This post was originally published on May 31, 2016. We’re revisiting it during our “What If” week here at SB Nation NFL.
Peyton Manning finished his career as a Super Bowl champion, ending a four-year stint with the Denver Broncos with record-breaking numbers and a Lombardi Trophy. But he almost passed on joining the Broncos in 2012 to sign with the Tennessee Titans instead.
"I was pretty close," Manning told The Tennessean of choosing the Titans.
At the time, the Broncos and Arizona Cardinals were considered the likeliest landing spots for Manning, with other teams like the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins trying to throw their names into the hat. Then Titans owner Bud Adams battled his way into contention for Manning.
"He is the man I want. Period," Adams told The Tennessean in 2012. "And the people that work for me understand that. They know who I want. I want Mr. Manning with the Titans and I will be disappointed if it doesn't happen."
It didn't happen and the Titans instead turned to Jake Locker to start after he spent his rookie season learning from the bench. But Locker, the No. 8 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, never lived up to the hype and Tennessee instead won 15 games over the next three years before taking Marcus Mariota in the 2015 NFL Draft.
What if the Titans had landed Manning, though? What would the NFL look like in 2012 and how would it look now in 2016?
The Broncos already had Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker on the roster in 2012, but the Titans' top targets were Nate Washington, Kendall Wright and Kenny Britt. Manning gets the best out of them, but a 9-7 season isn't enough to get to the playoffs thanks to a bad defense. The Houston Texans earn the AFC South title instead.
Meanwhile, the Broncos elect not to trade Tim Tebow without a veteran like Manning at the helm. Instead, they sign Jason Campbell, one of the only other veteran quarterbacks on the market, to add competition. They also pass on drafting a quarterback. Campbell doesn't play well enough to wrestle the job away from the fan favorite, and Tebow gets the starting job again in 2012.
In an AFC West that doesn't feature another team with a winning record, the Broncos sneak into the playoffs again, but there's no Pittsburgh Steelers miracle this time. Instead, Denver is punted from the postseason in the Wild Card round with another playoff blowout.
Having Manning on board allows the Titans to focus on building their defense in the offseason, although the team is also able to add Wes Welker in free agency. The improvements and Manning's stellar play, now two years removed from neck surgery, are enough to overtake the Indianapolis Colts for the division crown.
But the New England Patriots' roster is just much better, and the Titans are dispatched from the playoffs with ease.
In Denver, John Elway is sick of building a roster that has stars on defense but a quarterback with a completion percentage hovering around 50 percent. After landing Geno Smith near the end of the first round in the 2013 NFL Draft, Elway trades Tebow to the New York Jets, where his career fizzles and eventually ends.
The addition of Smith doesn't fix things for the Broncos. His inconsistent play keeps Denver from winning the AFC West, which now belongs to the Kansas City Chiefs after the team traded for Alex Smith. Elway is harshly criticized by fans who can't stomach the replacement of Tebow with Geno Smith.
The Titans are scrambling to win a Super Bowl in Manning's final seasons, but he's been beat up behind a subpar Tennessee offensive line. The Titans snag Golden Tate in free agency, though the defense lacks the star power to take the team to the next level.
Another 10-6 season for the Titans ends in quick postseason failure and the narrative that Manning is a playoff choker is perpetuated.
The Broncos are stuck in neutral too, but instead of a defense holding back the offense, it's the Denver offense that can't produce consistently enough to help out a top defense. The Chiefs defend their AFC West title, holding off the San Diego Chargers, while the Broncos finish 7-9 with more mixed results from Geno Smith.
After getting banged up in 2014, the wheels fall off for Manning in 2015. The Titans' defense, which has improved to become an average unit, regresses to one of the NFL's worst with an offense that puts them on the field far too often. The Titans finish 3-13 with Zach Mettenberger starting more than half of the season after a foot injury for Manning.
The Broncos add Josh McCown to compete with Smith at quarterback, and that provides consistent enough play to get the team to 11-5. Kansas City wins the AFC West again, but the Broncos are in the playoffs as a wild card and blow through the Texans before dropping a Divisional round game against the Patriots.
The Marcus Mariota-led New York Jets are a trendy pick to compete for a Super Bowl in 2016 with Todd Bowles leading a top-ranked defense and a promising young passer leading the offense.
Tennessee blows it up after Manning elects to retire and begins the rebuild by drafting Carson Wentz with the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. The Broncos keep trying to add quarterback talent and take Connor Cook near the end of the third round to compete with Smith and McCown.
Signing with the Titans would've been a trip back home for Manning, who was a star at the University of Tennessee. It also could be the team he works for if he elects to turn to a front office job in his retirement years. But the team wasn't nearly as poised to win a Super Bowl as the Broncos were when he hit free agency four years ago.
The Titans weren't terrible with Locker, Matt Hasselbeck and Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, so Manning certainly would've improved the team. But it took some elite defense in Denver to finally get the Broncos to the mountaintop and the Titans don't have a Von Miller to build around. Signing Manning likely would've made the Titans a contender, but it's hard to imagine it would've ended with a Super Bowl ring.
For the Broncos, the addition of Manning was the perfect solution to a frustrating situation at quarterback that divided fans. If it wasn't Manning, there wasn't another logical out for Elway -- the Tebow conundrum possibly could've cost him his job.
Denver obviously benefited from signing Manning, but the Titans almost certainly wouldn't have Mariota -- a young, franchise quarterback to build around -- if the team landed Manning instead. In the long run, both franchises can claim they were beneficiaries of Manning's decision to choose the Broncos.