Reporting from Indianapolis Next to his senior picture at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, a young Peyton Manning listed the typical cryptic acknowledgments and farewell shout-outs to friends, teachers, coaches and family. He also included this tidbit:
"Thanks to the best lil' brother, Eli (Watch out World, he's the best one)."
Well, accuracy has always been Peyton's strong suit.
Eli, who Sunday led the New York Giants to a 21-17 victory over New England, will soon have two of the Mannings' three Super Bowl rings — proving, at least in this case, that Peyton doesn't just know how to make profits, but prophecies too.
If only big brother could see his own future as clearly. His will be the most-watched NFL story of the coming weeks: What happens to Peyton when he and the Indianapolis Colts part ways after 14 seasons?
Manning's doctor has cleared him to return to football after multiple neck surgeries, but the Colts — who would have to pay him a $28-million bonus by March 8 — point out that their doctors have not given him the green light. Meanwhile, the franchise has given every indication it plans to move on and use the No. 1 pick on Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.
Assuming Manning wants to continue his career, and he says he does, the league's only four-time most valuable player will be the most decorated free agent ever to hit the open market. Could he wind up with the Jets, sharing New York with his little brother? How about Washington or Miami or Seattle? Or maybe, as many people hope, the threat of further injury to his neck — and the cautionary example of Brett Favre's clumsy final act — will persuade him to retire and start the five-year clock on his first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame.
Regardless, the league that never seems to run out of drama and story lines is once more rolling into a must-watch off-season. Among the water-cooler topics:
Robert Griffin III — The widespread assumption is that Luck will be the first pick, but Griffin, the Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor, isn't ready to concede that. A lot can happen between the Super Bowl and the draft — the scouting combine and individual pro days all factor into the process — and RG3 will provide plenty of fodder for debate.
No matter who goes first, there's a good chance the first two picks will be quarterbacks, something that hasn't happened since Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb went 1-2 in 1999. St. Louis has the second pick this year, and the Rams already have their quarterback in Sam Bradford. Unlike a lot of years, there are likely to be a lot of teams jockeying to move up into that slot, among them Cleveland, which has two of the first 22 picks.
Thursday night games — For the first time, the NFL will schedule 16 of those showcases, with all but three on NFL Network. The plan is to have all 32 teams appear in prime time at least once. The risk is, not every team deserves it. The league has to be very careful about diluting its product, even though the appetite of fans for all things NFL appears to be insatiable (including paying $25 per ticket to watch from afar as reporters interview players on Super Bowl media day).
Free agents — There are lots of big names on the free-agency list — Baltimore running back Ray Rice, New England receiver Wes Welker and Green Bay tight end Jermichael Finley among them — but most of the stars will be re-signed by their current teams. Three interesting potential relocators to watch are Philadelphia receiver DeSean Jackson, Indianapolis receiver Reggie Wayne and Tennessee cornerback Cortland Finnegan. And Peyton Manning, of course.
Los Angeles — With the labor agreement and TV deals done for the next decade, the league's attention should turn fully to the glaring vacancy in the nation's No. 2 market. Whether that means a solution will be found, well, that's a different story. There are currently two proposals on the table — downtown and in City of Industry — and neither is free of issues. If either were a slam dunk, the league would have done the deal by now. But neither is out of play, either. Rest assured, the NFL is also paying close attention to what's happening with the Dodgers sale too, and what happens to that land at Chavez Ravine. We do know this after 17 years without a home team in L.A.: The league won't be rushed.
HGH — Even though the NFL and players agreed to blood testing for human growth hormone as part of the labor agreement, no such plan has been implemented. The league is pushing, the players are resisting, and the sides could go back and forth for a long time to come.
Pro Bowl — Fans don't like paying good money to watch players pantomime, and that's what the Pro Bowl has become. The actual game is too violent to be faked, and nobody wants to risk injury for a glorified exhibition game. The league is already investigating other ways to honor its top players at the end of the season, and the pre-Super Bowl awards show Saturday night might be that avenue.
Trade deadline — The league is looking into moving the mid-October trade deadline later in the season to create more intrigue and strategy for buyers and sellers. For instance, Denver got nothing for Kyle Orton by unloading him in November, even though a lot of teams were angling for a quarterback. The Broncos could have used help at other positions and happily would have worked a trade.
Also, the league will weigh the merits of compressing the free-agency window, just as it was forced to do last summer because of the lockout. That created a lot of excitement and interest because of the fast-moving bazaar of players switching teams. It saved teams money too — something of keen interest to owners — because most players simply didn't have the time to play one suitor off another.