Peyton Manning’s future is completely unknown right now, but the possibility that the Colts will cut him rather than pay a $28 million bonus on March 8 has spawned all kinds of speculation about other teams trying to acquire him.
One thing seems quite clear: Manning will not be traded.
Not because Colts owner Jim Irsay says he won’t trade Manning, (owners change their minds all the time; see the Bengals and Carson Palmer) but because it would kill the Colts’ salary cap to trade their longtime franchise player.
But the Colts can’t trade Manning until March 13. So to do it would require them to pick up the $28 million bonus on March 8, and then take a $38 million hit against their salary cap to trade him.
They reportedly have less than $10 million in projected space (with Manning counting $17 million), so trading him would push them about $11 million over, and make it even harder to sign some of their 19 free agents.
The Colts could try to get Manning to agree to a lesser bonus or a completely revamped contract before March 8, but he has little reason to do that other than loyalty.
And the quarterback probably would require a no-trade clause in return. Manning certainly would prefer to find a contending team he likes rather than be foisted upon a club without having any input.
If the deadline can't be moved and he is not healthy on March 8, what would you do with Peyton Manning?
Even if the Colts were thinking of paying Manning the $28 million in order to trade him, what kind of market would there be for a 36-year-old with a creaky neck?
They would be very lucky if some team offered up a first-rounder (the Jets ended up with a third-round pick for a 38-year-old Brett Favre in 2008).
Paying Manning just to trade him and take a $38 million cap hit would mean the Colts would have to cut Dwight Freeney ($14 million salary), and probably a few other players. They would basically have to gut what’s left of the team and start fresh.
That would then raise the specter of Andrew Luck pulling a John Elway—becoming yet another Stanford No. 1 overall pick to spurn the Colts. And, unlike Eli Manning’s ill-advised prima donna play against the Chargers in 2004, Luck would have a pretty fair argument for not wanting to go to a team that had just let most of its best players go and had no offensive line to speak of.
Take all of that into account, and there really is not a scenario in which the Colts realistically can trade Manning, even if Irsay wanted to.
If Manning fails his physical and does not want to redo the deal, the Colts would have three choices: (1) Pay him the $28 million and hope like heck they can fix his neck, (2) cut him to avoid paying it, or (3) ask him to push the bonus date back.
The first decision would result in a $17 million cap number ($7.4 million salary, $9.6 million in bonus proration) and no guarantee Manning would be able to earn the money, while handcuffing the franchise to $29 million more in bonus proration beyond 2012.
The second choice would result in just a $10.4 million hit ($16 million in prorated signing bonus minus a $5.6 million credit on the option bonus, which started counting against the cap last year) that would net the team $6.6 million in cap space. Of course, that would also leave Manning free to test free agency.
There is a debate about whether the third option is possible under his current contract, but if Manning were amenable to pushing the date back, they should be able to redo the contract to allow it (the NFLPA is not going to argue if that’s what Manning wants).
If he’s not healthy and won’t redo his deal or postpone the bonus, it would be silly of the Colts to pay him $35.4 million in bonus and salary on the gamble that he will be healthy at some point.
But if Manning passes his physical in early March, the team will have to think long and hard about whether to bring him back.
The Colts would be on the hook for $29 million in future proration charges (not counting salaries), so they really would be committing to him for three more years before they could realistically extricate themselves.
Plus, Manning’s cap hits would increase by a million every year, up to $20 million in 2015—very unwieldy figures that would prevent the team from building or even sustaining in other areas.
The Colts can’t feasibly trade Manning, so—even if he is healthy—their best options are to (1) get him to agree to a new contract with more manageable numbers or (2) simply let him go and start the Luck era this year.
As hard as it might be for Irsay, the best thing for his team is probably just to let Manning go and hope the usually classy QB wishes the Colts good Luck.