In a startling decision that could hamper Bill Parcells' rebuilding program with the New York Jets and cost the Ravens pass rusher Peter Boulware, Manning announced yesterday he's passing up the 1997 NFL draft next month to return to Tennessee for his senior year.
The strong-armed quarterback, who already holds most Tennessee passing records, said he played his junior season as if it were his last until it was time to leave, and he couldn't.
"During the [Citrus] bowl practices, just being around the guys, I sort of had second thoughts. This is just something I wanted to do. I wanted to be a college student one more year and just enjoy the entire experience," he said.
He added: "I've really been up and down throughout the whole thing. I very easily could be sitting here telling everybody I'm leaving right now. I was that close to leaving. I've asked dozens of people [ranging from Hank Stram to Michael Jordan] what they thought and I have prayed a lot about it, also.
"As difficult as it has been, I knew that I couldn't make a bad decision. But I knew whatever decision I made had to be my own decision and nobody else's," he said.
Manning, the son of former NFL quarterback Archie Manning, would have been the likely first pick in the draft and gotten a deal worth more than $20 million, with a signing bonus in the $7 million range.
"Twenty-five million, $30 million. I'm human. Believe me, I looked at the money. I'm hoping the money's there next year, too, and the Good Lord willing, I stay healthy," he said.
He could get more next year after the new TV contract is negotiated, but he runs the risk of a career-ending injury, though he has an insurance policy that would reimburse him for part of the lost money if he's hurt.
Most NFL executives were surprised by the decision.
When the Jets were refusing to give up the No. 1 pick to the New England Patriots in the draft as part of the compensation package for Parcells, they were assuming Manning would be the choice. Without Manning in the draft, the pick isn't as valuable.
Manning said Parcells' move to the Jets caused him to rethink his position.
"I had been pretty intent on staying until I found out that Bill Parcells would be the coach of the New York Jets. That really shook things up a little bit because I have a lot of respect for him," Manning said.
But Parcells apparently didn't promise to draft him instead of trading him for a king's ransom of draft picks.
Manning said: "There were no guarantees as to where I was going to go in the draft this year. We really didn't have those types of talks."
Without a guarantee, Manning decided to stay in school and take his chances on going to the worst team in next year's draft.
The league, which used to ban underclassmen before being forced by the courts to take them, saluted the decision.
Joe Browne, a league spokesman, said: "We congratulate him. I think nearly everyone in the league believes an athlete completing at least his last year of eligibility, if not getting his degree, is the right thing to do."
Tony Dungy, the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said: "It's hard to turn down that kind of money, but you can never be 21 [Manning turns 21 on March 24] again. You can never be a college senior again. I applaud him for it."
The decision, though, will dilute the quality of the draft this year by taking the best player out of the pool.
"It's a blow to the Jets," said Ravens owner Art Modell.
It leaves Parcells and the Jets going with Neil O'Donnell, who signed a $25 million deal last year, at quarterback.
It also could be a blow to the Ravens, even though they're looking for defensive players in this year's draft.
If Manning had come out, he and Ohio State offensive Orlando Pace, who has a knee problem, were expected to go 1-2. That meant if Atlanta selected USC defensive tackle Darrell Russell, the Ravens could have taken Florida State's Boulware, the best pass rusher in the draft, in the fourth slot or could have made a deal to trade down.
Dungy said he'd be tempted to trade his two first-round picks to get Boulware.
If Pace, Russell and Boulware go in the first three picks, the Ravens will likely choose between cornerback Shawn Springs of Ohio State, the son of former Dallas running back Ron Springs, or Dwayne Rudd, a linebacker from Alabama.
However, Modell is still interested in trading down to collect more picks. He's already talked to Seattle, which has the 11th and 12th picks, about trading down to one of those two slots in return for second- and fourth-round picks. So far, Seattle has rejected that proposal, but talks may continue.
"Our whole draft is going to be defensive players," Modell said.
But with Manning out of the draft, the top defensive players will all move up a slot.
Pub Date: 3/06/97