INDIANAPOLIS – Peyton Manning and Jim Irsay agree on one thing: The Manning Era isn't over in Indianapolis.
Manning said Thursday he hopes to return to practice this year and still holds out hope of playing if doctors say he is finally healed from his Sept. 8 neck surgery. Irsay, the team owner, said he expects the four-time NFL MVP still has some good years in that right arm.
There are some big questions looming in Indy.
The Colts (0-8) must decide whether to opt out of Manning's five-year contract or pay a $28 million bonus to keep him on the roster. And if they have a high draft pick next year, Indy also will have to decide whether to take Manning's heir apparent, someone like Andrew Luck or Landry Jones.
"It's something you talk about and scenarios, who could be behind Peyton and how long you want him to sit and how much money you have committed to quarterbacks," Irsay said. "I think theoretically, you could have Peyton for two or three more good years and then have someone behind him, but that's theoretical."
Manning hasn't played since having surgery to repair a damaged nerve that caused weakness in his throwing arm. It was his third neck procedure in 19 months, a series of operations that has forced Colts fans to debate when — or if — Manning will return.
"I think it's too early to bury this era," Irsay said during a 40-minute interview. "I think to say that Peyton is done and the era is over is, to me, way, way too premature. I've always sort of known that era would be decided when Peyton is here. But I don't feel like that era is done."
A few hours earlier, Manning made his second impromptu locker room appearance of the season, telling reporters that he's spending every day in rehab and that he hopes to practice with his teammates in December and play in a game later this season.
But he hasn't been cleared for football activity by the doctors. Irsay said there was less than a 50 percent chance Manning would appear in a game this season.
"We're still waiting for the fusion to take place, it's still going slow with that and we still have some issues with the nerve and the regeneration of the nerve," Manning said. "There's really not a schedule, a timeline of where I am."
Doctors who were not involved with Manning's surgery said it was likely to take two or three months before Indy's franchise quarterback could make it back to practice, which is consistent with Manning's comments.
Without their franchise quarterback, the Colts are 0-8 for the first time since 1997, and many think it would be foolish to bring Manning back for some meaningless late-season games.
"I miss playing, I really do. If I get cleared to play and I'm good enough, would I play? Absolutely," he said. "I'd love to because that's how I'm wired, that's my job and I love my job.
"If the doctor says you can go, then I'd like to do that," Manning added later.
Manning addressed a variety of topics, calling coach Jim Caldwell a "friend," dismissing speculation about the No. 1 pick and even discussing the option clause in his contract.
The Colts signed Manning to a five-year deal worth $90 million in late July when it looked as if he would still be ready to play this season. The $18 million annual average matches New England's Tom Brady for the richest deal in the league. Manning thinks the Colts should see him in action, if possible, before making their decision.
"It's a one-year deal with a four-year extension," Manning said. "The team has a right to know where you are physically and where your health is."
Irsay said he has no intention of releasing Manning and the two sides could work out a new deal if the quarterback still was not healthy.
How close is Manning to returning?
"What you want to see is for him to keep making progress, to get back to the point where you can say he's making all the throws and doing the things he needs to do," Irsay said. "The truth is it's a slow progression and to say that he would hit a ceiling on Dec. 15 or Jan. 1 and he's not going to get any better, that's really uncertain."
Manning's health and finding a successor are only part of the equation.
Some outsiders want a complete overhaul — getting rid of Caldwell, vice chairman Bill Polian or general manager Chris Polian.
Irsay told reporters he wouldn't give up on the Polians, who turned the franchise from an also-ran into a perennial Super Bowl contender, because of eight losses. He also voiced support for Caldwell, saying "not just any guy" could have led the Colts to the AFC title two years ago or four straight wins to clinch the AFC South last year.
Manning hopes to have more answers next month.
"If I'm at a level where I'm cleared to practice, then the greatest venue to see where you are is on the practice field," Manning said.
Until then, Irsay is pleading for patience.
"We have not had this much uncertainty in a long, long time, but I think it's exciting," Irsay said. "I'm more interested in getting back to greatness and having a chance to sustain it. I'm not interested in middling around at 8-8 or 9-7 and sneaking into the playoffs for the next decade."