Belichick have left for New England knowing he was leaving behind a young franchise quarterback and would have to face him twice each year? Maybe he doesn't. That would have given the Jets a Hall of Fame coach and deprived the Pats of one who built a dynasty.
No use crying over spilled milk now. The Jets now hopefully have a franchise quarterback, one who might take a first step to greatness Sunday and get four decades of misery off our fan base's back.