By Brady Henderson
JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Back in 2012, long after the Seahawks had parted ways with Matt Hasselbeck and just before they drafted Russell Wilson, their search for a franchise quarterback took them to the tarmac of a Denver airport.
That's where coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider waited in a private plane, hoping to speak with Peyton Manning days after the free-agent quarterback had reached out to Seattle. The Seahawks hadn't scheduled a meeting with Manning when they flew to Denver, and they never did get one before he opted to sign with the Broncos instead.
Coach Pete Carroll and the Seahawks briefly pursued quarterback Peyton Manning before he signed with Denver in 2012. (AP)
Nearly two years later, that day stands as a monumental one for the two teams that will face each other in Super Bowl XLVIII. It would be impossible to state definitively that Seattle is better off not having signed Manning, who's a virtual lock to win the MVP award after carrying Denver and its record-setting offense to a conference title. But when the Seahawks drafted Wilson in the third round a month after their failed pursuit of Manning, they ended up with a franchise quarterback and the financial freedom to make the moves that have since put them over the top.
So while that moment in 2012 was the end of Seattle's pursuit of Manning, it was in a way the beginning of a series of events that helped each team reach the Super Bowl.
As Carroll explained Wednesday, he was awakened one morning by a phone call from Manning, who wanted to gauge Seattle's potential interest in his services. At the time, Manning was a four-time MVP, an 11-time Pro Bowler and already one of the most prolific quarterbacks in league history. So Carroll, of course, was all ears.
"I jumped out of bed and said, 'OK, let's go,' " he recalled. " 'What's up, Peyton?' "
This was following the Seahawks' 7-9 finish in 2011, a year after Seattle chose not to re-sign Hasselbeck. Tarvaris Jackson gamely played through a torn pectoral muscle but didn't established himself as the long-term answer at quarterback. And there was Manning, exploring his options following his release from Indianapolis and inquiring about Seattle.
"It was very early, he had said that he didn't know what he was going to do, he didn't know where he was going to visit, he didn't know what was going to come up, but he wanted to at least hear where we stood and what our interest was," Carroll said. "That was the beginning of a very short process that got him to where he scheduled his visits that he was going to make – as we figured it out along the way – and we worked with his agent to understand that. We tried to get involved with that to see if there was a next stage of the process, and there wasn't."
Manning chose Denver, signing a contract that averages more than $19 million per season. Seattle signed Matt Flynn before drafting Wilson, who went on to win a three-way competition in training camp and emerge as Seattle's long-term answer at quarterback by the end of his rookie year.
And when the Seahawks entered the offseason determined to upgrade a pass rush that was their biggest deficiency in 2012, they were able to do so in large part because of Wilson's cost-controlled contract, which carries an average value of less than $1 million and cannot be renegotiated until after the 2014 season.
Percy Harvin isn't among the reasons Seattle is in the Super Bowl, having played only 33 offensive snaps after signing a contract worth more than $60 million once he was acquired in a trade. But Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril certainly are, combining for 16.5 sacks during the regular season and three more in the playoffs. They're making roughly $11 million between them this season, money the Seahawks could spare because their quarterback's contract was taking up such a small percentage of the team's salary-cap space.
It's another reason to wonder "what if" when thinking back to that fateful moment on the tarmac in Denver when the Seahawks realized they weren't going to land Manning.
"It was fun for a while, with the magnitude of the player and the background and all of that," Carroll said. "We were excited to see what would happen."
As it turns out, it helped pave the roads the Seahawks and Broncos each took to Super Bowl XLVIII.
Follow Brady Henderson on Twitter @BradyHenderson.