We're now nearly two years removed from the Indianapolis Colts and their owner, Jim Irsay, releasing quarterback Peyton Manning. Two years? Feels more like 200.
Since that now famous March day in 2012, both the Colts and Manning have had great success. The Colts and Manning's present team, the Broncos, have made the playoffs two years in a row. Both have won division titles. Both have won playoff games. For Manning, he's helped elevate an already solid Broncos roster to the Super Bowl. For Manning's replacement in Indianapolis, quarterback Andrew Luck, he's already considered a top tier quarterback in the NFL in just his second season. Luck is scheduled to appear in his second straight Pro Bowl, and has thrown for more yards and touchdowns in his first two years in the NFL than Manning did in his first two seasons.
Still, despite the success that both have had since Manning and the Colts parted ways, a few are still wondering if releasing Manning in 2012 was truly worth it for the team that draft him No. 1 overall in 1998.
Manning's comeback story is one for the ages. The saga begins with surgically fused neck and depleted arm strength had many wondering if the the four-time NFL MVP would ever play again. If he did play, would Manning be his old self? If he wasn't his old self, would he even be serviceable? Two seasons, 10,136 yards, and 92 touchdowns later, those questions have been answered.
The questions people are asking now is would Manning have produced those numbers if the Colts had retained him? Were Colts fans and the city of Indianapolis deprived of one of the greatest sports comeback stories ever?
I recently used Twitter to gauge how my followers felt today about the Colts-Manning divorce. For me, when I see critical comments regarding the divorce randomly pop-up in my mentions, or in the comments on this blog, my blood boils. It's frustration on my part because it was clear to me then, just as it is clear to me now, that Manning had to go. The Colts possessed the No. 1 overall pick in 2012. That pick meant Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, and the suggestion that Manning and Luck could coexist on the same roster was simply laughable.
I know some, like former Bleacher Report writer Nate Dunlevy, still cling to this notion that it was financially possible to retain Manning, despite the roughly $17 million cap hit the Colts would have needed to absorb.
Per Dunelvy, had the Colts released defensive end Dwight Freeney in 2012 instead of Manning, the team would have been off the hook for the $14 million owed to Freeney in his final season in Indy. To sand this down to it's base elements, the money that the Colts used on Freeney (roughly $14 mill) in 2012 could have been used to keep Manning (roughly $17 mill). Thus, key veterans like Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis still could have been re-signed. The roster make-up in 2012 could have been essentially what we saw that year, just with Manning as the starting quarterback, Andrew Luck sitting on the bench, and Freeney somewhere else.
Here's the problem with this idea: Manning and Luck on the same team.
That's not attainable. In fact, it's ridiculous to even consider it. When Dunlevy states that it is "patently false" that the Colts had no choice but to cut Manning, he's being silly. With the No. 1 overall pick in their pocket and Andrew Luck sitting out there waiting to be selected, there was no other logical choice but to release the franchise's all-time passing leader.
And yes, it made sense to keep Freeney and his $14 million salary as well. Freeney actually produced something on the field in 2012. Had he been released, that's yet another quality defensive player removed from a defense that was short on such players.
Could Peyton Manning have produced 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns in Indianapolis in 2012 as he did in Denver? It's possible. Despite the cancer treatments head coach Chuck Pagano had to endure that year, forcing him to take a leave of absence from the team, then-offensive coordinator Bruce Arians (who is close with Manning and was, from 1998-2000, his QB coach) could have coached Manning to a productive season. Perhaps 10 or 11 wins would have been possible.
But, for what?
What's the point of having an 11-win season with Peyton Manning if it only produces a playoff appearance? We've been there. Done that. Isn't the point of rebuilding a franchise just that: REBUILDING. How is a team truly doing this if their quarterback is 37-years-old and their No. 1 overall pick (Andrew Luck in this case) is just sitting on the bench?
Would it have been productive for a 37-year-old Manning to get hit and knocked around behind a porous offensive line while a 23-year-old with a $14.5 million signing bonus just sits and watches?
No. No. A thousand times, no.
Irsay recently ran to his always obliging sounding board, the Indianapolis Star, and spoke to columnist Bob Kravitz once again about his reasons for cutting Manning and the current state of the Manning-less Colts. He did this in response to a new book published by onetime super agent Leigh Steinberg which states that Irsay and the Colts were leaning towards drafting Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf in early 1998.
Here's Irsay, via the Indy Star:
"And we're obviously on track; actually we're past where we thought we would be with Andrew (Luck). If Peyton had stayed, it would have been a joke with what we could have been able to field in 2012. It would have been crazy to think we could have put a team together with Peyton.
Now, I'm willing to go along with many of the other reasons why it made sense to cut Manning; the uncertainty of his health at the time being the most logical. However, to give Nate Dunlevy his due, he's right on a certain level about the Colts being able to field a competitive team with Manning. Meanwhile, Jim Irsay is simply creating a convenient excuse and, as Mike Florio of PFT correctly states, "laying the foundation for his response" should people criticize the Colts owner if/when Manning wins his second Super Bowl.
FYI: The Broncos are currently favored by 2.5 over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.
If the Colts had wanted to retain Manning, renegotiating his contract, or, perhaps, releasing Freeney, would have freed up enough money to re-sign key veterans and augment the rest of the roster with cheaper talent. The Colts could then have traded out of the No. 1 overall pick. Or, they could have used the No. 1 overall pick on USC left tackle Matt Kalil or, ironically, Alabama running back Trent Richardson. Free agent money then could have been used on better offensive line prospects.
Again, I'm not saying this is the correct path that the franchise should have walked down. I'm stating that Irsay's comment about the Colts roster being "a joke" if they'd kept Manning simply isn't true, and Irsay most certainly knows this.
Had Manning been retained past the 2012 season - which was essentially a throw away season when considering the state of the roster at that time outside of the quarterback position - general manager Ryan Grigson could have used the $40 million bucks in cap space he had available during the 2013 offseason on linemen like Louis Vasquez and Andy Levitre, or receiver help like Wes Welker and Greg Jennings.
Basically, Grigson could have given Manning the same free agent acquisitions in Indianapolis that Broncos front office executive John Elway did in Denver.
This would have meant Grigson could not blow cash on free agent busts like LaRon Landry and Erik Walden. With Peyton still around, burning money on mediocre defensive players would not have been tolerated. If you honestly think Manning doesn't stick his nose in front office affairs, then you also likely believe in flying unicorns, trickle down economics, and dinosaurs living in the time of Jesus.
Yes, Indianapolis could have signed better free agents, used the 2013 NFL Draft to provide depth, and made a run with Manning one more time. It would have required Ryan Grigson to spend money on name players instead of the mediocre talent, but it was a possibility.
But, again, I keep coming back to the why? Why try for one more Super Bowl with Manning when you can try for multiple Super Bowls with Luck?
Also, let's just be honest here: How much better is Manning than Luck? By my observations, not much.
I know that might be sacrilege to the Manning zealots, but if you watch both men play (and I've watched a ton of tape this past year), no one does more with less around him than Luck. Manning's record 55 touchdowns this season is a phenomenal statistic, but it's also the by-product of a truly great receiving corps; one Manning would not have had in Indianapolis. Luck's elusiveness, his accuracy, and his uncanny ability to make special plays in critical situations is as good as anyone else in the league. He covers up for more roster holes in Indianapolis than Manning does in Denver.
Plus, Luck outplayed Manning when their respective teams faced each other in Week 7.
The other factor we're not considering is coaching. Denver head coach John Fox is a seasoned pro who knows a thing or three about winning and coaching in Super Bowls. The staff he assembled in Denver is truly excellent, with first-year offensive coordinator Alex Gase another example of a strong coach sprouting from the Fox tree. Meanwhile, Chuck Pagano has yet to prove his worth in Indianapolis. Despite his pedigree from the Baltimore Ravens, the Colts defense has improved little under Pagano's tenure despite running his "hybrid" 3-4 scheme. I know people like Pagano for sentimental reasons, but the reality is he isn't a particularly good head coach. Even if we were to agree that Pagano is an "OK" coach, we have no idea how he would have meshed with the stubbornly headstrong and offensively aggressive Manning.
This "power running" stuff that Pagano loves to preach? Manning would have rolled his eyes and dismissed it.
In all likelihood, if Manning had been retained, Jim Caldwell would still be the head coach in Indianapolis. Many of us forget that Ryan Grigson tried to hire former Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo as Caldwell's defensive coordinator in January 2012. When Spagnuolo turned down the offer, Caldwell was fired on January 17th.
If Caldwell had been the head coach in 2012, this means no Bruce Arians. No "ChuckStrong." No "Build the Monster."
While I'm not a fan of Chuck Pagano's coaching at present, I have absolutely no issue with Jim Irsay giving him the chance over retaining Caldwell. With Pagano, there was - and perhaps still is - potential. This potential outweighed anything Caldwell offered. This doesn't mean that Caldwell will fail in his new job as head coach of the Detroit Lions. It just means that, with the Colts, it was time for a change. A full and complete change, from top to bottom.
It all goes back to intentions. If the goal in 2012 was to rebuild, then cutting loose of Manning and drafting Luck requires no words of defense. It was the obvious move to make. The necessary move. If certain fans can't understand that, then we're likely past the point of reasoning. Their anger/bitterness/irrationality is, to put it bluntly, silly at this point.
I wrote earlier that I used Twitter to gauge the fanbase's feelings about Manning and the Colts now that we are two years removed from their divorce. I was happy to see that most still feel the move was at best necessary and at worst logically justified. Only a small few seemed to hold onto any bitterness or resentment.
Personally, I think it's logical to root for both Manning and the Colts, but to a point. The split jersey stuff that many Hoosiers flaunted during the Week 7 match-up between the Broncos and Colts was embarrassing, but, in the end, it was very good that the Colts won the game. Had Manning walked into Indy and blown out his old team, I honestly do not think the Colts would have recovered.
I'm obviously rooting for Manning in Super Bowl XLVIII. I want him and the Broncos to win, and I want him to take his place as, in all likelihood, the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. It is possible that Irsay was right to release Manning and that both his team and Peyton himself benefited.
Sometimes, there doesn't need to be a winner or a loser. Both can win. In this case, both did.