At the precise time Peyton Manning crossed the "t" and dotted the "i" in his name on the unconscionable contract the Indianapolis Colts put in front of him Tuesday, every team in the league with a star-caliber quarterback or a young quarterback in whom the team had invested its future had reason to worry.
What happens when it's time for those quarterbacks to negotiate new contracts? How much money will they want?
You might say to yourself, come on, nobody could possibly ask for a bigger signing bonus than the $34.5 million Manning got, but they will. Michael Vick will be at Arthur Blank's front door next fall if Vick fully recovers from his ankle injury and makes 2004 a repeat of 2002. If that happens, Vick will want $50 million in signing bonus.
But let's hit a little closer to home. What about Byron Leftwich and the Jaguars? Leftwich has four years remaining on his contract. What happens if Leftwich lights it up in '04 and leaves no doubt he's on his way to becoming the star quarterback the Jaguars believe is his destiny?
We all know the answer to that question. We knew the answer before Manning signed his new deal. The difference is Manning's contract makes the answer frightening. How much of a financial drain can a team absorb at one position before the player around whom the team was going to be built becomes the player around whom the team is dismantled?
"People are going to be watching this to see if he wins," Jaguars salary cap boss Paul Vance said of Manning. "The idea is to win. If (the Colts) win the next three Super Bowls, you're going to have people focusing on the quarterback position. If the result is it weakens the team, you're likely to have a reassessment."
There you have it. It all comes down to winning and losing. But didn't we already know that, too?
Manning's salary cap number in 2003 was $15.3 million. The combined salary cap hit of the two Super Bowl quarterbacks, Tom Brady and Jake Delhomme, was $5.1 million. What does that say? And what does it say that Manning and the Colts were 0-3 in games against the Patriots and Panthers last season?
The Colts obviously felt trapped in negotiations with Manning. They clearly believed they had no choice but to cave in and throw themselves at their quarterback's mercy. But they shouldn't have, and no team should. Consider the out-of-nowhere seasons that have been turned in by quarterbacks in recent years.
• Kurt Warner came out of nowhere in 1999 to win a Super Bowl at minimum wage.
• Brady did the same in 2001.
• The Tommy Maddox story in '01 qualifies as a made-for-television special.
• There was A.J. Feeley in Philadelphia, Kelly Holcombe in Cleveland and Marc Bulger in St. Louis.
Want more? Well, Jeff Garcia came out of nowhere to become one of the league's star passers, and the 49ers cut him this week. Aaron Brooks flashed in 2000. Last year, Anthony Wright shot up in Baltimore and Jon Kitna did the same in Cincinnati, but Kitna lost his starting job to Carson Palmer just recently and Kyle Boller will no doubt put Wright back on the bench next season.
The fact of the matter is you can win in this league without committing a big chunk of your salary cap to the quarterback position. It's always better to have a Brett Favre than it is to not have a Brett Favre, but not at the price the Colts are paying.
"Once you've got a good quarterback, you gotta keep riding that horse. We'll see. It'll depend on how Manning does," Vance said.