Quick, someone tell the Indianapolis Colts that there are a bunch of numbers between 20 and 34.
Oops, too late.
The Colts had one important thing to do this offseason -- sign quarterback Peyton Manning to a reasonable contract extension that wouldn't hinder them too much in trying to assemble a winning team around him in the future. Everyone in the league knew that Manning, who shared the NFL Most Valuable Player award last year with Tennessee's Steve McNair, would stay with the Colts even though he was eligible for unrestricted free agency, and everyone knew that the club would make Manning the league's highest-paid player.
But was it wise to make him the highest-paid player by so much?
The Colts named Manning their exclusive franchise player in February to ensure that he would stay off the free-agent market, then completed a seven-year, $98-million extension with him and agent Tom Condon on March 2, the day before the market opened. The deal included a $34.5-million signing bonus -- $14.5 million more than the previous NFL record, the $20 million that the Philadelphia Eagles gave quarterback Donovan McNabb in 2002.
The Colts were desperate to save salary cap space for the 2004 season by completing a long-term deal with Manning and Condon. If they hadn't, Manning would have counted $18.429 million against this season's salary cap as the franchise player. But were the Colts too desperate? Team executives had said throughout the negotiating process that they wouldn't make Manning the highest-paid player by too wide a margin. Yet they ended up giving a 73-percent increase over the previous record signing bonus to a player who never has reached a Super Bowl.
Condon is a tough negotiator, and he clearly wanted to hit a home run with the Manning contract. He had a bit of leverage because of his ability to handcuff the club from a salary cap perspective if he rejected a long-term deal and made the Colts pay Manning as the franchise player. But the Colts also had some leverage. When they made Manning their exclusive franchise player, it meant that no other team could negotiate with him. So if Manning wanted a long-term contract, it had to come from Indianapolis.
The contract calls for Manning to pocket all $34.5 million of the signing bonus by March 5, 2005. It begins with modest salaries of $535,000 for the upcoming season and $665,000 in 2005, but has roster bonuses of $9 million in 2006 and $10 million in 2007 to go with salaries of $1 million for each of those years. Its salary cap value jumps to $17.766 million in 2006. At a time when many NFL owners are fretting about the sport going the way of baseball, with growing revenue disparities between "have" and "have-not" franchises, will Manning's contract give the have-not Colts enough remaining cash and salary cap space to put a competitive team around their quarterback in 2006 and beyond? It's doubtful, and the Colts have four key members of their offense -- wide receiver Marvin Harrison, tailback Edgerrin James, guard Rick DeMulling and tackle Ryan Diem -- eligible for unrestricted free agency next offseason.
The more immediate question, of course, is how competitive the Colts will be this fall after Manning got them to last season's AFC title game. They still have their Big Three on offense -- Manning, James and Harrison -- but have enormous holes to fill on defense after the offseason departures of linebacker Marcus Washington and cornerbacks Walt Harris and David Macklin. Harris and offensive tackle Adam Meadows were among the Colts' salary-cap cuts, and Washington and Macklin left as unrestricted free agents.
Team president Bill Polian, as usual, focused on keeping the club's own free agents, as best he could. He ensured that Diem and DeMulling wouldn't leave as restricted free agents by giving them one-year contract tenders -- for $1.368 million apiece -- that would bring a first-round draft selection as compensation if either player signed elsewhere.
The Colts will promote from within to replace those they lost on defense. Second-year linebacker Cato June is slated to take over for Washington. Third-year pro Joseph Jefferson and second-year pro Donald Strickland are to start at cornerback. Rookie Bob Sanders, a second-round draft choice, is to join second-year pro Mike Doss at safety.
If Coach Tony Dungy can keep the defense from collapsing, the offense again should be somewhere between formidable and unstoppable in what's likely to be the last go-around together for Manning, Harrison and James. But it's difficult to imagine a team with a secondary this young and this vulnerable reaching a Super Bowl. And the window of opportunity to improve greatly could begin closing as soon as the impact of Manning's contract is felt.
Around the League
The Denver Broncos are bracing to lose tight end Shannon Sharpe to CBS in the coming days. Sharpe appears close to completing a deal to replace Deion Sanders on the network's NFL studio show. Sharpe, 35, announced last month that he would return to the Broncos in the fall for a 15th NFL season, but seems likely to change his mind in the aftermath of Sanders leaving CBS last week in a salary dispute.
Parcells, Allen May Work Out Problems
The Dallas Cowboys are trying to patch up the differences between guard Larry Allen and Coach Bill Parcells. Allen reportedly has joined the offseason workout program, and the eight-time Pro Bowl selection might remain with the club after a proposed draft-day trade with Detroit fell through, in part because Allen preferred to be dealt to Oakland and wouldn't rework his contract to go to the Lions. Parcells apparently wants to see Allen show up in shape for an early-June minicamp before making a final decision about keeping him.