The Three Sides of Manning’s Indy Departure

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Manning is better than Irsay in so many ways...

I think I’ve mentioned before that I don’t want to write something here that you’ve seen on a dozen other websites or heard 20 to 30 times while listening to sports talk radio. My goal is to provide something just different enough to be fresh and entertaining and still interesting and worth reading. Most sports sites and radio hosts are squeezing every drop from the juicy, story-laden “Peyton Manning: What Does He Do Now?” so quickly that most of what’s left is a little bland. Well, there is the pit.

To me, there is a lot of truth to the saying that there are three sides to every story. In this case, Manning and his “camp” view things one way, Jim Irsay and his fellow team executives view it another and fans and football viewers have millions of other points they wish the first two groups would consider. There are plenty of factors that went into the final decision announced yesterday and leaked a day before – Manning is no longer under contract by the Colts and will not collect a hefty bonus that would have been owed if he was still on the roster today.

Manning’s POV

Try to put yourself into the shoes of Peyton Manning. At the time Manning got drafted by the Colts, they were worse than an afterthought – it was a team that other teams LOVED to see on their schedule. Just a few years prior, Indy had basically sold the farm to buy a race horse. Jeff George did not pan out as the team or fans had hoped, eventually getting traded away to Atlanta (and yes, I feel comfortable making a horse analogy considering George had such a glorious mane and got drafted by a team with a horseshoe on its’ gear). Inexplicably, a QB named Jim Harbaugh led the Colts to some brief glory, but it was truly short-lived. A power struggle, a new coach, and then the team put all it’s eggs in the basket of a quarterback (again), this time one with some pedigree. Peyton Manning didn’t arrive and immediately thrust the team to greatness. It took him two years.

In 1999, Manning had an AMAZING season. He took a team that was going 3-13 just a couple of years prior to 13-3. His performance that year was just a tad overshadowed by a much bigger story – that was the year Kurt Warner and his grocery store past burst onto the scene. It wasn’t just Manning being comfortable with league receiving leader Marvin Harrison (remember, the Rams spread things out a bit more). Kicker Mike Vanderjagt led the league in scoring, Edgerrin James led in rushing and touchdowns. It wasn’t the coach.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen stories about Manning’s control over the offense. I don’t mean that as a slight. I can’t find it on the internet for you, but you have to trust me on this one (and maybe someone can find the one I’m referring to here). Manning BUILT an offense in Indy. All of my dislike of Peyton Manning stems from one fact – he went to Tennessee and hates UF and HATES the Gators. That said, no one, not even a die-hard Gators fan, can deny that he is probably the most important player in the last 14 years of NFL football. He successfully engineered a new way of calling plays and through his work with the team owners, developed the offense (and as a result ended up affecting the way the team built the defense) and changed the culture of football in Indiana. I am not overstating things. He called plays from the huddle. His linemen had to be really, REALLY smart guys and he wouldn’t settle for anything less.

As a result, if anyone would have been “owed” the roster bonus he had coming, it would be Peyton Manning. The team’s fall from such heights to the depths that it did without him showed just how important he was to the team. That does not make him the MVP of the league, just clearly the MVP of the Colts. That they fell so far showed perhaps how comfortable the team and the fans had become and despite the accolades and love showered upon him, it showed how much they still took him for granted. As it might be said, every player in the league is just one “Lawrence Taylor away from a Joe Theisman“. If you’re not familiar with that career ending broken leg story, let me just assure you that injuries shaking up rosters are certainly not a new thing. Also, do not watch the video on that link if you haven’t already. It’s not worth seeing something you can’t unsee.

From Manning’s perspective, he must value his contributions to the team and the city for which he played for so long. If you’re not familiar with how NFL contracts work, basically you get some money up front in a signing bonus, but then hardly ANYTHING is guaranteed. A team can cut you for almost any reason and get rid of you. You may play great for three years of a four year contract and then suffer a knee injury in year four. You’ll get nothing for it. Manning’s contracts may have always been a case of the team trying to make up for what he’d already done, but at the end of the rainbow was this $28 million dollar bonus for being on the team – well, being THE team is more what it seems like.

Manning did something I’m not sure too many other people would have been comfortable doing – he stood with the team owner as it was being announced (officially) that he wouldn’t be paying Manning anymore. Not just that, but Irsay lied and Manning let him get away with it. Irsay said, “it’s never been about money.” It was TOTALLY about the money and it HAD to be based on everything else he said. If it wasn’t about the money, why did you cut him? Was he not good enough for you? Did he not put your team back on the map? Did he not draw people to the stadium each week to watch a man with a golden brain operate a golden arm and put on a fantasy of scoring not unlike what fantasy football owners had been watching gleefully for years? If it wasn’t the money, then what was it? It was JUST the money, because otherwise, Manning proved himself worthy of the bonus if for nothing else the absolutely glowing, emotional and appreciative words he spoke when he announced that he would be looking to play elsewhere next year. If it wasn’t the money, then why be quoted as saying otherwise?

Manning’s speech was masterful. First, he showed in just a few moments that Irsay made the wrong decision and owed (yes, OWED) Manning a chance to show he still had play left in his body. YES, the neck problems are scary, but he is a grown man. It is not the TEAM’S choice, but in lieu of rules set down by the NFL, the choice lies with the player. Do I think Manning could go out in game one and get hit from behind ending his LIFE and not just his career? Absolutely. Don’t think that a man like Manning hasn’t considered such a possibility and don’t insult him in pretending to know better or have some imaginary responsibility.

There’s something else that bothers me. When I was in my senior season of high school baseball, my team made the playoffs, but our coach was dismissed before the start of the postseason. An interim staff was formed for the final regular season game and playoffs. Instead of playing the starters – the players that had worked so hard for so many years to get one last chance to advance in the playoffs, the coaches decided to play young players “for experience” for the future. In reality, they just didn’t care about the older players and were willing to start playing next year right away. The older version of me wishes the younger version of me had been strong enough and dumb enough to take a baseball bat and beat them bloody. I’m only half-joking. Of all the things that I look back on, I’ll never forgive those coaches or my school for “giving up” on us. Yes, we were trailing in the final game when all the starters were pulled, but there is NO time limit in baseball and I don’t care what argument you try to make, the school did owe us, the seniors, to decide our own fate. Did playing those players for 2 innings in a playoff game or the entire final game of the regular season really help them? Does it ever? No. That way of thinking is so obviously and ridiculously faulty that it makes me sick to my stomach. All it did was ensure a loss now.

In the case of Andrew Luck, he’s basically now a lock to be the first draft pick. He is what Irsay hopes will be “the next Peyton Manning” and perhaps it’s a little bit of hubris that leads him to think he can do it again. If I was Manning, I’d be rooting hard against Luck – and I’m not sure they’ve ever met or what kind of person Luck happens to be. To me, it doesn’t matter. In rooting against Luck’s success, I’m rooting against that way of thinking – that all my hard work and the tangible things I brought to the team are worthless compared to the POSSIBILITY that Luck MIGHT be good. Nothing is ever guaranteed – as far as QBs are concerned, there are far more like Ryan Leaf and Andre Ware that you don’t hear about than there are like Peyton Manning. We’re not talking about a journeyman. This is Peyton-freaking-Manning.

Manning certainly had to have an idea that this was coming, but I think in his heart, he was hoping this would never happen. I’d imagine it sort of like a loving spouse feeling the despair that comes when you discover the love of your life doesn’t love you. Maybe they didn’t cheat on you in actuality, but clearly Irsay has been flirting. Now, it’s clear that after divorce, the Colts will get Luck-y.

The fans

I read a very interesting article that spoke about the irony of sports fanaticism. Fans pour so much money and love into a team that not only doesn’t know them, but doesn’t really care. Sports franchises that pretend to care are just doing it because it makes business sense. No franchise should outwardly admit they don’t care about the fans (well, the Marlins are testing that theory, aren’t they?) because it makes it less likely that they’d be willing to shell out more money for tickets or taxes for a new stadium which will make YOU more money.

For Colts fans, the news that Manning (the face of your favorite franchise and a pillar of your community) will not return must certainly be heartbreaking. Even people who the world has beaten into cynicism can have hope that the ones they trust will honor commitment and contributions, if just in small amounts. $28 million is no small amount, but isn’t that money something fans have put into the team to ensure that a day like this might not come? If you’re a fan of the Colts, you’re a fan of Manning. If you think there is a shred of a chance of Manning living out some of his former glory (that includes a Super Bowl title and the knowledge that you have a living legend playing 8 Sunday’s of the year in your dome), you might consider the $28 million dollars his “free agent” signing.

That’s what it comes down to, isn’t it? I mean, how many teams would LOVE to put down that money on a coin flip in this case? Manning said JUST last July that his contract would ensure he’d be able to retire with Indianapolis. Manning showed genuine emotion in conceding the ending of his relationship with the team. He didn’t just “say all the right words” but he said them the right way, too.

If I’m a fan of the team, I certainly don’t want to mortgage the future for a chance at maybe four more years of Manning, but I REALLY don’t think the team has to do that. The Colts already hold the number one pick. Luck could get valuable experience behind Manning and the keys to a juggernaut could get handed over in just a few short years. Alternately, Manning could go down again or not be ready – and then Luck plays himself to the job. It certainly changes the way Manning goes out, but it’s less of a coin flip in that case. Luck would have actual NFL games under his belt, the Colts would be “forced” into that position, and when Manning’s contract comes to a close he can’t claim “third time’s a charm” as convincingly as it seems that leaked throwing video shows him ready for a second chance.

As a fan, I’d be more skeptical of Irsay’s comments, but also curious as to why it seemed that Manning wasn’t completely forthright early on. Was it one surgery or two? He’s cleared to play, but was that him throwing? Was he just posturing for money or does he really believe he can play? Why doesn’t he just retire now if he said he wanted to retire a Colts QB? Couldn’t he get badly hurt? Doesn’t the team “owe” it to him to protect him from himself? Those are the questions that fans have the luxury of wondering. For Manning’s part, he played the part of politician well where Irsay seemed to be so bad that he didn’t care if he was a hypocrite.

Irsay’s POV

If you’re Jim Irsay, this mess is a no win situation. To be clear, that shouldn’t bother Irsay, except that he’s so obsessed with his own fame and public standing that it does. To me, that’s his fault and may be the one thing that he wasn’t willing to give up. His ego at believing that he could do what he did when he took over the team in a power struggle in the mid-90s is what helped him make the final decision. It may be that $28 million dollars is what ends up getting shelled out to Andrew Luck in late April or early May, but I don’t expect him to take long to wrap up the Stanford QB. Irsay will want to show fans that he “has their best interest at heart” and lock up Luck. In reality, he’s a CEO that wants to maintain stock prices and wants to show confidence in his decision. To “take a chance” on Manning SEEMS or plays as a bigger risk than the “sure thing” that Andrew Luck really isn’t, but appears to be.

When Manning’s current (or rather, most recent) deal with Indy was done, the roster bonus was actually put in as a way to SAVE money. You see, it wasn’t a reward. It was a way to ensure that the Colts wouldn’t have to pay more for Manning. In a strange way, that “gamble” by Manning…the goodwill he showed by taking less up front with the promise of making a big chunk later as a reward, hurt him more than it would have had he put up gaudy numbers. You see, if Manning had played this past season, lead the league in passing – again – led the Colts to a Super Bowl – again – and been completely healthy with no signs of slowing down, the $28 million dollars would have actually been undervalued for his worth to the team. So much for being a nice guy – the team had every right to deny that money, but the public relations hit IRSAY would have taken in that case (not the team, just Irsay) wouldn’t have been “worth” what the money could have brought the team.

As it was, a perfect storm brewed. Andrew Luck got a TON of hype early in the season and never really lived up to it, but it’s not like he tanked, either. Luck became a victim of his own early fame, not having a “signature” game or enough flashy highlights after his coach (a guy named Jim Harbaugh, as it turns out…isn’t it nice how things tie together?) left at the end of his junior season for the NFL. For Irsay, the Manning injury storm was coinciding with the beginning swell of support for Andrew Luck – then the Colts made things even more difficult by basically dropping into a well, making it more and more likely that they’d have the first pick in this April’s draft. The season ended and now he’d have to make a decision.

What ended up happening was Irsay doing what he so often does – take to Twitter to “unburden himself” (and end up burdening his followers) of his “thoughts” on random subjects. Irsay, through his “stream of consciousness-style”, made frequent veiled references to his decision-making process. He also let it be known that he’d be “willing” to take Manning if he was willing to take less money. There, in a nutshell, is proof that it wasn’t just a little about the money, but ALL about the money. He used Twitter to imply that Manning would be selfish to expect that money if he weren’t able to play, Twitter to complain Manning was “campaigning” (when that’s exactly what he was doing), and Twitter to imply no one is bigger than the team (when clearly he thinks he is the exception). Irsay said it wasn’t ever about the money, but actually, would it be bad if it were all about the money? What if Irsay knows something we all don’t about Manning’s health? Is that likely? Wouldn’t he have some kind of responsibility to the truth if he did?

As the head of the management of the Colts, you want to ensure that people keep supporting the team – not with cheers, but with paychecks. If Manning was the answer for the next 14 years, Irsay would have had his decision made for him. As I previously mentioned, that Irsay “did it once” with Manning became the thing he could not reconcile. Without having made that winning gamble so early after taking complete control, I do not think he could have made the decision he did. From a purely business standpoint, detached of all the emotion of fandom and player loyalty, cutting Manning is probably the decision that makes the most business sense. You avoid paying a big chunk of money to an aging star who suffered a major injury and hasn’t openly proven he will fully recover. You put yourself in position to plan for the future and build a new team around a young star. That nothing is a guarantee is just as much a satisfaction as it is a problem – Manning could have gotten hurt on the first play or in practice. Worse, Manning could perish on the field, something everyone would have to live with for the rest of their lives, even were it Manning’s own choice to risk his health. Irsay can reason that he’ll get one or two years of leniency from fans who will buy into Luck, just as he might have gotten one or two years of high quality play from Manning should he actually be ready this season. The downside is that after those two years of Luck, they still stink and he has to go out and find a free agent because no matter where they finish next season they’re not taking a QB early. The upside – Luck turns out to be a hit in Indy and a new dynasty is formed. Irsay could have stated such as a matter of fact, but didn’t because while he doesn’t really care how the fans feel, he does care if they spend more money on the Colts.

Irsay really doesn’t care what happens to Manning. He can pretend he does, but the only care he might show would be if Manning ends up retiring. Manning lighting up the league with a new team proves that Manning is a genius and Irsay botched the decision – not for cutting Manning, but for the slipshod way in which he dealt with his Twitter account, dishonesty even on the final day Manning was part of your team (it was ONLY about the money) and his general desire to be just as famous as the quarterback who made his team great. Even Irsay paying Manning last season instead of placing him on the IR list (which meant Manning got paid last season for not playing a down) was a ploy IN CASE Manning DID return during the year and was available. That he played that card already and “lost” money doesn’t absolve him from his current decision, but had he come right out from the beginning and said as much, it would be harder to argue against him trying to save now. He may not want Manning to die, but only so far as he might actually be afraid of feeling sorry. He might remember his career fondly, but more for the dollar signs that he brought in and the way Manning made him seem smart and give him the satisfaction of having fans that felt he was doing a good job…because Manning was doing his job so well.

Further than Manning’s own well-being is the good works that Manning did for the community while building goodwill for the team. All Irsay’s works “for the team” are counterfeits of the genuine time and dedication that Manning actually showed for the people of Indiana, Colts fans, the support staff (whom he lovingly referred to in his exit speech) and his now, former teammates. Irsay wishes he was Manning, but a man like him isn’t loved like Manning because he really isn’t like Manning. Manning is a champion and made his money because he was. Irsay had money and it allowed him the possibility of being considered a champion. There’s a difference and of the three sides to the Manning story, Irsay’s is the one that ultimately mattered. It can be the right decision made for the wrong reason or the wrong decision outright. Time is the only thing that will reveal who is the bigger fool – Irsay or the dozens of NFL teams lining up to sign Manning now that he’s no longer property of Indianapolis.

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About SportsGuySteve

He reads Grantland.com, Tuesday Morning Quarterback, Malcolm Gladwell, Kurt Vonnegut, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein and The Bible. He watches Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter movies. He likes playing Lord of the Rings Online. He likes pizza.

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