Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 8, 2012

After An Amicable Divorce, Peyton Mulls His Final Act

The least surprising moment of the NFL’s offseason arrived on Wednesday, and it turned out to be considerably less ugly and acrimonious than many, including myself, had feared. Quarterback Peyton Manning officially parted ways with the only professional team he has ever known, as the Indianapolis Colts released the player who singlehandedly turned the franchise from also-ran into perennial playoff contestant. Manning and Colts owner Jim Irsay held a joint news conference at which both offered up appreciation and tears, as well as genuine class. It was a moment that stood in stark contrast to the increasingly testy long-distance exchanges between the two over the past couple of months. Irsay in particular at times seemed bent on forcing a bitter divorce, at one point accusing Manning of campaigning publicly to keep his job.

The nastiness was forgotten on Wednesday, when Irsay said, “We both wanted to be together. It’s been very difficult, just tearing at our hearts, to try to look at the best solution.” He went on to announce that Manning’s number 18 would be retired. For his part, Manning said, “Nobody has had it better than I’ve had it playing for the Indianapolis Colts the last 14 years.” He also acknowledged the all too painful truth of modern professional sports, for players and fans alike. “But I guess in life and in sports, we all know that nothing lasts forever. Times change. Circumstances change. And that is the reality of playing in the N.F.L.”

The press conference was not totally free of disingenuous moments. Irsay somehow managed to keep a straight face while claiming that money was not a factor in the decision to release the face of the franchise; as if the $28 million roster bonus due Manning on Thursday was little more than lunch money. Meanwhile Manning, a model of preparation and control throughout his career, claimed that he hadn’t even begun to think about which teams he would consider for the next phase of his career. But compared to other recent sports breakups the scene in Indianapolis was a model of honesty and class. Certainly it was far removed from the management of the Green Bay Packers finally growing weary of Brett Favre’s series of annual tearful retirements followed by a sudden change of heart and the expectation that the team would forever welcome him back with open arms; and it was light years distant from the ugliness in Cleveland when LeBron James opted for a self-aggrandizing ESPN spectacle to announce that he was decamping to sunny South Beach.

So now the Colts and Manning go their separate ways. For the team, that means preparing to take Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the first overall pick in the NFL draft on April 26th. Then begins what will certainly be a multi-year rebuilding process as Luck adjusts to the NFL and the Colts new coaches and management work to develop a team around him. While Luck is regarded by many pundits as being ready to start at the pro level, Colts fans would be well advised to savor their memories of the Super Bowl just played at Lucas Oil Stadium. It’s likely to be the last playoff game at that facility for a while.

As for Manning, depending on which scribe one wants to believe, as many as a dozen teams have already reached out to his representatives. On the surface of course that makes perfect sense. Unless your current signal caller’s last name is Brady or Brees or Rodgers or the Manning who actually has two Super Bowl rings, why wouldn’t a general manager or head coach consider signing the certain future Hall of Famer; a four-time league MVP whose boatload of records include being the fastest ever to 4,000 completions and 50,000 yards passing? But as tempting as the pursuit of Peyton might seem at first glance, most teams would be well advised to heed the words that Shakespeare put in Falstaff’s mouth in Henry IV, Part I, “the better part of valor is discretion.”

About the time he is introduced at a press conference as the newest member of some NFL franchise, Manning will also be celebrating his 36th birthday. He’s played every home game of his career in the ideal conditions of a domed stadium; where, not surprisingly, his career quarterback rating is almost ten points higher than it is in games played outdoors. Speaking of quarterback rating, his peaked at a phenomenal 121.1 in 2004, and except for a bounce back in 2009 from 2008, has declined every year since. It hasn’t been above 100 for a season since 2006. And of course, he hasn’t played a game in more than a year, during which time he’s undergone four surgical procedures on his neck.

Only Manning really knows how far along he is in his recovery, and how much of his vintage self he will still be able to summon when the NFL season begins next fall. Obviously he believes he can still compete at an elite level, and clearly he wants another shot at a championship. But athletes, especially superstars, are all too often blind to the gradual deterioration of their skills. Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, and Joe Montana are all Hall of Fame quarterbacks who ended their careers with teams other than the ones with which they became famous. None of those endings came close to matching the glory each achieved with the Colts, Jets, and 49ers.

This is not to suggest that Manning is washed up. Assuming the health issues are behind him, I would say he’s anything but. But it takes nothing away from his fabulous career as both a player and a role model to recognize that its latter stages are at hand. Teams still seasons away from contending, those that need more than just an elite quarterback; teams with suspect offensive lines or an undistinguished receiving corps would be bad fits. Ideally, Manning needs to sign with a true contender where an upgrade at his vital position would be enough to make the difference between coming close and winning it all. Houston, which plays in Reliant Stadium with its retractable roof, San Francisco, and Baltimore obviously come to mind; though any of the three would have to be willing to walk away from a young quarterback to whom they claim to be committed. But then the allure of a championship can be a powerful thing.

Of course, so is the allure of money. If in the next couple of weeks Manning signs a fat contract with a team that isn’t really ready to contend, then fans should brace themselves for a year of two of video that they won’t be showing when he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame, and we’ll all look back at this week’s sweet scene in Indianapolis and wish it had been a retirement party.

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