Once more for old time's sake: Peyton Manning preparing to start over
It wasn't as though the Kansas City Chiefs didn't have a good team or a team capable of challenging for a division title. In 1992, even after losing defensive coordinator Bill Cowher to the Steelers, the Chiefs finished 10-6 and lost to the AFC West champion San Diego Chargers in a wild-card playoff game.
But even though they had their own stable of stars, including linebacker Derrick Thomas, the Chiefs made a move that instantly changed the dynamic of their team and turned every one of their games into a National Football League sideshow.
They acquired the rock star of quarterbacks -- Joe Montana, a three-time Super Bowl winner -- in a trade with the San Francisco 49ers.
"The moment we made the decision to acquire Montana, it became a heartbeat for what we were doing as an organization," former Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "It validates what you're working to do. And it became apparent when Joe committed to us, he was still a terrific, terrific player."
At age 37, Montana proved that in his first game with the Chiefs in 1993.
On a hot day in Tampa, after spending the night in a hospital because of gallstones, Joe Cool passed for 246 yards, threw three touchdowns and had a passer rating of 146.0. Jonathan Hayes, a tight end with the Chiefs who caught one of Montana's touchdowns, will never forget the moment.
"Joe was up all night with a gallstone attack and was in the hospital till 6 a.m.," said Hayes, an assistant coach with the Cincinnati Bengals who grew up in South Fayette and went to high school there. "They drove him right to the stadium and they had to [feed him intravenously] because he was so dehydrated. That's the type of player he was. People don't realize how tough a guy he was."
Montana injured his shoulder in that game and did not play the following week against the Houston Oilers. The Chiefs lost, 30-0. When Montana returned, the Chiefs reeled off four consecutive wins and went on to win the AFC West with an 11-5 record.
More importantly, they beat the Steelers and Oilers in the postseason to advance to the AFC Championship game against the Buffalo Bills. But Montana was injured in the second quarter and did not play in the second half, and the Chiefs lost, 30-13.
Almost incredibly, the Chiefs have not won another playoff game since Montana was their quarterback.
"We were excited, we were all excited, when Joe came," Hayes said. "For me, growing up in Western Pennsylvania, we had so much to talk about, which was nice. All of a sudden, when Joe walked into the huddle, he made us all that much better. Guys liked that. They didn't want to let him down."
Nearly 20 years after Montana turned a quiet Midwestern town into a media circus and the center of the league's attention, another future Hall of Fame quarterback has arrived in a new city, wearing a new uniform and hoping to lift his new team to similar heights.
After a star-studded 14 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, Peyton Manning returns to football tonight with the Denver Broncos -- a comeback so big and ballyhooed that it makes Tebowmania look like a cable-station furniture commercial.
And he's doing it against the Steelers, the team the Broncos defeated in the wild-card round of the AFC playoffs last season. Even without Manning, the game had great marquee value because of what happened last year in the overtime game at Sports Authority Field. With him, well, the anticipation rivals the mania that trailed Montana when he went to Kansas City, maybe greater.
"It's probably one of the few times in the history of the league that something like this has happened where a guy who is going to be a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer becomes available," said Broncos coach John Fox, who is no stranger to these circumstances. Fox was a defensive coordinator with the San Diego Chargers and played against Montana and the Chiefs in 1993.
"At the end of it all, I'm glad he chose us. ... He's made good headway. We're not all the way there yet, like most teams in the league, but it's been a lot fun. It's created some excitement and that beats the alternative."
Other Hall of Fame quarterbacks have left the teams with whom they won championships and became icons to play out their careers in a new city. Toward the end of his glamorous 12-year career in New York, Joe Namath left the Jets in 1977 to play one disastrous season with the Los Angeles Rams. Johnny Unitas did the same in 1973 when he went to the San Diego Chargers for one season after 17 years with the Baltimore Colts. And Bobby Layne was traded from the Detroit Lions to play his final four seasons with the Steelers.
And then there was Brett Favre, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, who unretired after 16 years in Green Bay as the most prolific quarterback in NFL history to join the New York Jets in 2008. Nothing understated about a pro football icon going to the world's largest media market, eh?
It is arguable that not even Manning's return can compare to the media circus that enveloped Favre's unexpected arrival in New York. And the mania only grew more when Favre led the Jets to an 8-3 record.
To be sure, other marquee quarterbacks have started new -- and, sometimes, even more productive -- careers in other cities, such as Drew Brees in New Orleans. But none of those carried the kind of maniacal media fervor that followed Montana and Favre, and now Manning.
"You understood he was a celebrity," said former Kansas City Chiefs coach Herm Edwards, who was the secondary coach under Schottenheimer when Montana came to the Chiefs. "We had stars on our team, but, all of sudden, Joe comes into locker room and it's like, 'OK.'
"He brings a sense of ownership to the offense. All of a sudden, the receivers become better players. I remember the first day of practice, we had receivers diving for balls because they didn't want to drop his pass. He walks out of the huddle and it's just a different aura about the guy. Peyton has that. You feel like, when you have a quarterback like that, you're destined to be a playoff team."
Said Schottenheimer, "It has an impact on every player on your team and every person in your organization. When we decided to make the move with Joe, your entire community began to embrace what you're doing. You've made a major acquisition to complement what you already have and there is a strong possibility and probability to elevate even more."
Jerricho Cotchery was a wide receiver with the New York Jets when Favre came out of retirement and joined the Jets after 16 seasons with the Green Bay Packers.
He remembers the first training camp practice in New York, when thousands of fans lined up for several hours in a hot sun just to see Favre walk onto the practice field.
And he remembers the sound of the football, zipping from Favre's right hand, as he and his teammates watched with a mixture of awe and respect.
"He brought such a big buzz to that area," said Cotchery, in his second season with the Steelers. "It was just crazy. It's a little different when you have that caliber of guy coming to your locker room. If you haven't had that type of guy, those guys are different. Brett couldn't go to the bathroom by himself. He had to take security with him. It's a different type of deal. But it is fun."
Like Montana, Favre's first game with the Jets -- Sept. 7, 2008 -- was on the road against the Miami Dolphins. And he didn't disappoint. At age 37, Favre completed 15 of 22 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-14 victory. One of the touchdowns was 56 yards to Cotchery.
The following week, Favre played his first home game in the Meadowlands and the Jets lost to the New England Patriots. The Jets lost again in Week 3 in San Diego, but in Week 4, Favre threw six touchdowns in a 56-35 victory against the Arizona Cardinals. The legend of the gunslinger began to percolate.
"The buzz after that first game was ridiculous," Cotchery said. "It brings a different type of energy to your team and everyone feeds off it because they know what that player brings to the table. They feel like they're in every game, no matter what, because they know this guy will have them in every game. That's how we felt about Brett."
Favre injured his throwing shoulder that season and, after starting with an 8-3 record, they lost four of their final five games to miss the playoffs.
Favre, of course, was no ordinary player. He is the only quarterback in NFL history to pass for more than 70,000 yards, 500 touchdowns, 300 interceptions and 10,000 pass attempts. He is the only player to win the league's MVP award three consecutive times. And, in 16 years with the Packers, he led them to eight division titles, five NFC title games and two Super Bowls, winning one.
Favre was traded to the Jets in August 2008, shortly after he unretired and reported to the Packers training camp. The Packers already had told Favre they were going with his understudy, Aaron Rodgers, and the two sides agreed a trade was best for both parties.
The buildup to his first game created a media frenzy, even in a city such as New York.
"I think it's the same thing with a lot of those guys in Denver," Cotchery said. "They haven't played with a guy like Peyton Manning. When you get him in and you see the throws he's making, it's like, wow. When Brett got there, the throws he was making, you could hear the ball whistling out of his hand. Everyone was like, 'wow.'
"It just brought energy and confidence. I imagine some of the same things are going on [in Denver]. They feel like they were a playoff team last year and they're only going to be better with Peyton Manning behind center."
Even Pittsburgh enjoyed a time when a Hall of Fame quarterback joined the Steelers, although in a much different era.
In October 1958, long before such a move would generate so much national attention, Bobby Layne came to the Steelers in a trade with the Detroit Lions that immediately energized his teammates and brought instant success to the franchise.
After an 0-2 start, Layne, 31, was acquired by the Steelers after leading the Lions to two NFL championships. He was reunited with his old head coach, Raymond "Buddy" Parker, and immediately led the Steelers to a 24-3 upset of the Philadelphia Eagles in his first game.
Unlike the scene that will unfold tonight at Sports Authority Field in Denver, only 23,153 fans showed up at Pitt Stadium to see Layne play for his new team.
Steelers owner Dan Rooney, a front-office executive at the time, picked Layne up at the airport when he arrived.
"He questioned me the whole way, wanting to know everything about the players, the coaches and the city," Rooney said in his book, "My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL." "From the time his foot hit the ground on the field at South Park, Bobby Layne was in charge. He was that kind of guy, always in command."
The Steelers will get another look at someone like that tonight.
First Published September 9, 2012 12:00 am