Last week’s waitin’-for-Peyton NFL carousel brought back a flood of memories about times during my career when I’d first been courted and then been cashiered by employers. I can completely identify with 49ers quarterback Alex Smith who, after taking the previous season’s 8-8 team all the way to the NFC Championship Game, learned his coach – so heartfelt in his insistence that Smith was “the man” – flew across the country to see whether Peyton Manning could still play.
Put in a high school realm, it was somewhat akin to, as one columnist put it, a guy suddenly dropping his girlfriend because the homecoming queen winked at him. Except in this case, the girlfriend was head cheerleader, which made the whole thing even stupider.
But as the week wore on, it became clear that this immature quest for something only incrementally better wasn’t just a characteristic of the 49ers. A good portion of the NFL got involved. The Indianapolis Colts were contractually due to pay $28 million to Manning, a player who’d spent last year injured and undergoing neck surgeries. I don’t care if the guy did take you to two Super Bowls (one win, one loss); I wouldn’t pay that much money to somebody who could very easily get hit, go down, and not get up. (The fact that it could even happen is a big reason why I’m not an NFL quarterback.)
The Colts released Manning, setting up a frenzy among three teams: the Miami Dolphins, whose record was 6-10 last year; the Denver Broncos, whose record was 8-8 under Tim (“Lord and Savior”) Tebow; and the 13-1 San Francisco 49ers. I give Tebow that nickname not because he took the Broncos to the playoffs, but because he precedes every interview with an honorific to Jesus, which is fine once, but annoying when it becomes like a stuck record.
Manning chose the Broncos, whose current general manager is John Elway, a man who won his back-to-back Super Bowls when he was older than Manning is now. The Broncos immediately released Tebow. The New York Jets, even though they’d already signed quarterback Mark Sanchez to a $20.5 million contract earlier in March, signed Tebow. As the week ended, the circle was complete when the Jets sent their backup quarterback – a guy named Drew Stanton, whom they’d just signed a week before to a one-year, $1.25 million deal – to … wait for it … the Indianapolis Colts. (The Colts’ presumptive No. 1 quarterback is Stanford’s Andrew Luck.)
It was essentially a game of musical chairs played very publicly. As the week ended, Alex Smith was quite nonchalant about the whole thing, ready to play for the 49ers as if nothing had happened. Me, I would have reacted more like Goldman Sachs’ Greg Smith than Alex Smith, and walked out of the building publicly declaring how idiotic the management was. This is probably another reason why I’m not an NFL quarterback: because my skin’s not that thick.
Besides, I can’t throw a football. Even if I could, I rather like being in a profession like writing where you presumably get better as you get older. In football – and too many other professions, as Boomers are finding out – time is always against you. The older you get, the more likely you are to be replaced. Manning and Elway are sharp exceptions.
Even so, this merry-go-round brought back bad memories of my time at a publishing company named Ziff-Davis, which recruited me twice and laid me off twice within two-and-a-half years. The first time, I was at a start-up magazine that they closed down after it spent more money in one year than the Colts were supposed to pay Peyton Manning. Most of the staff was let go, with the exception of those they surreptitiously transferred to other publications, thinking the rest of us wouldn’t notice.
The second time, management decided to ax the two most expensive senior editors, of which I was one. I’d only been there ten months. In a miniature version of the Greg Smith meltdown, I pointedly told HR not to bother calling me a third time. I never did work for Ziff again, and the company is now a wispy shadow of its former self. As someone once told me ironically when I complained about a long-ago setback, “And look how it ruined your life.”
It didn’t, of course. I went on to a fine career in publishing, at least partially inspired by those very setbacks. The same kind of determination to prove the bastards wrong may still smolder in Alex Smith, and he may yet lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Frankly, better him than me.