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Peyton Manning's Uncertain Future in Indianapolis


What once seemed unfathomable – Peyton Manning NOT in an Indianapolis Colts uniform – seems not so improbable with every passing day. Picking up the pieces from a disastrous 2-14 season, Colts owner Jim Irsay, new general manager Ryan Grigson and just-hired head coach Chuck Pagano have a lengthy to-do list on their hands. And that list most likely starts with who will be under center for the Colts next season.

For starters, Manning is due a $28 million roster bonus on March 8 as part of the five-year, $90 million contract extension he signed last summer. Everyone knows what happened after that — he had neck surgery in September, missed the entire 2011 season during which the Colts win just two games, which in turn
“earned” them the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft where everyone is expecting them to select Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.

Irsay has already publicly stated that even if Manning is given a clean bill of health that the Colts will take a quarterback with the first overall pick in the upcoming draft. Whether that be Luck or Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III from Baylor remains to be seen, but in some ways this is similar to the situation the Colts found themselves in back in 1998.

Back then the Colts had the No. 1 overall pick and were reportedly somewhat torn between drafting Manning, who played for the University of Tennessee, or Washington State’s Ryan Leaf. In the end, the Colts took Manning and the Chargers traded up to get Leaf at No. 2. The rest, as they say, is history.

Whether or not the Colts find their next franchise quarterback in April in either Luck or Griffin only time will tell, but it still doesn’t answer the question what to do with their current franchise quarterback. The good news is that under the terms of the new CBA, the financial cost of keeping both Manning and the No. 1 overall draft pick isn’t nearly as burdensome as it once was.

Two years ago, the St. Louis Rams took Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford with the first pick and signed him to a six-year, $78 million deal. The contract had $50 million in guaranteed money and was the largest contract ever for an NFL rookie. Last year, the Carolina Panthers took Auburn quarterback Cam Newton No. 1. Under the terms of the new CBA, which introduced a rookie wage scale, Newton signed a four-year, $22 million deal, all of it guaranteed.

In guaranteed money alone, the Panthers will pay $28 million less to Newton than the Rams will for Bradford. Whoever the Colts select at No. 1 will sign a contract similar to Newton’s and that alone will make it considerably easier for the team to afford their new franchise quarterback and Manning. Remember, Manning still has $63.6 million left on his contract extension, including the $28 million roster bonus due on March 8, which goes through 2015.

In fact, because of the structure of Manning’s contract and NFL rules, in many ways it will cost the Colts less to keep Manning than it would to get rid of him, whether that be by trading him to another team or simply releasing him.

For one, while Manning’s roster bonus is due on March 8, the Colts actually can’t trade him until March 13 because of league rules. At that point, if the Colts did decide to trade him, it would cost them the $28 million for the roster bonus and then an additional $38 million towards their cap.

This just doesn’t seem like a wise move for a team that already is dealing with cap space issues. And that’s without even discussing finding a feasible trading partner, a team that has a need for a 36-year-old quarterback with an ever-growing medical file and, more importantly, the cap space to fit him.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t several teams out there who wouldn’t jump at the chance to bring Manning on board. It’s just that given all of the factors, there probably aren’t that many teams that are in a position to even consider a trade, should the opportunity become available.

It also doesn’t seem likely that they would simply cut Manning. For one, it would still cost the Colts an estimated $10.4 million cap hit to end ties with him. Although that would be cheaper than the cap hit associated with trading him, it would amount to “dead” cap space for them since Manning would no longer be on the roster.

Cutting Manning also makes him a free agent, meaning he can sign with any team and the Colts would get nothing in return. Given Manning’s success with the Colts, not to mention his rapport with fans and standing within the Indianapolis community, that doesn’t seem like a wise move either.

There’s also the option of reworking Manning’s contract and push the date the $28 million roster bonus is due back, although it remains to be seen if that’s even possible or it’s something Manning would even consider.

So while the Colts’ leadership mulls over the options and potential ramifications associated with them, the underlying question to all of this goes back to one thing – is Manning healthy? He will have to undergo a physical prior to the March 8 roster bonus due date, and if he passes, then the aforementioned options are fully in play.

If he doesn’t pass his physical, cutting him probably comes into play even more as the Colts will have to weigh the risks of keeping him on the roster in hopes that he will eventually become healthy. Failing his physical would also greatly impact his chances of signing with another team should he become a free agent. Manning himself could also take the decision out of the Colts’ hands, healthy or not healthy, and choose to retire. It still seems a little early to discuss that possibility, but you never know.

In the end, if Manning is healthy, cleared and able to play, the Colts could be looking at a situation similar to the one the Green Bay Packers had just seven years ago. In 2005, the Packers drafted Rodgers with the 24th overall pick. He backed up Brett Favre, who like Manning is a future Hall of Famer, before taking over as the starter in 2008. Two years later, Rodgers led the Packers to a win in Super Bowl XLV and has established himself as one of the premier quarterbacks in the NFL

To be fair, when the Packers drafted Rodgers in 2005 no one had any idea that he would become the elite NFL quarterback he is or that Favre’s career in Green Bay would end like it did. That said, one cannot help but notice the similarities, or irony even, between the Packers’ situation then and the Colts’ now.

So in many ways, the Colts’ future is tied directly to Manning’s fate. If healthy, the Colts’ leadership and fans are both hoping for a path similar to one the Packers started on in 2005. If he’s not healthy, then they will turn their attention to 1998 when a young, franchise quarterback came on board and took the team to places it had never been before. Either way, it appears that No. 18’s days as the Colts’ field leader are numbered. 

— By Mark Ross