Dark cloud hovers over Super Bowl central

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning watches from the sidelines prior to a game against the Patriots at...

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning watches from the sidelines prior to a game against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., Dec. 4, 2011. (BRIAN SNYDER/Reuters)

KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:59 PM ET

TORONTO - It really is a dirty trick that fate has played on Indianapolis.

For years, they have been looking forward to this Super Bowl, the city’s one and (probably) only chance ever to host the biggest event in North American sports.

And, let’s be honest. Without Peyton Manning, there wouldn’t be a Super Bowl in Indiana next Sunday. There wouldn’t be an amazing venue like Lucas Oil Stadium in the city’s central core. There might not even be an NFL team still operating there.

Is that overstating how important Manning has been for this franchise? I don’t think so. For more than a decade he has been, if not the best player in the league, then certainly in the argument, taking his team to the playoffs 11 times in 13 years and winning a Super Bowl. He has filled his own pockets and those of owner Jim Irsay, as well as those of countless teammates with money and memories. Now that the world has come to Indianapolis, this marriage made in heaven is moving toward an awkward divorce.

Every day, there’s a new angle on the Manning-Irsay-Colts soap opera and with each one, the chance for a happy ending becomes more and more remote.

This is a tough situation for everyone involved.

Manning has had three surgeries on his neck in the past 14 months and there is no guarantee that he will ever play football again. On Sunday, Sports Illustrated reported that there is growing doubt about Manning’s recovery.

On March 8, the Colts have to decide whether to pay the 36-year-old QB a $28-million bonus owed him as part of the contract he signed in 2010. Now, a bonus that size to a healthy player of that age might be a difficult call to make. On a player facing the kind of health challenges that Manning is dealing with, it becomes prohibitive.

That goes doubly for the Colts, who also have the No. 1 draft choice in a year where there is one, possibly, two franchise quarterbacks available.

On the surface, the facts tell us that the logical move is to refuse the bonus, cut Manning loose, draft Andrew Luck out of Stanford and rebuild the franchise. If it turns out Manning can still play, then he would have little difficulty nailing down a job in a free market where quarterbacks, especially Super Bowl quarterbacks, are like gold nuggets.

Already there are fan campaigns afoot in Tennessee, where Manning went to school, Washington, Arizona and even a suggestion of San Francisco, to get Manning for their teams.

But if that’s Irsay’s plan, then he must proceed very carefully. He has to do right by his iconic quarterback. Manning must get the royal treatment, even as he is being led out the door. Monday, after a couple of weeks of sniping between himself and Manning, the owner seems to have realized he must tred softly.

“To look at Peyton as an owner, it’s what you dream about having a player like that,” Irsay said Monday. “You’re so blessed to have someone come in and to be such a part of the community and to be part of the golden era. Eventually, there will be the statue and all those things. We’ve been through a lot of battles together, but we’re very close. Some of the things that get out there, there’s probably a misconception because we’re family. We’ve given each other flak. He’s competitive and so am I. But I love him.”

The scary part is that Irsay is just enough of a buffoon to screw it up. Don’t forget, he’s his father’s son and Bob Irsay was the guy who backed up the moving vans in the dead of night in Baltimore and fled with the franchise to Indianapolis. He was never forgiven for that cowardly exit.

Similarly, if Jim Irsay fumbles the ball on this handoff from Manning to Luck, he will no doubt incur the full wrath of Indiana.

Indianapolis will surely enjoy its Super Bowl week. It’s a rare and memorable celebration of football and for the next few days, the city will be squarely in the spotlight. But hanging over that festival will be a dark cloud that is not going away.


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