Nobody – nobody – wanted it to end this way.
Not you or me. Not Indianapolis Colts fans, who are sure to be divided — many of them irate — about the franchise’s decision to part ways with Peyton Manning. Not Manning himself. Not owner Jim Irsay, who undoubtedly will be the recipient of the aforementioned fan ire. Not Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz, who was among the first (if not the first) to opine that parting ways with Manning was the only decision that made sense for the franchise and subsequently became an easy target for angry Colts fans as someone who was running the four-time MVP out of town.
Nobody wanted it to end this way.
But it must.
With the official announcement — a joint one — that the Colts will release Manning after 14 seasons with the club coming at noon today, the news we’ve been expecting really hits home. And it hits home hard — for many reasons. But as heartbreaking as it might be to see the departure of someone who essentially put football on the map in Indiana, there was just no way around it.
- Manning couldn’t be cleared by team doctors in time. Thirty-six years of age March 24. Four neck surgeries in less than a year’s time. Missed an entire season of football. Committing to any player with that baggage is risky business, even if it’s Manning. While Manning’s camp came out with a statement during Super Bowl week that the future Hall of Fame passer’s surgically repaired neck had fully fused, he was unable to meet with the Colts medical staff before the Thursday deadline for the team to pay Manning a $28 million option bonus that triggers the remaining four years of his contract. There was no way Manning could take a team physical or display the progress of the nerve regeneration in his throwing arm to the Colts until April (although an Internet video of him throwing at Duke recently provided them a loophole). Irsay previously said Manning would be a Colt in 2012 if healthy. I’m guessing by “healthy” he meant cleared by team doctors. And that’s entirely believable. Irsay has a deep affection for Manning. I’m sure it would kill Irsay to see the greatest Indianapolis Colt of all time seriously injured again if one hit messes up that neck again. And when you think about the possibility of that occurring, you also think about…
- Money. Irsay has said health, not money, will be what determines Manning’s future in Indy. Well, sorry to say it, folks, but when someone says it isn’t about the money, it is about the money. As previously mentioned, Manning was due a $28 million option by Thursday. That bonus would put the final four years of his five-year contract in motion (it’s worth noting Manning himself had that provision placed in the deal to protect the Colts because he knew he wasn’t healthy) with the bonus affecting the cap in increments each year. If the Colts were to release or trade Manning (or if Manning were to retire) any time after paying the option, the bonus would accelerate to the ensuing cap year, leaving an already cap-strapped franchise with a TON of dead money against it. In other words, if you’re making the financial commitment to Manning, you’re sticking with him for three to four years, not one or two and then…
- Andrew Luck. In spiraling to an 0-13 start in 2011 without Manning and finishing 2-14, the Colts found themselves with the No. 1 pick in April’s NFL Draft and staring Luck, widely considered the most pro-ready quarterback prospect since Manning or even John Elway, right in the face. Many Colts fans had been intrigued at the idea of “sucking for Luck” once they learned Manning would miss most or all of 2011, giddy at the prospect of their own Brett Favre-to-Aaron Rodgers transition. Folks, that just can’t happen. One, the financial implications are daunting, to put it lightly. Sure, the rookie wage scale will ensure Luck, the Stanford product, won’t get Sam Bradford-type guaranteed money (the neighborhood of $50 million), but the question becomes how much would having both cost up front? Here’s an idea: ESPN NFL business analyst Andrew Brandt explained how having Manning and Luck on the roster together in 2012 would have cost Irsay $51 million in out-of-pocket expenses by virtue of Luck’s signing bonus accelerating. Yeah. Brandt went on to explain how cutting Manning and drafting (and playing) Luck in 2012 would amount to essentially the same cap hit as if Manning were on the roster himself — $17 million ($10.4 million dead hit after Manning’s release and $5.6 million for Luck’s initial campaign).
It makes no sense — in any sense — to have Manning and Luck. People want to use the rookie wage scale to support the argument the Colts should keep Manning and draft Luck, but I actually would use the scale to argue the opposite. By playing Manning another three or so more seasons, you’re wasting Luck’s cheap years. You’re also impeding the rebuilding process in Indy. That would be true whether the Colts drafted Luck or traded out of the first pick, garnered a king’s ransom of selections and went all in with Manning.
Look at this Colts roster as it is (and include recently re-signed defensive end Robert Mathis and soon-t0-be free agents Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Anthony Gonzalez, Jeff Saturday, Ryan Diem and others). Does it look like one of the NFL’s most talented teams to you? Can a healthy, 100-percent Manning, who has made up for so many of the Colts’ deficiencies the past few years, lead this roster — as constructed — to another Super Bowl? Or even to the playoffs? What if the answer is no? Will sentimental fans still look back and say it was worth it to place all the eggs in the Manning basket and pass on a rare, golden opportunity to draft their next franchise quarterback? And what if Luck, and Robert Griffin III, for that matter, ultimately become stars elsewhere? True, no rookie quarterbacks are sure things. But can you honestly say going forward with Manning is a sure thing at this point?
It’s hard for any of us to come to grips with the harsh reality. We all know the countless achievements Manning has realized in his illustrious 14-year run with the Colts. He began his career with 208 consecutive starts, a NFL record. He led the Colts to 11 seasons with 10 wins or more and playoff appearances, including nine straight from 2002-10. He completed 4,682 passes (third all-time). He threw for 54,828 yards (third all-time). He tossed 399 touchdown passes (third all-time) and held the single-season touchdown pass record at 49, breaking Dan Marino’s mark in 2004, before Tom Brady eclipsed Manning’s milestone in 2007. He tied John Elway for the second-most game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime with 46. He is the NFL’s only four-time Most Valuable Player. He won eight division titles with the Colts. He and the Colts played in two Super Bowls, Manning being named MVP in Indy’s Super Bowl XLI victory.
That alone is much more than enough to solidify Manning’s status as an icon. But his on-field accomplishments were merely a part of his value to Indianapolis.
He got the city and the state to care about the Colts. The franchise’s lasting image of infamously exiting Baltimore in the middle of the night cast a shroud upon the franchise that was further darkened by losing and personnel misses (remember Jeff George?). The only real ray of light before Manning was the 1995 team’s miracle run to the AFC Championship Game and came within a dropped Jim Harbaugh Hail Mary pass in the end zone of reaching the Super Bowl. And even then, locals didn’t feel the same connection to the franchise that they felt while watching Manning bark and wave his arms, changing plays at the line of scrimmage. Would the Colts even be in Indianapolis right now if not for Manning? If not, then there’s no Lucas Oil Stadium and no Super Bowl XLVI here last month.
Manning also got Indiana to care about football (well, other than the impact Notre Dame has had on the state). Once Indiana firmly became Colts Country, I watched that effect trickle down all the way to the high school ranks. High-school football became a hot topic week-in and week-out in a state steeped in high-school basketball tradition. The effect was especially prominent in my hometown of Columbus; both public high schools reached the state semifinal in their classes my sophomore and senior seasons, and all anyone wanted to talk about sports-wise was football. We’re seeing legitimate talent churning out of Indiana high schools — Columbus East’s Gunner Kiel is the top-rated pro-style passer in the 2012 class. There’s no doubt Manning’s successes sparked Indiana kids’ interests in lacing up cleats, pulling on pads and hitting the gridiron.
His contributions to the community of Indianapolis are matched by few of his peers in their respective cities. The PeyBack Foundation and the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital have become staple outlets for the city’s youths and are sure to maintain their presence in Indy long after Manning departs. He became the best representative of and ambassador to Indianapolis its citizens could have asked for.
Emotions certainly will run high in seeing such a colossal icon leave. However, when you do your best to look past the emotions and really analyze the situation in which the Colts now find themselves, can you really blame Irsay for reaching the decision he has reached? The reality might not be pleasant, but wouldn’t most executives do more or less the same thing for their franchises? If it can happen to Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas, whom I consider the two greatest quarterbacks of all time, then it can happen to Manning.
But people remember Montana as a 49er. They remember Unitas as a Baltimore Colt. Joe Namath a Jet. Brett Favre a Packer. Thus we all will remember Manning as an Indianapolis Colt, and the greatest one to date. The Monday Night Miracle, the record-breaking pass against the Chargers, the comeback AFC Championship win against the Patriots, Super Bowl XLI, none of it will soon be forgotten around here.