March 7, 2012 remains one of the most surreal days in recent memory for the NFL. Something that no one ever expected to see actually happened, as Peyton Manning and the Colts parted ways. In an incredibly emotional press conference with Jim Irsay and Manning, the two sides explained the realities behind the situation: that the Colts were releasing Peyton Manning, the greatest player in franchise history and one of the greatest in NFL history.
At the time, there were doubters of Irsay's decision, and those doubters remain four years later. Manning has gone on to have great success with the Denver Broncos, where he continued to shatter records and led Denver to four playoff appearances and two Super Bowl berths, winning Super Bowl 50 on Sunday. Naturally, the question that some have asked is this: had the Colts kept Manning, would they have won another Super Bowl with the quarterback?
If Colts had kept Peyton and traded the No. 1 pick, do they win a Super Bowl in the last four years? https://t.co/QVNcxaoZgl— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) February 9, 2016
My answer, quite simply, is no, and I maintain that it was without a doubt the right decision by Jim Irsay, albeit the hardest one for him to make personally.
Just take it from Irsay, who could hardly control his excitement when talking with RTV6's Dave Furst last week about Manning having another shot at the Super Bowl. Would Manning winning a Super Bowl with the Broncos make Irsay second-guess his decision? "It wouldn't at all," Irsay told Furst last week. "Not even close. I really felt, no one understood the cap problems we were in going into '12 like that. Believe me, I mean my fellow owners were almost mad at me. They would look at me and say, ‘you want sympathy from a 3-13 season [the Colts were actually 2-14 in 2011] and you go from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck? I mean, boy, can I have your rosary that you pray on?' We were so fortunate, but it worked out great for both sides. I told him we'd love to have him in here to retire as a Colt."
Let's start at the very place that Irsay did: the salary cap situation. Understand that in 2012, the Colts were not in a good situation when it came to the salary cap. In fact, as the Colts began to move on to the new era with Andrew Luck, they did so by having nearly one-third of their salary cap in 2012 taken up by dead money! Sure, part of that came from cutting Manning, but according to Pro Football Talk, the Colts ate $10.6 million in dead money in 2012 for that move, while Manning would have had a $17 million cap hit if the Colts had kept him. So keeping Manning would have presented problems for the Colts financially, meaning that we probably still would have seen the degree of moves that resulted: the team cut players like Dallas Clark, Gary Brackett, and Joseph Addai, among others, while letting guys like Jeff Saturday walk in free agency. So, in other words, you'd have a team that is a mess financially, has an aging quarterback with a big cap number coming off of a very significant injury, and that is getting rid of a lot of key players. That's not exactly the recipe for success. Instead, the Colts ate a ton of dead money in 2012 and started over, which was the right thing to do.
But the decision is justified by much more than simply the cap situation. Frankly, the Colts weren't a very good team at the time. I think that was evidenced very clearly in 2011, when Manning missed the entire season and the rest of the team fell apart in a 2-14 season. While Manning was good enough to be able to carry the team for years and may still have been able to if they had kept him, let's just consider this for a moment. The Denver Broncos were 8-8 and made the playoffs with Tim Tebow at quarterback the year before Manning got there and it still took them four years to win a title, so why would we assume that the Colts - who were 2-14 without Manning in 2011 - would have magically been able to win a title within those four years too? This is no slight at Manning at all, as instead it was rather incredible what he was able to do with a sub-par roster overall. But to think that had they kept Manning the Colts would have had as much success as the Broncos have had is far, far from certain and instead unlikely. Sure, the Colts would have gotten a huge haul for the top pick, but that would assume the Colts would then nail the picks that they got and would have continued building upon those moves over the next few years. While possible, it's unlikely and impossible to say.
Lastly, it wasn't like the Colts simply moved on from Manning just because. In fact, the biggest reason why the Colts cut Manning wasn't the salary cap or the lack of talent but rather his replacement, Andrew Luck. Billed as the best quarterback prospect since Manning, Jim Irsay knew that it would pay off in the long run to move on from Manning - who, considering his injury situation, likely only had a few years left - to draft Luck with the top overall pick. The move was about thinking long-term, which is why we can't simply compare Luck's stats over the past four seasons (his first four in the league) to Manning's stats over the past four seasons (after he had already established himself as one of the best ever) and make the decision. It has to be made with the future in mind, realizing that Manning is likely to retire now while the Colts may still have Luck for the next decade.
For as good as Peyton Manning and the Broncos have been over the past four years, Jim Irsay still made the right decision in cutting him in 2012 (and we didn't even talk about the injury uncertainty that existed at the time). The salary cap situation, the lack of talent, and the next sure-thing in Andrew Luck made a very strong case for moving on and still does. I couldn't be happier for Manning that he won another ring, but that just goes to show that it worked out well for all sides involved. It doesn't happen often in football, but this was truly a win-win.