The biggest race of the 2011 season – the one that could have the biggest impact on 2012 and beyond – is all-but decided. The Indianapolis Colts are the worst team in the NFL. They are going to own the rights to super-quarterback Andrew Luck.
And if they don’t exercise those rights next April and draft their future franchise quarterback – no matter how healthy their current quarterback is – they’ll be making a mistake that they’ll end up regretting for the next decade at least.
That’s the price of the biggest decision the Colts’ franchise will have to make since 1998 when they made the decision – which wasn’t a slam dunk at the time, by the way – to take Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf.
Now, 13 years later, Manning is 35 years old. He’s three months removed from spinal fusion surgery, which was his third neck surgery in the last 19 months. The Colts and the Mannings have been guarded about what they’ve revealed publicly about the future Hall of Famer’s condition. He was never placed on injured reserve though even owner Jim Irsay recently conceded he’s not likely to play this season.
The more vague they are, the more we are all left to wonder: Will Peyton Manning ever play again?
“He loves to play, he wants to play and I think if he gets his health back, he still capable of playing at a high level,” Peyton’s dad, Archie Manning, said recently on ESPN Radio. “That’s his DNA.”
And that’s great. But he’s still 35 – 36 by the time the 2012 season starts. He’s still coming off a lost season and three surgeries on his neck in the last 19 months. He may be one of the five greatest quarterbacks who ever lived, but age and surgeries – particularly neck surgeries – can even cause super-human athletes to deteriorate.
If he returns, will he be the same? How many Hall of Fame years does he have left? How many good years? What happens to his neck (and arm, and shoulder) the next time he takes a hit?
And with no clear answers to those questions, how in the world could the Colts pass up the chance to draft the next Peyton Manning – or if you listen to some star-struck scouts, maybe next Joe Montana and John Elway rolled into one?
The problem with doing so, of course, means they have to figure out what to do with Manning, who has a $28 million option on his contract that the Colts can either exercise or let him become a free agent. Archie dropped a big hint a few days ago in a Fox radio interview that if the Colts draft Luck they’ll have to let Peyton be free.
“I don't think it'd necessarily be great for either one,” Archie said. “I think Andrew's the type of mature player (where) he can walk right in. I mean, these other three or four guys that are playing this year, (if) they can walk in and contribute, Andrew can, too.”
Archie later walked that remark back, saying “I’m sure they could” co-exist. He said his only point was that Luck is “too good to sit.”
Whether a rookie quarterback should sit or not is a long-standing argument in the NFL with no right answer. Peyton Manning started as a rookie and went 3-13 and threw 28 interceptions. His little brother Eli started the last seven games for the Giants in his rookie season in 2004, threw nine interceptions and lost his first six starts.
Both of them, though, swear the experience of playing right from the start helped them immensely. Then again, how much was Aaron Rodgers helped by spending three years sitting and watching Brett Favre in Green Bay. When Rodgers took over in 2008 he threw for 4,000 yards and immediately became one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Two years later he was a Super Bowl champion and Super Bowl MVP.
Favre never liked having his eventual replacement behind him and Rodgers never liked sitting. Eventually management was forced to make a choice that became messy, tarnished the legacy of one of the franchise’s greatest quarterbacks, and became a national soap opera for a while. But the sight of Rodgers bringing the Lombardi Trophy back to Lambeau Field last February had to make all the pain worth it, because if the Packers hadn’t planned for the post-Favre era as well as they did they would still be searching for his replacement.
One of the toughest things in sports for a general manager or owner is to figure out when to turn the page from a legendary figure who has meant immeasurable amounts to a franchise and its fans. Do it too early and there’ll be fan backlash. Do it too late and it’ll set you back for years.
This is the pivotal moment for the Colts, who once boasted Johnny Unitas, once lost out on Elway, and for more than a decade have been at the top of the NFL’s class thanks to Manning’s right arm and sharp head.
But none of that matters because you can’t live in the past, and whether he likes it or not, Manning, at his age, is much more past than future. Yes, he should still be given the option to stick around if he wants, to teach Luck, and to see if his neck can withstand a few more seasons.
But the Colts can’t pass up Luck in deference to a man that will soon be a ghost. Otherwise they’ll find themselves chasing the next Luck for years.
By RALPH VACCHIANO