Through 14 seasons in Indianapolis, Peyton Manning almost always made the right moves, collecting four MVP’s as he engineered one of the most successful runs ever by an NFL franchise.
Wednesday he left the way he played; all class. The right way. A way not seen often enough in professional sports.
No acrimony. No recrimination. No regrets. There were tears, but only those of sweetness and sentiment.
“I haven’t thought about yet where I’ll play but I have thought about where I’ve been. I’ve been blessed,” Manning said at an emotional press conference with Colts’ owner Jim Irsay at his side.
Both men paused regularly, eyes welled, and their voices wavered as Irsay officially announced the club would release Manning.
The move will save Indianapolis a $28 million bonus due Manning that they can now spend to try to rebuild a team that won only two games in 2011. The move also makes Manning the most coveted free agent in NFL history — if he’s healthy enough to play in 2012.
“This is difficult because of the things Peyton has done for our city, our state and our franchise,” Irsay said. “There will be no other Peyton Manning.”
Manning was George Patton in cleats; there never was any doubt who was in charge when he took the field. In the two decades predating his arrival, the Colts won 116 games, one division title and made the playoffs three times. With Manning, the Colts won 150 games, eight division titles, two AFC championships and the franchise’s first league championship since moving from Baltimore in 1984. Indianapolis broke the NFL record for most regular-season wins in a decade (115), and tied Dallas for most consecutive playoff appearances (nine).
Where he goes now — and at age 36, he is determined to play somewhere next season — Manning said he had not yet considered, replying simply: “I’ll always be a Colt. That’ll never change.”
In his heart maybe; in reality he’s destined for New York, San Francisco, Denver or any of a dozen possibilities. Irsay said he’ll be rooting for Manning to come back from neck surgery and succeed, wherever his next home might be. With his own club far from being a contender, it seemed the wish was a sincere one. “I want to see him come back and play great, no question about it. Here ... we didn’t have everything to surround him. I want him to succeed at the end of his career,” he said.
Manning may be gone but his legacy will hang over this franchise into perpetuity. Irsay said Manning’s No. 18 “will never be worn again by a Colt on the field” and that he will “always (be) part of the horseshoe.”
Both men said money was never an issue. “We all know that nothing lasts forever,” Manning said. “Times change, circumstances change, and that’s the reality of playing in the NFL.”
The other reality of playing in the NFL is that money is always an issue.
It’s just not convenient to speak of it on the day a franchise says good-bye to a man who raised it to unimaginable joy. But truth is that Manning was due $90 million over a contract spanning five seasons. The price tag for a rookie quarterback, even the No. 1 overall pick, is pocket change in comparison.
If Irsay saves money to rebuild, Manning gets a chance to play for a winner — something that wasn’t going to happen in Indy for a long time. So it was a divorce of convenience. And, both men seemed to sense the moment had come to say good-bye.
The two flew to Indianapolis together Tuesday night with Irsay taking to Twitter after the flight: “It was a long, emotional flight. now the sun is trying to rise.”
When approached by reporters as their SUV left the airport, Irsay scrolled down his window. Manning, already seemingly reflective, said quietly: “We’re good. We’re all good.”
Somewhere in Indianapolis a melancholy tear falls silently. This city will not see the like of Peyton Manning for a long time. If ever. But, in the end Manning got it right again: it’s “all good”.
DOESN’T SEEM FAIR
The drama of being witness to the end of an era wasn’t lost on Colts’ backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky Wednesday.
“This situation stinks,” Orlovsky said. “It’s sad that a guy like him who has been so successful doesn’t get a chance to finish his career in Indy,”
Manning is one of four players with more than 50,000 yards passing, one of three with more than 350 TD tosses, and he broke all of the franchise’s major career passing records, previously held by Hall of Fame quarterback John Unitas.
“I’m sure this was a tough situation for Mr. Irsay. I know he is trying to be as fair to Peyton as possible,” Orlovsky told ESPN, “but I’m sure he will play again. It will be very odd to see Peyton in a different uniform, but you learn in this business that everyone has the ability to get cut at some point. Hopefully, moving forward, people can really celebrate his time with the Colts, and not worry about the cloud hanging over the ending of an era.”