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Who's hurt most if jilted by Peyton? Five potential biggest losers

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Stephen Ross needs Peyton Manning to lure back disillusioned Dolphins fans. (US Presswire)  
Stephen Ross needs Peyton Manning to lure back disillusioned Dolphins fans. (US Presswire)  

Barring a last-minute entry, Denver, Miami and Arizona are the finalists in the Peyton Manning Sweepstakes, with no indication when Manning makes a decision.

The smart money is on Denver, but let's be honest: Nobody knows who wins and when. What we do know, however, is who could lose -- and I can identify at least five guys whose careers and reputations depend on Manning's next move.

They are the few, the proud, the vulnerable, and Manning's decision has an immediate impact on all -- with some affected if he joins them, and others if he does not.

Anyway, they are the potential losers in Manning Week, and these are their stories:

1. Tim Tebow, QB, Denver: If nothing else, the Broncos have made it apparent that their interest in Tebow as a long-term solution at quarterback is, at best, lukewarm -- and that may be a stretch.

It doesn't matter that the guy took them to the playoffs for the first time in six years. It doesn't matter that he conquered the defending conference champion in the playoffs. It doesn't matter that he had a better record (8-5) in his first year as a full-time starter than Jay Cutler ever did in Denver. It doesn't even matter that he authored five come-from-behind victories and energized a fan base that had been sedated by five years of mediocrity.

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If the Broncos hire Manning, Tebow is out, and if they don't ... well, it's clear they're looking to upgrade the position soon.

Look, I understand Manning is a big deal for almost any team, but when you're eager to replace a young quarterback who just took you to the playoffs with a 36-year-old who hasn't played in more than a year, had four neck surgeries and will cost a fortune ... well, let's just say Tebow should start checking realtor.com.

If the Broncos acquire Manning, he's toast and probably is traded; if they don't, he's on the off ramp anyway and moves on sooner or later. In the end, both roads lead to the same place. Denver is not willing to make a commitment to Tim Tebow, and that's not exactly news.

Except now we have proof.

2. Stephen Ross, owner, Miami Dolphins: The guy is enamored with box-office draws, and he should be. He has to put people in a lot of empty seats in Miami.

So he courts then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh while Tony Sparano is still on the job, and that didn't work out so well. Neither did last season, when the Dolphins dropped their first seven en route to a fifth losing season in six years. So Ross fires Sparano in mid-season, presumably to get a jump on a big-name replacement, then loses out on that big name, Jeff Fisher.

That makes Ross 0 for 2 and wondering what he's missing to attract top-shelf personalities to Miami.

Well, now he finds out. This time his job is to hire a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback for a team that hasn't had one of consequence since Dan Marino retired -- and, please, that's not a knock on Chad Pennington. I like the guy, too, but he had 15 minutes of fame in Miami. Plus, this isn't the next Chad Pennington. This is Peyton Frickin' Manning, and if you sign him you tell LeBron and the Heat to move over; there's a new game in town.

The Heat have James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Dream Team. The Marlins have Jose Reyes, Ozzie Guillen and a new ballpark. And the Dolphins have ... Brandon Marshall? That won't cut it, especially with nobody to throw him the ball, which is why Ross should do everything he can to get Manning's attention. Hire Don Shula to show him his rings. Take him to Joe's Stone Crabs. Have him play golf with Dan Marino. Something, anything, to make sure he stays.

Because if he doesn't ... it's Matt Flynn or bust, and I don't know how that sells season tickets.

3. Kevin Kolb, QB, Arizona: When the Cardinals acquired him last summer they made a commitment with a six-year, $65 million contract. Now, nearly eight months later, they're talking about Kolb fighting for his job with John Skelton, and read the tea leaves, people. That commitment is gone.

Yeah, I know, Kolb was hurt last season, but he also struggled to fit in -- so much so that Arizona will let Skelton compete with him. That, a $7 million option bonus due the end of this week and an 8-8 record tell you why Arizona is hot for Peyton. The Cardinals believe he can accomplish for them what Kurt Warner did -- namely, put them over the top and into a Super Bowl.

In Arizona, Manning would have All-Pro Larry Fitzgerald as one of his targets, warm weather and 11 indoor games -- only one less than Minnesota. The down side, of course is that the offensive line needs work on its pass protection, and he would be in the same conference as brother Eli.

But the Cards need a lift to get to the next level, and Manning is the logical ticket to punch. Since Warner left the Cards haven't had a winning season, going 13-19 in the process, but with Manning their prospects could and would change.

So, of course, would Kolb's zip code. There would be no reason to keep him, not with the money the club invested in him. Arizona almost surely would have to move him and his contract, with the teams that missed out on Manning lining up for him and free-agent Matt Flynn.

"I know how the NFL works," Kolb said last month. "Anything is possible. I just try to keep my mind clear and do what I can on my end. I plan on having a great year and being a Cardinal for a long time."

That sounded a lot better last year than it does now.

4. John Elway, executive VP of football operations, Denver: From the beginning, it was clear Elway wasn't exactly on the Tim Tebow bandwagon. Rewind the videotape of the closing moments to Denver's come-from-behind defeat of the New York Jets, and you find Elway practically wincing as Tebow scores the winning TD.

Tebow is not Elway's idea of a quarterback because he doesn't play the position as Elway did. For that matter, he doesn't play it as many do. Nevertheless, he wins, but Elway doesn't see a long-term future there and would like to find someone, anyone, to push the guy.

Manning is that someone -- the one quarterback Tebow-maniacs might swallow to supplant their hero. Moreover, he would accomplish two things for Elway: 1) Solidify the position with someone who can throw accurately and effectively, and 2) mollify the Tebow crowd with a replacement they can't dispute. It's one thing to win the division as Tebow did, but Manning won a Super Bowl and four league MVP awards.

Elway can buy time with Manning, looking for a young guy to groom while Peyton is on the job and pushing for the playoffs. But if he loses out on him, he's back to where he was last season -- with a quarterback and an offense he believes can't last and won't allow the team to move to the next level.

Worse, he has major damage control on his hands, both with his quarterback and with the Broncos' fans.

5. Brandon Marshall, WR, Miami: You could put Larry Fitzgerald in the same category here, except what happens if Arizona loses out on Manning? The Cards still have Kevin Kolb and John Skelton, and while that's not exactly a Joe Montana/Steve Young combination it was good enough to get Fitzgerald 80 catches, eight touchdowns and 1,411 yards.

Marshall had one more catch, fewer touchdowns and fewer yards, and that happens when Matt Moore is your quarterback. I like what Moore did, but the guy is better suited as a backup.

The question, of course, is to whom? It won't be Chad Henne, nor should it be. Moore looked more accurate and was more successful. But it could be Manning. If so, Marshall's game would be elevated, and that's a scary thought.

I mean, this is the guy who caught 21 passes in one contest from Kyle Orton (vs. Manning and the Colts, no less) and had a string of three straight seasons with 101 or more catches in each. He is an upper-echelon receiver, but he's not in Fitzgerald's class ... not yet, anyway. But he might be if he has Manning throwing to him.

All I know is that he can be a load, and I like his chances of making an impact a lot more with Peyton Manning than I do with Matt Flynn. That's not a shot at Flynn. It's an acknowledgement of Manning's four MVP awards and a resume that includes a 100-catch receiver in four of his last five years as the team's quarterback.

Besides, if Manning were to join the Dolphins, former teammate Reggie Wayne, now a free agent, would almost certainly want to follow. So you put Wayne, Marshall and Reggie Bush in the same lineup with Manning, and, suddenly, Rex Ryan is talking about more than overcoming just New England.

"It can truly be dangerous," Wayne told WQAM in Miami. "The league might not want that."

Then again, others might.

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