Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 29, 2012

Colts And Manning Prepare To Part Company

One thing about divorces is that at some point they almost always turn ugly. The separation that appears to be taking shape in Indianapolis appears headed that way in a hurry. Peyton Manning has been the face of the Colts since he was the overall #1 pick in the 1998 NFL draft. In the thirteen seasons prior to the one that will end a week from now with Super Bowl XLVI in of all places, Indianapolis, the Colts have compiled a regular season record of 141-67. They had just two losing seasons, both within Manning’s first four years in the league and one of which was his first.

As a rookie, thrust into the starting role on a team that was bad enough to have earned the first pick in the draft, Manning set five different NFL rookie records, but the Colts still went 3-13. Three years later they went 6-10. In Manning’s eleven other seasons Indianapolis has averaged 12 wins and gone to the playoffs every year. They essentially owned the AFC South, winning the Division seven out of eight years starting with the 2003-2004 campaign. Manning led the Colts to a 29-17 victory over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.

Manning was the MVP of that Super Bowl, just one of a host of individual honors he has won in his career. Four times he has been named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player and six times he’s been chosen the AFC’s Player of the Year. Selected to the Pro Bowl eleven times, he hold NFL quarterbacking records as the fastest passer ever to reach 4,000 completions and 50,000 yards passing. He is the Colts all-time leader in wins, passing touchdowns, pass attempts, pass completions and passing yards, no small feat for a franchise where the signal-caller was once some guy named Unitas.

For years Indianapolis built the team around Manning and his right arm. The Colts often gave short shrift to defense, knowing that Manning’s offense would almost always put a ton of points on the board. While the team has had some capable running backs, most notably Edgerrin James and Joseph Addai, their main focus has always been on providing Manning with an outstanding receiving corps.

But if Colts fans thought they knew that Peyton Manning was the key to their club’s success, this year they learned just how essential he truly was. It turns out that a future Hall of Fame quarterback can cover up a host of deficiencies. As everyone knows, Manning never took a snap this season after undergoing neck surgery last May. It was his second such operation in little over a year, though Manning at the time said that the “minimally invasive” procedure was to address a disk-related issue while the earlier operation had been to relieve a pinched nerve. Then in September, after consulting with several doctors about his slow recovery, Manning opted for a third procedure, a cervical neck fusion. While neither he nor the team would acknowledge it at the time, it was apparent to fans that he was done for the year.

Without Manning in the shotgun the Colts season spiraled out of control. They lost their first 13 games before finishing the season with a 2-14 record, bad enough to earn the first pick in the upcoming NFL draft. The Colts ineptitude with Manning in street clothes led some wags to suggest that should receive consideration in the MVP race. But while that won’t happen, what he is due to receive as part of the five-year contract extension he signed last summer is a $28 million bonus on March 8th. Meanwhile the obvious choice for the Colts or any other team with the first pick in this year’s draft is Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.

Colts owner Jim Irsay has said that the decision whether to pay Manning the bonus or release him will be based on his health, and will not be about the money. Of course, a cardinal rule in all professional sports is that whenever someone says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money. While the cost of signing the #1 overall draft pick will decrease somewhat under the terms of the new NFL labor agreement, the reality is that it’s going to take tens of millions of dollars and a commitment of multiple years to put Andrew Luck in a blue and white uniform with horseshoes on the helmet. It’s hard to imagine Irsay making an eight-figure, multi-year commitment to both the top draft pick and a soon-to-be 36-year-old veteran when the two play the same position.

Nobody’s fool, Peyton Manning is certain to understand this. Early in January he watched the man who drafted him while serving as general manager, Vice Chairman Bill Polian get fired. Ousted at the same time was Polian’s son and current general manager Chris. Two weeks later head coach Jim Caldwell joined the growing line exiting the Colts executive offices. While such house cleaning is not unexpected following a lost season like Indianapolis just experienced, it had to have left Manning wondering if he was next. The uncertainty could only have increased when actor Rob Lowe wrote on Twitter that he had heard reliably that Manning was intending to retire. While jokes were made about the unlikely Hollywood source for this revelation, Manning doubtless knows that Lowe is a close friend of Irsay.

So it was that early last week in an interview with The Indianapolis Star, Manning expressed his sadness at the firings and described an understandably gloomy atmosphere in the Colts offices; saying at one point that people were “walking on eggshells.” Perhaps most tellingly, he also revealed that he and Irsay had yet to discuss Manning’s future with the club. In response, Irsay leveled a verbal blast at his franchise quarterback during one of the many press conferences in the run-up to the Super Bowl. He called Manning a “politician,” suggesting he was publicly lobbying for his job, and mused openly about the Colts difficult salary cap position and the need for leaders to make tough decisions.

By week’s end the two had issued the obligatory joint statement indicating that all was right with the world. The statement assured fans of the two’s mutual respect and admiration, and denied the existence of any hard feelings. All it lacked to be utterly unbelievable was an assertion that it wasn’t about the money. Meanwhile the Colts have hired Chuck Pagano as their new head coach, whose career as an assistant and coordinator has all been on the defensive side of the ball. That’s probably the side a team would want to emphasize if it’s planning on needing a couple of years to get a hot-shot rookie quarterback up to speed. As for Peyton Manning, he can look forward to becoming the latest in a long string of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks who went from being the face of a franchise for many years to spending their last few seasons wearing a different uniform. It’s happened before, from Johnny Unitas to Joe Montana; and it will happen again. But that doesn’t mean it’s ever pretty.

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