The moves made by Jim Irsay thus far this offseason point toward the Colts rebuilding after one of its worst seasons in recent memory. Irsay fired the GM and much of the coaching staff, hired a defensive-minded coach, and has repeatedly beaten the "new era" mantra into our heads through press conferences. He's talked about how similar this situation is to 1998, when Peyton arrived into town on a white horse to rescue the Colts from the doldrums of the NFL (well, after a difficult first year). The presumptive QB playing the role of Peyton 14 years later is Andrew Luck, a prospect so coveted that the overwhelming sentiment now is that Irsay has "moved on." But has he?
Irsay declared on Thursday Night Football in late December 2011 that Manning would be back with the team if healthy. Comments made last week by Irsay and even Tom Condon, Manning's agent, indicate that Manning is not yet healthy enough to play. Condon says it is a matter of arm strength and performance, but Irsay has voiced concern (not in these words) about the general risk of putting Manning's neck in the line of fire of 300+ pound eager, angry men.
The front office and coaching personnel moves seem to back up the notion that - even if there is no added risk of Manning taking the field again - Irsay does not plan to put him there for the Colts. But Irsay has also constructed the offensive coaching staff to be both Manning- and Luck-friendly - Manning's first Quarterbacks coach, Bruce Arians, has been hired as the new Offensive Coordinator. and former OC Clyde Christensen has been retained as Quarterbacks coach. These staffing moves could be read as providing a sort of continuity for Manning's return, or as an attempt to recreate with Luck the magic that was created beginning in 1998.
The capper (so to speak) is that there would be a significant financial investment in both cash and salary cap terms to keep Manning on the roster when a hot QB prospect is waiting in the wings.
As of Wednesday, February 1, I was finally convinced that given all the variables and the business decision at hand, Irsay would release Manning into free agency and begin to rebuild around Andrew Luck. I was even budgeting to buy a #18 whatever-team jersey and a #12 Colts jersey. But beginning Thursday, February 2, I wasn't so sure any more.
That day, "ESPN" released an article that doctors had cleared Manning to "resume his NFL career." Two comments: (1) I put ESPN in quotes because I assume this release came from Manning - he'd been engaging the press all week and this was another opportunity to grab some attention; (2) the release held NO new information about his health - it was the same message that had been published in December, just with different words.
However, there was a less widely-publicized message that also came out on February 2 that turned my head a bit; Indianapolis local ABC Sports Director Dave Furst tweeted early that afternoon:
Fresh #JimIrsay on #Peyton coming up at 5 @rtv6. Says moving March 8th deadline being discussed. Saw 18 workout and is pleased. #Colts
Given the apparent backtrack - however slight - from Irsay's direction thus far, plus the fact that NOBODY else was mentioning this, I was skeptical. I followed up with Furst, who tweeted me back:
Peyton's agent confirmed today that moving date was possible. Irsay says hes seen him throw...
This could be Furst connecting dots that aren't there, but given the chance to retract or modify his statement, he didn't. He even reinforced that Irsay has seen Peyton throw.
The next pieces of "evidence" that the door may remain slightly open for Manning's return to the Colts came over the weekend. First, on Sunday morning, February 5, ESPN NFL analyst Adam Schefter tweeted that:
Peyton Manning is willing to create a contract that would contain no guaranteed money up front and would be incentive laden with bonuses.
I was confident that this information was more about Peyton and Condon communicating to potential suitors than it was meant for the Colts. I even wrote a post about why Peyton couldn't go back, and still believe it's not in his best interest (unless the team trades the #1 pick). There is also the question of whether the NFLPA would fight an attempt by Peyton to renegotiate his contract with the Colts. Speaking on a related matter of pushing back the option date, National Football Post writer (and Wharton teacher) Andrew Brandt has indicated that such a move would likely be met with resistance, but I still maintain that anything is negotiable.
Later that day, WISH TV posted a video interview in which Irsay answers the question, "If [Manning] wants to play, will he play for the Colts?:"
If he wants to, yes he will. I want to hear from him and if he wants to be here, he wants to play here, then that's what it's gonna be.
The message seems clear to me - Irsay will work with Manning if Manning wants to stay, but Manning must work with Irsay. But note what Irsay doesn't say... he didn't mention Manning's health or recovery in this interview. Irsay has made a significant effort in interviews to reinforce the importance of Manning's health, likely in an attempt to remind the fans that Manning has yet to recover. Did Teresa Mackin catch Irsay at a weak moment? Had some discussions taken place that haven't yet been publicized/leaked? Or can we put more stock in Furst's tweet 2 days earlier that Irsay "saw 18 workout and [was] pleased?"
I'll repeat that I do not believe Manning is healthy or ready to play. If he were, he would be leaking his "secret" workout locations, and Condon would be shouting from the rooftops that Manning is ready. But perhaps progress has been encouraging enough for Irsay that he's now reconsidering, however slightly.
Another thing that occurred to me later... while the video was posted on Sunday morning after Schefter's tweet, it was recorded Saturday night. So it took place BEFORE Schefter tweeted the information that Manning would take an incentive-laden contract. Could Manning have been responding to Irsay's interview instead of already looking to new suitors? I am willing to bet that Manning or Condon let Schefter know of their willingness to take a flexible contract without knowing about Irsay's comments the night before, but the door still seems to be slightly ajar.
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