March 7, 2012. A day that will live in infamy for the Indianapolis Colts and their fans. It was the day that the greatest player in franchise history was released. One year later, there is no doubt that "the Decision" was made correctly. While Peyton Manning will never be forgotten, Andrew Luck has made it easier to move on.
It's hard to believe that it's only been one year. It seems like so long ago when Peyton Manning was still a Colt. One year ago today, one of the most dominant eras of football in NFL history officially came to an end.
"We're here to announce the conclusion of Peyton's playing career with the Colts. We're here very much as well to honor all the incredible memories and incredible things that he's done for the franchise, for the city, for the state. In the history of sports through the last century, there's been in team sports a handful of Hall of Fame great players that have done incredible things for franchises. I know that this parallels the handful of people through time that has meant so much to the franchise. I know, in my heart and in the hearts of fans, it's unparalleled for the Colts. It's a difficult day here of shared pain between Peyton, myself, the fans, everyone. I think in that vein as well, the 18 jersey will never be worn again by a Colt on the field." - IRSAY
Just like that. It was over. 150 wins over 13 years? 2 AFC titles and a Lombardi Trophy. 4 NFL MVP awards and 10 pro bowl berths. Just like that, one of the NFL's greatest eras came to an end. It was stunning. It was saddening. It was sudden. I mean, in 2010 Manning was playing as well as ever and the injured quarterback led an injury-ravaged team to the playoffs. When the Jets upset the Colts in Lucas Oil Stadium in the playoffs, Colts fans were certain that next year would bring about a new chance to win a super bowl since, of course, they had Manning under center.
Then came the surgeries, the questions, the rumors. Was Peyton going to be able to start the season? Was Peyton going to be able to play at all? And in a matter of months, the entire franchise that the Colts had built - so dominant, so successful - crumbled. Manning missed every game and the Colts won two games all year, starting 0-13. General manager Bill Polian? Fired. Head coach Jim Caldwell? Fired. And in our hearts, we knew that Peyton was next. This wasn't just an issue of health - which was certainly a concern. This was an issue of starting over. The Colts, finishing with a league worst 2-14 record, got the first overall pick in an NFL draft that held the greatest prospect since Manning, and maybe before.
Colts fans tried to figure out some way where Manning and Andrew Luck could be on the same team. So did the media. So did owner Jim Irsay. But there wasn't a way that it could have worked.
"The worst thing you can imagine would have been to see (Manning) struggling with a team completely derived of talent, being 1-6 or something like that and then calls for Andrew to come in and play over Peyton. I could see it happening. The cap situation was that dire."
Irsay told Bob Kravitz the above quote last week. And he's right. The only option for the Colts and for Manning was to part ways, as hard as it may be.
"I've been a Colt for almost all my adult life. But I guess in life and in sports, we all know that nothing lasts forever. Times change, circumstances change, and that's the reality of playing in the NFL.
"Jim and I have spoken extensively about where we are today and our conversations have led both of us to recognize that our circumstances make it best to take the next step. This has not been easy for Jim and it certainly has not been easy for me. Jim, along with Bill Polian, drafted me 14 years ago. Jim and I have always been close. We made a lot of great memories together. He's always been good to me. And Jim, I will forever be grateful.
"This town and this team mean so much to me. It truly has been an honor to play in Indianapolis. (Voice cracks) I do love it here. I love the fans and I will always enjoy having played for such a great team. I will leave the Colts with nothing but good thoughts and gratitude, to Jim, the organization, my teammates, the media and especially the fans." - MANNING, all the while trying to fight back tears
Parting ways with him seemed impossible. Phil B. Wilson summed it up best, writing at the time that:
"If there's anything more challenging than trying to accept the cold, harsh reality that Peyton Manning and the Colts are parting ways, it's coming up with the words to put it all in perspective.
Seriously, how do you say goodbye to this guy?
I don't know. Really.
Rick Reilly, in an open letter of gratitude to Manning, wrote:
Lastly, thank you for the way you left. Always thought you'd go out as a Colt, and go out the way you wanted, but if it had to end this way, "I truly have enjoyed being your quarterback" is as good an exit line as I've heard. You made it sound like it was an elected position, an honor, a job where you knew people were depending on you. You were right...
... So thank you, Peyton Manning. And bravo. You wore the horseshoe, but it was us who got lucky."
We did indeed. Despite the fact that he was no longer a Colt, however, Manning was determined to make sure we hadn't seen the last of him on the field.
Peyton Manning continued to work as furiously as ever. In fact, at this point last year he was already further along than anyone could have imagined. There was no doubt about it in Manning's mind: he was coming back. He was going to a team that was a quarterback away from the super bowl. He was going with one goal in mind: to win that second ring.
Jim Irsay was at work as well. He drafted Andrew Luck with the first overall pick and, along with general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano, began rebuilding the franchise that just two years ago was so great.
"I think it's always a difficult process. It's not like I sat there a year and a half ago and said ‘We really want to rebuild. We're looking forward to rebuilding.' It didn't work that way. With injuries and the erosion of time on the roster and different things and the circumstances that dictated ... people lose track of the salary cap and where we're really at there. Just to sign our draft picks we're going to have to make more roster moves. It's something where you know to duplicate what we've done in the last 12-plus years, that's very, very difficult to do. You know how hard it is. Peyton and I have talked about it. We all have through the years, how hard it is to win in this league. It's going to be a process for us. Hopefully we'll watch Peyton win immediately and that we'll continue to slowly build and find our stride. I think that as Peyton and I talked, the hope and plan was it would be a slow continuity, that you would slowly go into it and there wouldn't be such jagged edges to all of sudden rebuilding being upon you.
"But it forced itself upon us. It's a challenge. Both Peyton and I have talked, we're always up for challenges. I know he's up for the challenge and going forward from here. If anyone can do it, he can. At the same time, we're up for the challenge. But we're a ways a way. In '98, we had more pieces in place with Tarik Glenn, Adam Meadows, Marcus Pollard, Ken Dilger, two Hall of Fame players in Marshall Faulk and Marvin Harrison. It's a challenge but I know we'll continue to work at it as we go through each day." - IRSAY
Manning signed with the Denver Broncos, a playoff team from the previous year but with a pretender at quarterback. And when the season started, the entire NFL got to see just how far along Peyton Manning really was. Including us Colts fans. Was it painful to see our most beloved player in different colors, playing so well? Yes and no. We were happy to see him doing well, even though we will never get used to him in that shade of blue. But our focus wasn't on the superstar quarterback in Denver; it was on the superstar quarterback in Indianapolis.
While Manning was his typical self, making passes that only Manning can; Andrew Luck was making plays that only Luck can. Behind a line that would have gotten Manning killed, Luck stayed strong. Displaying athleticism and toughness, Luck took every snap. He didn't shy away from the hits. He took the hits, made the throws, and won games.
There was only one way Indianapolis could move on from Peyton. And that was Luck. The rookie quarterback stepped into a can't-win situation. The city he would now call home was divided between him and his predecessor. They were having trouble selling tickets. The team they fielded was among the worst in the league pre-season. ESPN ranked them dead last in their pre-season power rankings. And Peyton Manning was suiting up for a super bowl run in Denver. Most guys would have crumbled under that pressure. Not Andrew Luck. No, he took a can't-win situation - and won.
The Colts won 11 games and made the playoffs in one of the most out-of-nowhere seasons in recent memory. By the end of the year, the Colts had no trouble selling out and the city of Indianapolis had no trouble embracing their franchise quarterback. Yes, TV sets were still tuned to Peyton's games whenever he was playing. But the breakup that had seemed unimaginable just two years prior and that had seemed so heartbreaking just a year before suddenly became forgotten. No, we didn't forget Peyton, nor will we ever. But we could move on, because we knew that the decision was best for the franchise and for its' greatest player ever.
One year later, we haven't forgotten Peyton Manning. We never will. He will always be the greatest player to play in Indianapolis, and perhaps the greatest player to play anywhere. But we have moved on, which seemed so impossible at this point last year. Andrew Luck is to thank for that. After their playoff loss to Baltimore last year, the Colts walked off the field knowing that this was only the beginning of an incredible era. After their playoff loss to Baltimore last year, the Broncos walked off the field knowing that time was limited to win a title with their soon-to-be 37 year old quarterback.
Just like he has so often, Jim Irsay nailed the big decision, this one the biggest of them all. The Colts are set up for a run in which they will have the chance at multiple titles. Right after one of the best eras in NFL history, they are set up with another superstar quarterback. We will never forget Peyton Manning. But from the looks of it, by the time Andrew Luck's career in Indy is over we won't be able to forget him either. The future is incredibly bright, and it's all because one year ago today the hard and painful move was made to part ways with the greatest player in Colts history. We sincerely thank you for the memories Peyton. And already, Andrew Luck is beginning to make his own.
Quotes throughout the article unattributed to other sources are from the press conference announcing Manning's release, held March 7th, 2012. It was the greatest, while at the same time saddest, press conference I have ever seen. It can be seen in it's entirety on YouTube here, or read in it's entirety here.