Antigonish - January 26, 2012 - On the heels of a 2-14 season, and having recently replaced virtually their entire front office and coaching staff, the Indianapolis Colts are unquestionably entering a new era. At this point, there appear to be a lot more questions than there are answers with regards to what the future holds for what had been the NFL’s model franchise in terms of stability and success over the past 14 years. In 1998, new Colts GM Bill Polian was faced with a huge decision - who to draft with the #1 overall pick, the steady and talented Peyton Manning, or the incredibly physically gifted Ryan Leaf. Well, we know how that out turned out (for both the Colts and the Chargers, who infamously drafted Leaf at #2), and now in 2012, the Colts are again faced with a decision as to who to draft at the top of the draft, where it just happens that two highly touted and incredibly talented QB’s sit poised to go 1-2 in April's NFL draft in the persons of Stanford’s Andrew Luck and Baylor’s Robert Griffin III.
While the Colts will have plenty of time to make a decision on which of these two QB’s they will select (and owner Jim has publicly confirmed that the team is looking for a QB with that pick), there are other decisions more pressing at the moment which will certainly have an impact on the teams draft leanings. With GM Bill Polian and son Chris fired shortly after the dust settled on an ugly 2-14 season, along with much of the coaching staff, including head coach Jim Caldwell, Irsay has set a bold new direction for the franchise with the recent hires of GM Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano. While both men are highly respected around the league, each is in their first year in the GM and head coaching seats respectively, and will certainly be subject to scrutiny as they attempt to live up to the success of their predecessors. Grigson, a self-confessed “scouting junkie” from the Eagles organization, and the fiery Pagano, who had been defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens are both radical departures from experienced Hall of Fame candidate Polian and the reserved, soft spoken Caldwell. After a 2-14 season with Manning on the sideline due to medical concerns (much more on that soon), Irsay obviously felt the need to make big changes, and did so. As sweeping as these changes may be, however, they may only be the prelude for an even more dramatic shift in the organization’s core based around the pressing question of what to do about Peyton Manning.
Manning, who has been the face of the franchise since he was drafted, spent the entirety of the 2011-12 season attempting to rehab from surgery on his neck, a cervical fusion procedure the outcome of which is yet to be resolved, leaving his status as a Colt, much less as an NFL quarterback very much in question. Key to any decisions with regards to Manning’s status for the 2012-13 season aside, of course, from his health, is his contract situation. With Manning due to make a staggering $28 million for the upcoming season, Irsay must decide by March 8 on one of three options:
1. Sign off on the contract, ensuring Manning is a Colt for 2012-3 and possibly beyond
2. Look to trade the league’s only four time MVP (Irsay has publicly stated that this is NOT an option, and that IF Manning is healthy, he WILL remain a Colt), or
3. Do the previously unthinkable, and CUT the face of the franchise.
Given that trading Manning does not seem to be an option for Irsay, (due to both salary cap ramifications and the contractual dates involved, as well as his strong personal connection to his long-time QB) and with the medical uncertainty surrounding his prognosis for recovery from neck surgery (former GM Polian stated recently that doctors made it clear there is no timetable by which it can be accurately forecast as to how long it might take or even whether or not a nerve will regenerate), signing off on a salary-cap crippling contract for a 35 yr old QB when an NFL ready #1 draft pick waits in the wings seems ludicrous.
Manning himself has stated that the #1 pick in the draft should start in his rookie season, as he did himself back in 1998, and has more recently expressed a sense of sadness with regards to all of the changes that have taken place in Indy over the past two weeks, saying to Indianapolis Star reporters “"I'm not in a very good place for healing, let's say that," he said, referring to the practice facility. "It's not a real good environment down there right now, to say the least. Everybody's walking around on eggshells. I don't recognize our building right now. There's such complete and total change."
That the team faces a salary cap crunch is also no secret, and with pending high profile free agents such as Robert Mathis, Reggie Wayne and Jeff Saturday, amongst others, poised to move on, it makes little sense to hinge all bets on an aging QB with serious health issues, regardless of how much he has meant to the franchise. Far better to re-build now around a younger, healthy version of Manning in Andrew Luck, and to have the salary cap flexibility to bring in players to grow with the new face of the franchise than to tie up 55 million in the quarterback position with no cap room to make much needed roster improvements elsewhere. A 2-14 club after all, needs more help than just at the QB position, and while a healthy Manning would have undoubtedly resulted in a much improved season for the 2012 Colts, a Super Bowl - caliber squad this was not - with or without #18.
With Manning himself seeming to feel a sense of disconnect from the organization that he brought to such dizzying heights, and with the club undergoing a complete overhaul in an obvious commitment to re-build, it stands to reason that unless Irsay is presented with a clean bill of health for Manning prior to March 8 (which seems highly unlikely), the “Place that Peyton built” will have little choice but to start fresh at QB. Whether Manning’s health permits a return to the Colts or for that matter, the NFL itself remains to be seen - the only certainty seems to be that #18’s time at the helm in Indy appears to be drawing to a close, and that the blueprint for success in Indy seems likely to be re-written by a rookie GM and his hand-picked defensive minded coach (neither of whom Manning has any history with).
As Manning himself stated yesterday in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, while his wish is to remain a Colt, "I understand how it works. I understand tough decisions have to be made. There's personal and there's business and that's where we’ve got to separate the two”. Even with one foot seemingly out the door, #18 continues to provide invaluable direction and leadership for the Indianapolis Colts franchise, as well as for Irsay’s next move, as inevitable as it is unenviable. Just as Indy moved on from then popular QB Jim Harbaugh (a.k.a., Captain Comeback) to draft Manning, so should the Colts current leadership make the decision to move on from Manning to draft Luck. Painful? Yes. Sad? Unquestionably. Necessary? I believe so. Despite everything Peyton has meant to the Colts franchise since the day he was drafted, his uncertain health and huge cap-impacting salary, combined with the team’s stunning fall from Grace in his absence spell a new era on the horizon in Indianapolis, and a new management regime has already been put in place to oversee its implementation. It only stands to reason that a new Quarterback (Welcome, Andrew Luck!) be at its helm. The King is dead. Long live the King!