For the past decade, the Indianapolis Colts have represented one of the most successful and consistently dominant franchises in the National Football League. No team has been more able to count on success year in year out than the Colts.
For the main bulk of this time, Tony Dungy was the coach that led them to seven straight 12 win seasons and playoff appearances, but the main variable that has remained the same throughout the Colts resurgence from NFL purgatory has been franchise quarterback Peyton Manning.
Prior to this past season, in which he missed entirely due to injury, there were no discussions that took place regarding the top quarterbacks in the league that did not include Manning. In fact, he has always been a legitimate candidate to be considered THE best quarterback in football for the better part of his 13-year career in Indianapolis.
After all of that success, and his seemingly invincible status as the face of the Colts organization, in the blink of an eye Peyton Manning’s future with the franchise is now in question due to multiple neck procedures.
In a year that should be remembered as possibly the most significant in terms of exemplifying his undeniable influence on the Colts success, the Colts went from perennial Super Bowl contender and elite franchise suddenly to a team considering the value of wins of any kind vs. draft positioning for 2012. The change in mentality and performance from 2010 to 2011 was nothing short of remarkable.
Instead of being a team that would be considered one of the last to consider quarterback a need (much more even having the opportunity to consider drafting one of the Draft’s elite players) now will likely draft this upcoming Draft’s #1 prospect Andrew Luck from Stanford.
This seems odd to even be discussing this decision, given Manning’s track record and the fact that last time he played he was still at a high level. It seems that some have almost forgotten that Peyton Manning threw for 4,700 yards just last year! His rating was not as high as usual at 91.6, but his completion rate still impressive at 66.3 and he threw for 33 TDs and 17 INTs. He typically has more than a 2:1 ratio of TDs vs Interceptions, but still a solid performance worthy of his formerly elite status amongst NFL quarterbacks.
The Colts won 10 games last year only to turn around and win 2 games this year without him. The Colts did not win their first game until week 15 following 13 losses! The overnight drastic turn for the worst by the Colts shows just how important Peyton Manning was and how dependent the Colts were on him as their franchise quarterback.
With that said the Colts are in a unique position that really can only be compared to maybe the 2008 Green Bay Packers and the Joe Montana led San Francisco 49ers of the 80s. These teams all had aging Hall of Fame iconic quarterbacks in the saddle and had to face the decision of continuing on with their high performing and club legendary quarterbacks or move on into the future with a backup with high potential that was ready to play and lead the team into the future. Steve Young, also a Hall of Famer, went on to carry more than the mantel for the 49ers, served as a backup to Joe Montana for four years and only got his opportunity when Joe Montana’s elbow injury forced him to play the entire 1991 season. Given the fact that he was ready to play, and play at a high level, he took advantage of this opportunity and never gave the job back.
In Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers was drafted in 2005 late in the first round by the Packers to back up Brett Favre. This move did not sit well at all with Favre, but he was able to continue on as the starting quarterback for three more seasons, including one of his best in Green Bay in 2007 where they were an errant throw short of going to the Super Bowl.
Rodgers was not nearly as highly regarded as Young or even Andrew Luck was, but as time passed by insiders started to really become impressed with his development and potential going into the future. Even though Favre had a great final season in Green Bay, some had grown wary of his age and helter-skelter, reckless play.
In 2008, the Packers made the highly unpopular decision to move on from Favre when he vacillated throughout the year starting in March on his decision to retire from the game of football. When he decided to re-commit himself to the team, the Packers decided to go forth with their commitment to Rodgers. They were not only ready to break the pattern of Favre holding the organization hostage but they seemed very confident in Rodgers ability to lead the team into the future. This was a ballsy move, at the time, that required some strong conviction and faith in their plan as an organization and in Aaron Rodgers. But it paid off.
The Peyton Manning situation is similar in some ways to both, except that assuming Peyton Manning is fully recovered from his neck issues, the Colts seem to be close to volunteering this transition. With Young, his time was coming, but they waited until Montana got hurt to give Young a chance and after he proved successful they then made the choice over Montana. In Green Bay, the Packers gave Favre every opportunity to come back as the starting QB, but when Favre decided to retire and did not change his mind in a timely fashion the Packers finally decided to move forth with Rodgers. The Colts on the other hand, are on the verge of drafting a franchise quarterback in an era when high draft picks are expected to play early, despite having one of the best quarterbacks of all time on the roster.
So that poses a monumental question. What should the Colts do? I feel there are three viable options for the Colts to seriously consider. Should they draft Andrew Luck and keep Peyton Manning on the roster to continue leading the Colts for the next two to three years likely while Luck hopefully learns from Manning and develops behind him? Should the Colts draft Andrew Luck and cut Peyton Manning before his huge bonus is due in March? Or should the Colts stick with Peyton Manning, avoid the drama and pressure that may come with drafting a #1 draft pick that is not playing immediately and trade the #1 pick for equity that may come in the form of multiple high draft picks that could help fill in some of the gaps exposed during this past season? This is a tough decision. I feel that all three choices are viable ones that need to be considered heavily by the Colts before making a final decision. Here are my thoughts on the three options.
1. The Colts keep Peyton Manning and draft Andrew Luck:
Due to the new collective bargaining agreement, no longer does drafting a high first round draft pick lock up your resources in a huge contract. Because of that change, it is likely that the Colts can afford both quarterbacks. Just last year, Cam Newton signed for four years, $22 million, which is said to be $58 million less than the old stipulations would have allowed. If the Colts keep Manning in March, he is due approximately $28 million. That is no chump change but it is likely that the Colts can afford it if they so choose.
What should the Colts do?
This would be the safest route for the Colts. They would keep their franchise quarterback who has ushered to them to all of their recent success and milk him until he starts to noticeably decline in the next 2-5 years, and still gain possession of the most highly regarded quarterback prospect in recent memory. This would allow Luck, although ready to contribute by all accounts right now, to be tutored by a great teacher in Manning and watch and learn from the one of the best in the game.
By having him when Manning runs out of gas, they will be smoothly ushered into a new era, which is a rare blessing in the National Football League. Very few teams have been able to endure the loss of a franchise quarterback. If they choose this option, they could be all set at the quarterback position for the next 10-14 years. The 49ers of the 90s and the Packers of the 2000s are the best examples of executing this transition perfectly.
2. The Colts draft Andrew Luck and release Peyton Manning before March deadline:
This option seems to be the most popular, but most risky one. It represents forward and proactive business minded thinking by the Colts. They have already lost their legendary coach in Tony Dungy and rid of their longtime GM Bill Polian. If they want to start fresh, like the 49ers did after Montana was out for the 1991 season with Steve Young, this would be a great time to cut ties with the brilliant past and get going with their future starting with Andrew Luck.
The trend nowadays is to play good young quarterbacks as early as possible whether they are ready or not. With Andrew Luck pretty much unanimously declared as ready to perform at the next level, it would make sense to get him out there as soon as possible. The only way to do this is to eliminate the presence of the great Peyton Manning, who would never lose a QB battle to anyone.
3. Keep Peyton Manning and trade the pick for a King’s Ransom:
This option could be appealing if it is proven that Peyton Manning is healthy and can play up to five years in the league. Again, there were no signs of erosion of Manning’s performance or talent, so really if he is able to play and healthy you really cannot find a better quarterback to stick in the saddle for the foreseeable future. According to several reports, including NFL personnel veteran Ernie Arcosi and SI’s Peter King, the Andrew Luck pick could be worth up to three 1st Round Picks (including at least one top 10 pick).
It seems insane that a player that has never played a down in the NFL could garner such return, but it has got to be tempting for the Colts to do. One thing that Manning’s absence this year proved is that there are several holes on this current roster that need to be filled. A massive talent upgrade is needed, especially for the future when Manning eventually retires or leaves the team.
If you could retain a healthy Peyton Manning and stock up on quality, well-drafted talent, the Colts could easily upgrade their roster to a state of contention once again. This time, despite the fact that Manning’s successor would not be on the roster, there is a better chance for sustainable success when that player does come in to take over for him.
In my opinion, I think that the Colts should keep both (option 1). The third option is very appealing because, assuming that Manning is healthy, you could get a solid 3-5 years of All-Pro level quarterbacking from him and upgrade the talent around him to go with the talent that is already there.
The Colts, despite their performance this year, still have a bunch of very good players that can still play including Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Dallas Clark and Adam Vinateiri to name a few. Not to mention young proven talent such as Pat Angerer, Pierre Garcon, Donald Brown and Austin Collie are still on the roster as well. That makes for a quality roster for a few years to come until the Colts decide on their more immediate successor.
Will the Colts return to elite?
Option two seems to be the most proactive business decision that follows the latter half of the Green Bay model or even the San Diego model with Drew Brees and Philip Rivers, but I feel that when you have a player like Peyton Manning on your roster you really should not end that relationship prematurely. Joe Montana was injured and on clear decline and Brett Favre had retired and started to wear out his welcome in Green Bay with his attention-seeking, egomaniac tactics.
Peyton Manning has been nothing but a model citizen for the Colts, and still, outside of his injury has shown little to no sign of decline. He is the face of the organization. Andrew Luck is as good a choice to move into the future as any, but given no prospect is a guarantee, I feel that even with his high marks as a prospect, you can really only be confident of him being good at this level, and not necessarily great.
It just seems a little bit premature and risky to part ways with Peyton Manning. Again, it makes sense, but I think the Colts would be more responsible replicating what Green Bay did with Aaron Rodgers for a couple years.
That example is probably the most popular because Rodgers was not ready to play at the high level he has made us accustomed to now right out of school, but after watching and learning for a couple years he developed into a budding superstar. Phil Rivers developed under Brees, Tom Brady under Drew Bledsoe, Carson Palmer under Jeff Blake just to name a few. It is proven that great quarterbacks can be developed behind the scenes and do not have to be rushed onto the field. In fact, I hold the opinion that given quarterback is the hardest, most scrutinized position on the field, it does the quarterback a favor to ease his way into the early stages of the process.
It is hard nowadays in our microwave society to stomach having a great talent like Luck on the sidelines, but I think that after 2-3 years of learning under and observing Manning he can maximize the high potential that he has been tagged with coming out of college. Alternatively, if he is rushed out onto the field and he struggles, despite the fact that Luck is a very confident young man, this can stunt his growth and subject him to unfair scrutiny and battery.
Given the fact that the finances can work and Peyton Manning still has some years in him, this succession plan can ensure a smooth transition and no drop-off between the two hopefully great eras. It is important that the Colts do not overreact to their putrid 2-14 season. The minute Manning returns they are already at least 8-8 to be conservative. What will the Colts do? I’m curious to see how it plays out.