Peyton Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, was released from the Indianapolis Colts on Wednesday. In an emotional press conference, team owner Jim Irsay said that circumstances—a salary cap and Manning’s neck injuries—were “too difficult to overcome,” leading to “a difficult day of shared pain between Peyton, myself, the fans, everyone.” In his honor, Irsay said, Manning’s No. 18 jersey will be retired from Colts play.
The move, which does not come as a surprise despite Manning’s four-time MVP status, appears to be mostly about money. Manning’s contract required that he be paid $28 million if he is on their roster Thursday, and the Colts have a chance to pick up the very talented (and relatively inexpensive) Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck in the NFL draft. With Manning out this past season with a neck injury, the Colts went 2-14, earning them the first overall pick.
It makes financial sense that owner Jim Irsay would have to make that tough call, especially with Manning’s neck still a question. But while money may be the primary reason, I’d bet another dynamic is at play, too. After the disastrous 2011 season, Irsay has let go of Colts head coach Jim Caldwell, vice chairman Bill Polian and general manager Chris Polian. With that sort of clean leadership slate in place, it’s hard to imagine him keeping Manning on board as well.
For one, Manning clearly has a close relationship with the former leadership team that could be difficult for any new coach or general manager to navigate. Manning was public about the fact that he was blindsided by Bill Polian’s firing, and by how emotional that decision was for him. “I was surprised, shocked, disappointed,” Manning told The Indianapolis Star, later adding: “I always thought Bill and I might retire around the same time.” This was the leadership team, after all, that led him through a storied career. Understandably, there’s an emotional bond between him and the old guard that could get in the way.
In addition, because the quarterback is a leadership position, Manning’s long history with the team could be a reminder to other players of the past — and at the very time when the incoming leadership team is trying to start anew. The team’s new chiefs will be looking for someone who is emblematic of where they want to take the team in the future, rather than where it’s been. No matter how talented Manning may be, no matter how many glories he may have bestowed upon the Colts, he still represents the past, and one can understand why the team’s new leaders would want a clean break.
Perhaps most of all, the Colts are witness to what can happen when a team becomes too dependent on a star. When a team’s star quarterback is sitting on the bench for the season, it’s understandable that the record would slip—even significantly. But going 2 and 14 is a sign something’s wrong. Cutting Manning doesn’t mean that won’t happen again with Luck, or whoever else the Colts sign. But it does mean the team can rebuild with potentially less focus on the superstar in place.
Who knows where Manning will end up. He said Wednesday he doesn’t want to retire, and there has been talk of him ending up with teams ranging from the Miami Dolphins to the Washington Redskins. What we do know is that just as the Colts will get a fresh start next season in a key leadership position on the field, so will the team that hires Manning. Money and injuries may have been the deciding factors in Irsay’s decision to release one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. But giving his new crop of leaders a fresh start was surely part of the decision, too.
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