Earlier today, the Indianapolis Colts announced Peyton Manning underwent a "single level anterior fusion." The surgery, which addressed pain in his neck caused by a herniated disk, will keep Manning off the field with "no estimation of a return date at this time."
Unless you've study medicine or know someone with a back injury, that makes about as much sense as saying "The flux capacitor is what makes time travel possible."
Estimates put Manning out for at least two, possibly three months as he rehabilitates.
So the burning question for fans is "When will Peyton Manning get back on the field?"
And also, "Could this end Manning's season, or even his career?"
Manning's decision to go under the knife at the 11th hour before the regular season starts must have been a difficult one. Manning is one of the fiercest competitors in the league, and arguably the most cerebral quarterback of all time. Manning operates his offense like none other, and understands it better than his coaches.
This is why it will hurt Indianapolis that much more when Manning spends the entire year on the sidelines.
Between each vertebra is, effectively, a jelly-filled balloon (the disc). Those discs provide the flexibility and some shock absorption for the spine.
When a disc becomes "herniated", it starts to bulge out beyond the vertebrae and put pressure on the nerves.
An "anterior fusion" cuts out the disc and replaces it with a wire mesh and bone graft. Over time, bone heals over the graft, making one larger vertebra rather than two.
A very good video detailing a fusion is here. Keep in mind that the video displays a lower fusion; Manning's surgery occurred much higher up in the neck area.
So this isn't a broken leg or torn muscle. It's creating bone where none previously existed. Rushing onto the field as a target for Atlanta's John Abraham and Sean Weatherspoon in two months won't likely be part of Manning's rehab plans.
Additionally, that 2-3 months time frame is an estimate just to get Manning back to where he can start practicing again. Part of the reason Manning received eight All-Pro selections is because he studies, prepares, and practices more than anyone in the league. Manning is a master of his craft because he devotes the time to it.
To think Manning will move from physical therapy straight to physical contact without shaking the rust off doesn't fit his persona. Manning won't step back onto that field unless he believes he can be at least the same person who walked off the field last January.
Which begs the question whether or not Manning will ever return? Between Manning and Tom Brady, Manning seems more likely to hold onto the game past conventional wisdom (see Favre, Brett).
But Manning literally has nothing left to prove. His Wikipedia page lists 78 separate NFL records Manning set in his career. He received Pro Bowl honors in all but two seasons, and won his Super Bowl in 2007. Manning has the most recognizable face among current players with all his endorsements, and he is in no danger of running out of money anytime soon.
So this could be the end of the Peyton Manning era in Indianapolis; in fact, it would almost certainly be if it weren't for the fact that he is Peyton Manning.
Instead, Manning will spend every day for the next few months preparing for the day when he can step back on that field. If he isn't in therapy with his trainer, rest assured he'll be in the film room studying future opponents and his own team.
And when he's ready, Manning will resume his role as a field general in the truest (football) sense of the word.
Just don't expect it to be anytime this year. Manning doesn't want a swan song like Favre's 2010 season, and certainly doesn't want to spend his millions on wheelchairs and ramp installations.