Like other players in the NFL, Peyton Manning will need to restructure his… (Michael Conroy / Associated…)
This isn't football, it's an unseemly game of tennis.
First, the ball's in the court of the Indianapolis Colts. Then, it's in Peyton Manning's court. Colts. Peyton. Colts. Peyton. Every swing chips at their once indivisible bond and at all the memories they built.
Manning, the NFL's only four-time most valuable player, has made it plain he wants to continue his football career, and his doctor has cleared him to do so.
Grateful as they are for what he has done — and no athlete has done more for his franchise — the Colts are focused on their next chapter, the one that begins with them making Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck the first pick in April's draft.
That doesn't mean Manning's days with the Colts are done, even though most signs point to that. But it does mean Colts owner Jim Irsay is not going to pay Manning the required $28 million to keep him beyond March 8. With Manning's throwing strength still in question after multiple neck surgeries, there is no way the Colts will keep him at that price. Nor should they.
Publicly, Manning has indicated he wants to stay. Publicly, Irsay has said he wants to keep him, as long as the quarterback is healthy enough to play and will agree to some type of performance-based contract.
"We can make it work if he wants to be here," Irsay told the Indianapolis Star. "We'd be excited to have him back and finish his career with us.
"I want him to be able to make the choice. We would love to have him back here if he can get healthy and we can look at doing a contract that reflects the uncertainty of the … healing process with the regeneration of the nerve."
Publicly, it all sounds simple enough. But this will be solved in private. This decision doesn't hinge on the hearts and minds of Colts fans. It comes down to, how much of that $28 million is Irsay willing to spend?
Unless the current situation changes drastically, the Colts will either release Manning in the coming weeks, or re-sign him to an incentive-based deal with the intention of him easing the transition to the Luck era.
What we're seeing now is Manning and the Colts posturing to crank up the pressure on the other side. Neither wants to be the bad guy in this fast-dissolving relationship.
We've watched this before. Four years ago, Brett Favre's illustrious career ended in Green Bay with his tearful retirement. Less than two weeks later, his agent was putting out feelers for the future Hall of Fame member to play somewhere else, blasphemy among Packers fans.
That situation got ugly — just as this one has the potential to be — and Favre's career was extended by three years (two of them bad) with the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings.
No one who has appreciated the excellence of Manning would want to see his career end the same way. Even if he stays healthy — and his doctor has indicated Manning's neck issues have put him at no greater risk of injury — it's unlikely he'll be able to roll into a new situation and rekindle the success he had in Indianapolis.
It would be bizarre and wrong to see him playing elsewhere, considering he did more than transform the Colts into a perennial winner and Super Bowl champion. Manning is a big reason Indianapolis still has an NFL team, participated in funding a state-of-the-art stadium, and played host to Super Bowl XLVI.
No one wants to see Manning go out like Favre.
So what should Irsay do? He needs to make a smart decision taking the long view, of course, one that won't put his team in salary-cap prison for the next five years. Assuming Manning is cleared by Colts doctors, Irsay should look at every feasible option to keep him and draft Luck, following the blueprint the Packers used with Favre and Aaron Rodgers.
If the Colts can't make that work, they need to cut ties and move forward with Luck. The pain of transition is inevitable. Meanwhile, this game of public-relations tennis benefits no one.