During 13 stellar seasons as the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts Peyton Manning was often characterized as being one of the all-time great players in NFL history. With his official release from the Colts, Manning will now join other former NFL greats including Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, O.J. Simpson, Franco Harris, Joe Namath and Jerry Rice by completing his career with a different team than the one for which he became a star.
Given the financial ramifications and having one of the best quarterback prospects since Peyton Manning waiting in the wings, there really was no other choice for Jim Irsay and the Colts organization.
It also is clear that moving on is ultimately in the best interest for Manning, despite his desire to be forever remembered as a Colt.
Had he remained in Indianapolis, the team would have been salary strapped with a huge portion of their salary cap going to pay two quarterbacks when only one can be on the field at a time. With Manning still on the squad the Colts ran the risk of either stunting the development of Andrew Luck or damaging their relationship with Manning.
Reports are that Manning might have been able to stay in Indianapolis to mentor Luck, but would have had to agree to allow the young quarterback a certain amount of practice snaps with the first team. Given that without Manning the Colts won two games in 2011 and will be losing several veteran stars due to free agency, even with Manning under center it is not likely that Indianapolis would be automatically back as a contender in 2012.
Now, the Colts can go through a retooling process with a new quarterback, a new coach and a new general manager and look to build another consistent winner like the team that Manning led to 11 playoff appearances in 13 seasons.
For Manning, assuming that he is physically capable of playing, leaving Indianapolis has probably prolonged his career by a couple years. There is no way that with Andrew Luck waiting in the wings the Colts would have allowed Manning to be the starter for four or five more seasons.
However, if he ends up in another place that allows him to become the unquestioned starter, if he returns to previous form there is no reason he couldn’t give a team four or five more seasons of elite performance.
Of course, history is not on Manning’s side in that venue. Of all the Hall of Fame players I mentioned earlier, only Rice recaptured his past greatness with another team.
Perhaps the closest model to the Manning situation would be that of Joe Montana when he missed the 1991 and most of the 1992 seasons before spending his final two years as the starting quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Like Manning, Montana had reached the Super Bowl just two seasons before his injury and his final season before being hurt was statistically one of his finest. Montana was 37 when he joined the Chiefs while Manning will be 36 before next season.
In two years with the Chiefs, Montana started 25 out of 32 regular season games and passed for 5,427 yards, 29 touchdowns and 16 interceptions while winning 17 of his starts. Those were certainly solid numbers, but not the same Hall of Fame level that Montana demonstrated while winning four Super Bowls in San Francisco.
The Chiefs did make the playoffs both years under Montana, but lost in the AFC Championship Game to Buffalo in 1993 and in the opening round to the Raiders in 1994. By the end of that second season Montana was physically beaten up and retired from the league.
The X factor in the Manning situation is his physical condition. While Montana’s injury was to his elbow and certainly impacted his throwing ability, early indications are that Manning should be back to his old passing form before the start of the season. What has yet to be answered about Manning is whether he will be able to take a hit on his surgically repaired neck.
Even if his arm is back to full strength, Manning could still be one big hit away from the end of his career.
What NFL teams are going to be willing to roll the dice and take a chance on whether Manning has four more good seasons or just one or two more games?
It seems likely that someone will take a chance, though the possible suitors may not be as plentiful as some believe. The Dolphins and Redskins are the teams most readily mentioned, but while both could bring him in without deflating the confidence of a current starter, the coaching situation in both of those places doesn’t seem to exactly fit with what Manning is going to be looking for.
Seattle is another possible destination and while the Seahawks have a young team with potential, whether Pete Carroll, who has one of the larger egos in the league, will be willing to co-exist with Manning is yet to be seen.
If he were to go to Arizona or the New York Jets there is no question he would be an immediate upgrade and make either of those squads a contender. However, both teams have invested time and money into a young quarterback and bringing in Manning would signal a lack of faith in the current quarterback.
That is no big deal if Manning can last three or four years, but if his comeback lasts only a few games it could provide a long-term setback for that franchise.
It is certainly disappointing that Peyton Manning will not finish his career with the Colts, but let’s hope this all-time great can return to past form and gets to play the game he loves at the highest level for many years to come.