Philadelphia, PA – It's never easy to say goodbye to a loved one, as the watery eyes and quiver in the voices of Jim Irsay and Peyton Manning so distinctly illustrated on the day every Indianapolis Colts fan feared the most.
Wednesday's press conference that finalized Manning's long-suspected divorce from the organization he helped resurrect from the NFL's darkest depths during 14 predominantly spectacular years was an event rife with adoration, respect and a groundswell of gratitude between the two central characters of this offseason's most-followed melodrama, though citizens of Central Indiana were likely experiencing a different overflow of emotions. The sobering news has transformed their grieving stage from confused denial to all-out anger, even more so after Manning unequivocally stated that the only retirement that will be taking place involves the blue No. 18 jersey that will soon be hanging from the Lucas Oil Stadium rafters.
Manning's supporters shouldn't have been floored by the revelation that one of the most tenacious competitors the sport has ever seen has every intention of playing again -- even if in a different uniform in an unfamiliar locale -- just as Irsay's decision to part ways with the greatest Indianapolis Colt who ever lived was as transparent as it was unpopular. Whether it's eliminating every Manning confidant (Bill and Chris Polian, Jim Caldwell, Reggie Wayne, Jeff Saturday) one by one, or engaging in an overtly childish tug-of-war with the iconic quarterback for public support and sympathy, every move the outspoken owner has made since the end of the Colts' brutal 2011 campaign has been with Wednesday's outcome in mind.
Whatever animosity still existed between these two very proud and highly successful men was cast aside during Wednesday's moving ceremony, however, and Irsay's appreciation and personal fondness for Manning were indeed genuine. Not every word he spoke to the media that gathered in the Colts' complex was completely sincere, though.
Twice Irsay mentioned during his speech that his decision was never about money. There's no way that's entirely true. The $28 million bonus that Manning was due the day after the conference was absolutely a factor in the choice to cut ties, as was the more than $18 million the four-time league MVP would have counted against the salary cap for the upcoming season.
It's simply too risky a commitment to a player who's undergone four neck surgeries in the last two years and turns 36 later this month for a team that's undertaking a full-scale rebuilding project, especially with the Colts having the chance to select Andrew Luck, quite possibly the closest thing to a ready-made NFL quarterback out of the college ranks since the last time the franchise had the draft's No. 1 overall pick and Bill Polian wisely spent it on a fresh-faced Manning in 1998.
Indianapolis fans may have been wishing they could have the best of both worlds, a utopian scenario in which Luck could further learn his trade from one of the sport's all-time masters while Manning plays out the remainder of his career. This isn't a situation a la Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, however. Luck is a considerably more polished product coming out of college than Rodgers was in 2005, and Favre was coming off a 4,000-yard season while leading the Packers to the playoffs the previous year. Manning didn't attempt a single pass in 2011, and there's still no guarantee he ever will at an acceptable level due to his condition.
Irsay was being honest, however, when he said that the release was made with Manning's best interest in mind. For all the future Hall of Famer has done for the Colts, the Indianapolis community and the NFL itself, he deserves the opportunity to chase another championship in the twilight of his career. And with a new coach, a new general manager and deficiencies all throughout the current roster, Irsay knows he can't realistically offer Manning that chance.
But somebody else will. There could be as many as a dozen teams lining up to recruit Manning for what they believe to be the missing piece to a Super Bowl puzzle. Miami, desperate for both a difference-making quarterback and a big- ticket attraction to bring some sizzle to an organization that's become an afterthought in a town that's been seduced by LeBron James, appears ready to put on a full-court press. Seattle seems prepared to go all-in as well. Arizona, with its warm climate, a premier receiver in Larry Fitzgerald, a coach Manning greatly respects in Ken Whisenhunt and where Kurt Warner enjoyed a career renaissance a few years back, would make a lot of sense as an attractive landing spot.
And don't count out the New York Jets, eager to steal back the Manhattan spotlight that the rival Giants regained with last month's Super Bowl victory, making a persistent sales pitch. Remember that the last time the G-Men won a championship, their in-stadium neighbors went out and brought in an aging yet highly credentialed quarterback with major star power by trading for Favre the subsequent offseason.
Those potential courters will be hoping a healthy Manning can at the very least reprise Joe Montana's exploits at a similar age and personal crossroads, when the savvy veteran also returned from a career-threatening injury to guide the Kansas City Chiefs to the 1993 AFC Championship Game as a 37-year-old after being acquired from the San Francisco 49ers. Or provide a reasonable facsimile of Favre, who turned in one of his best seasons at age 40 to get the Minnesota Vikings within a game of the Super Bowl in 2009.
While Manning recapturing his past magic with another employer may further impede disgruntled Colts fans from moving on to the acceptance phase, a process that will be accelerated or stalled by how Luck performs and handles the pressure that will come from replacing a legend, it's also just as possible that the career of the greatest Indianapolis Colt of all time ends like that of the best Baltimore Colt there ever was. In 1973, Irsay's father, Bob, traded a broken-down Johnny Unitas to San Diego, where the revered quarterback made four mostly forgettable starts before retiring.
Would it have been both wonderful and just to see Manning's legacy have a Hollywood ending? Of course. But, unfortunately, real life isn't scripted.
Perhaps Manning said it best when holding back the tears on the first day of the rest of his new life.
"Times change, circumstances change, and that's the reality of playing in the NFL."