On March 7, 2012, Colts owner and CEO Jim Irsay officially announced the hardest decision he had ever made when it came to running an NFL franchise: he parted ways with the player who put it on the map. He parted ways with the greatest player the franchise had ever known. He parted way with a friend.
In a move that would have seemed utterly unbelievable had you not understood the events of the 2011 season, the Colts released quarterback Peyton Manning. Indianapolis held the first overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft - a draft that featured the best prospect since Manning, at least - and Irsay knew it was time to move on. The Colts parted ways with Manning and began a rebuilding process, selecting Andrew Luck with their first overall pick. Manning went on to sign with the Broncos and the Colts continued to rebuild.
On Sunday, the two teams will meet in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. It's the third game Manning will play against his former franchise, though it's never been bigger than this. And so today, Irsay made a rare appearance with the media, and he reflected on the decision three years ago.
"My vision at the time was it would work out this way," Irsay said, "that Peyton would be able to go somewhere, continue his greatness, continue his career. We would be able to go forward with Andrew.
"Again, having the type of success we've had so soon I think was a surprise to me," the owner continued. "To be in the playoffs three straight years, win 33 games over three years, to have already won two playoff games, that's something that you don't take for granted. This is really exciting, obviously, to have this context, but again, both teams want to advance. Our goal is to win the game. In the end, our players, our coaches are focused on that. They're focused on it and I think it's going to be a great game. Like I said, when this major shift, which affected the National Football League in a lot of ways, happened, it was my hope and dream that this sort of situation would occur. I feel blessed that it has."
By all accounts, it has worked out incredibly well for both sides. Manning went to Denver, where they surrounded him with a host of talented players in an effort to win it all, and last year they came close. They're aiming to finish the deal this year, and Manning himself has been phenomenal in his three seasons with the Broncos, throwing for 14,863 yards and 131 touchdowns. For Indianapolis, they are coming along more slowly, but they've got a star quarterback as well, one who is shattering records as he goes. Through his first three seasons he has thrown for 12,957 yards and 86 touchdowns, but just this last season he broke Manning's franchise record for most passing yards in a single season and he led the entire league in touchdown passes. The Colts are obviously aiming for a Super Bowl title, too, and on Sunday, it's Manning and the Broncos standing in the way. The transition couldn't have worked out any better.
"This whole thing," Irsay said, "it's interesting because Bill Polian and I sat down at the highest level and had intense meetings even in 2010 and '11 before Peyton's injury and said, ‘How are we going to transition to the next level? How are we going to find the next day at the quarterback position for the destiny of this franchise?' The answers that we came up with were incomplete and somewhat inadequate by my estimation and of course the rest is history in the sense that us ending up getting that first-round pick.
"It was (Maurice Jones-Drew) that gave it to us; he reached out on that four-yard gain and got the first down in Jacksonville and that changed our destiny. That's the way it goes in life, in this league with destiny and that sort of thing. It's unknown. I'd like to think the horseshoe's lucky. It has been at least in terms of quarterbacks for us lately."
Ultimately, Jim Irsay sounds like a man who doesn't have many regrets about the situation - not any that he discussed today, at least. He made the right decision, as tough as it was. Manning, who Irsay said remains a "really dear friend to me" who he still communicates with, went on to Denver, where he is guiding one of the best teams in football over the past few seasons. The Colts, on the other hand, have the best young quarterback in football and one who has already emerged as one of the best period, and he's leading the Colts to the Divisional Round of the playoffs for the second straight season.
It's been a pretty amazing start to the Andrew Luck Era, when you step back and consider it. 11-5 in three straight seasons, three straight playoff berths, two straight AFC South titles, and a playoff win in each of the last two seasons. And Colts' owner and CEO Jim Irsay, one of the most involved owners in the sport, sits back and is happy about all of that. "Very happy," Irsay said. But make no mistake: "our goal is to win a world championship," Irsay added. And the next step toward that ultimate goal comes on Sunday, against Peyton Manning and the Broncos in Denver - and to do that, the Colts know they'll have to improve on penalties, turnovers, and mistakes.
"I thought we played better on Sunday," Irsay said, "and when I say that, I mean that I don't think we've played our best game yet."