Let me make clear that I haven’t spoken with anyone associated with the Colts or Redskins about this, and let me make just as clear that this is not even what you would call a “rumor.” There are no “sources who wish to remain anonymous” or “reliable sources.” No, this is pure speculation. But it’s speculation that makes sense.
Here is how this could play out:
1) There is a legitimate chance that the Colts will finish with the worst record in the NFL this year. They are playing poorly on both sides of the ball right now, and Manning’s absence only explains a small part of that. There is nothing to suggest that this Colts squad is suddenly going to turn things around, and there is no reason for Manning to rush back to try to win a few games for a mostly hapless team this year.
2) If the Colts in fact finish last, they will have a franchise-changing choice to make: to draft consensus first pick Andrew Luck, or to bet on Manning for the next few years and trade the pick for multiple draft choices or players.
3) History has shown that trading the first pick is a dicey proposition, particularly when it is a once-in-a-generation quarterback. The Colts have experience both keeping and trading that pick. The Colts once made the decision to trade just such a pick, swapping first choice John Elway to the Broncos for several picks. One of those picks ended up being Chris Hinton, so it’s not as if the trade was a complete bust. But we all know who got the best of that trade. More recently, when faced with the same choice of drafting a once-in-a-generation quarterback, the Colts took the opposite approach. They ignored all trade requests and held onto the pick, selecting Manning. Having taken both approaches and seen how they panned out, the Colts would seem highly likely to hang onto the pick and select Luck if they are in a position to do so (despite Phil Simms’ recent public misgivings about him).
4) If Manning is not healthy enough to play next year, then Andrew Luck would start for the Colts and everyone in Indianapolis will be happy (until they learn that drafting Luck doesn’t address any of the problems with the running game or on defense).
5) But if Manning is healthy enough to play next year, it seems unlikely that the Colts would invest countless millions of dollars in the two quarterbacks next year, and the year after, and the year after, for so long as Manning is still able to play.
6) While Manning will say and do all the right things in public — that’s just the kind of guy he is, isn’t it? — he will be fuming behind the scenes about having Luck holding a clipboard on the sidelines, knowing that as his skills inevitably decline, or as the offense struggles, the fans will start chanting Luck’s name. And the offense is going to struggle. Seriously, have you seen the Colts’ offense this year?
7) Not wanting to create another Brett Favre-Aaron Rodgers mess, and wanting to pave the way for Luck to quarterback the team for the next 10+ years, the Colts and Manning will orchestrate Manning’s move to another team. Think that couldn’t happen? Think it’s a lock that Manning will ride off into the sunset in a Colts jersey? Then you’re forgetting the days of Johnny Unitas in a Chargers jersey, Joe Namath in a Rams jersey, Joe Montana in a Chiefs jersey, or Fran Tarkenton in a Giants jersey.
It may not happen right away, but if the Colts draft Luck, the odds are that Manning finishes his career in a uniform other than the Colts’. Heck, the odds are that Manning will do that someday even if the Colts don’t draft Luck.
8) There are only a few teams in the league that do not have elite or promising quarterbacks on their rosters right now. It’s really quite remarkable. Take a moment and go through the league team-by-team — most have quarterbacks they are very happy to have lead them now and for the next several years. That limits the options for a Manning trade. And one of those options is the Redskins, who do not seem to believe that Rex Grossman or John Beck is the quarterback of the future — and you don’t believe that either. (Not incidentally, if the Cowboys don’t make the playoffs, don’t be surprised if Tony Romo isn’t on their roster next year, which would make the Cowboys another potential destination for Peyton Manning in this scenario).
9) Despite being burned by the Donovan McNabb trade just a year ago, the Redskins would be foolish not to consider putting together a package for Manning. He’s still an elite, name player, assuming he returns from the neck injury as something close to the 2009 Peyton Manning. And in case you hadn’t noticed, the Redskins do have a thing for acquiring name players, whether they fit into their system or not.
10) So, if everything falls into place — and that’s a big “if” — it is not inconceivable that Andrew Luck starts at quarterback for the Colts in 2012 and Peyton Manning does the same for the Redskins. In fact, I’m going to predict that is precisely what happens if the Colts finish last this year — Peyton Manning will be wearing burgundy and gold in 2012 or 2013.