The Super Bowl dwarfs all else in North American sports, but the Super Bowl will be only the second-biggest story in this year’s host city. Of greater interest in Indianapolis is what’s happening with Peyton Manning, the only NFL player who’s a team unto himself.
Everybody knew Peyton Manning was a great player, but just how great was revealed only when, for the first time since he was drafted out of Tennessee in 1998, he wasn’t able to play. For 13 seasons and through 227 consecutive starts, Manning made the Colts a viable concern. Then he had offseason neck surgery and was so slow to heal that he missed not just a start but a season.
With Manning, the Colts had made the playoffs 11 times in 12 seasons. Without him, they did well to win two games. They were the NFL equivalent of the Cleveland Cavaliers after LeBron James took his talents elsewhere, and here we thought that in football no one man could mean half that much. For more than a decade Manning conveyed the aura of overall excellence on the team that wears the horseshoe, and in one winter his absence gave lie to all that.
And now the Colts, having fired their vice chairman, their general manager and their head coach, stand ready to dump Manning, too. By being so awful, they gained the right to pick first in the NFL draft. The draft’s prize is Andrew Luck, considered the most NFL-ready quarterback since … er, Peyton Manning.
(There was some thought that the Colts would take Luck and make him Manning’s understudy for a year or so, but that’s no longer the way the NFL works. Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco played right away. Mark Sanchez and Cam Newton played right away. Andrew Luck needs to play right away.)
There’s also a monetary concern. The Colts, who paid Manning $26 million for a season he missed, are obliged to pay a $28 million bonus if he’s on the roster as of March 8. This payout figured to be money well spent so long as Manning was healthy and taking the Colts to the playoff, but the moment he couldn’t go — the first such moment in his professional life — he became a drain on the franchise he’d spent 13 years propping up.
Last week the actor Rob Lowe tweeted that “his source” told him that Manning was going to “retire today.” Lowe is known to be buddies with Jim Irsay, the Colts’ owner who fancies himself a cool guy and who buys vintage guitars used by famous rockers and who once paid $2.4 million for Jack Kerouac’s original manuscript of “On The Road.” Everyone assumed Lowe’s “source” was indeed Irsay, which Lowe has denied.
Then Manning spoke with Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star, expressing his desire to remain a Colt, but lamenting the mood in team headquarters, saying: “It’s not a real good environment down there right now.”
Then Irsay, who apparently inherited the tin-eared gene from his dad, Robert Irsay, the man who Mayflower’ed the Colts out of Baltimore in the dead of a winter night, responded by calling Manning “a politician” and criticized him for going outside “the family.” So now we know:
The Manning era in Indy isn’t just at an end — it’s at a bad end.
For the record, Irsay and Manning related a joint statement Friday saying: “We would like to dispel any misperception that there might be any hard feelings between us.” Also for the record, nobody has yet found a good way to handle quarterback successions. The tumult from letting Joe Montana leave so Steve Young could take his place divided the 49ers and their fans, and there was great hand-wringing in Green Bay when Brett Favre unretired after a teary benediction. (The Packers chose to stick with heir-apparent Aaron Rodgers; Favre wound up with the Jets.)
If he can play — and there’s no assurance he can — Manning could well win a Super Bowl elsewhere soon. (He turns 36 in March.) In the short term, he’d surely be better off elsewhere. Nobody wants to see a great quarterback toiling for a no-chance team. (Remember Johnny Unitas as a San Diego Charger? No? There’s a reason.) At the same time, it’s unfair to blame the Colts for wanting to begin their reboot with a younger man: That’s the way of all sports.
Still, this final episode of Peyton’s Place has at its heart a cruel twist. The guy who never missed a start and who made the Colts look far better than they really were finally missed a start and unmasked the horseshoe organization as a one-man gang. Now the one man will be given by the boot. Maybe Jim Irsay can get his soon-to-be-former-employee a rate from Mayflower.
By Mark Bradley