Update 2: In light of the new attention on Peyton’s history of sexual harassment, the which I wrote about on a lost to history blogger site, I’m reposting this. It’s just a reminder that the Peyton Has never done a single thing he wasn’t fully in control of.
Update 1: I originally vomited out all this stuff after Manning’s first game back, when the Broncos played the Steelers in 2012. But I think it is just as useful, as local media look at what Peyton did to the Raiders and get to thinking about how nice it would be to still have him here in Indy. As much fun as that “what if” is, in the end, we never stood a chance.
Jim Irsay is a credulous, conniving, and blissed-out multi-millionaire. The son of a mean, close-minded drunk, Jimmy erred toward the other end of the personality spectrum. He evinced a pose of intellectual curiosity and the amiable attitude towards culture and refinement that one expects from a rich dilettante. He was a connoisseur of relaxation and euphoria, a predilection that wound up embroiling him in a rather conspicuous prescription drug scandal, which probably should have included some jail time.
Despite all his efforts toward sophistication and enlightenment, Jim Irsay remains a frustrating dichotomy. He is a cultural and arts philanthropist who simultaneously sucks away municipal funds to finance his billion dollar sports enterprise. Irsay is a sports executive who professes a deference to history and legacy, who nevertheless allowed his franchise to repeat the decision to part ways with an all-time great quarterback, Manning, in the same manner as they had with their first, Unitas.
Irsay has cultivated a Zen-and-the-Art-of-NFL-Franchise-Owning facade while always tending towards hiring the most top-down and conservative executives and coaches, rarely listening to voices of dissent or reason, or intervening when his autocratic vice-president bungled legacy-building decisions. Though the city built him his new stadium, he took 50% of the gate from every single event that was held at Lucas Oil Stadium for the first two years. Only when the high school athletic association was going to move the state football championships to another venue did Irsay give the nod so that the local football teams could play their grand finales there without having to pay the vigorish.
He is both fascinating and a walking cliché. He’s a very rich man who inherited his fortune. He maintains control of the team at the expense of a city, making great demands of the taxpayers. Indianapolis now operates under the threat of losing their football team in the same manner they wrested the franchise from the previous host. The media and public marvel at his wildly eclectic tastes, his deep familiarity with the canon of American literature and twentieth-century music and arts, an affinity that seems a bit at odds with the perceived dumb-oaf, militaristic culture of professional football. And yet, he engages with those artistic endeavors in the most obvious and ham-handed manner possible.
He buys priceless artifacts like they were a packs of baseball cards, because he can and because that’s how he always did things ever since he was knee-high to a Maryland crab cake. Having a great love for the Beat Generation, Irsay purchased the most important text from that literary movement and sent it on a tour around the country to various museums and exhibitions. Ostensibly, it was so those not as fortunate as he could also see it. “Please take part in this wonderful experience that I have (partly) financed. It is something that can bring joy and a sense of communion to many thousands of people. Just know that I own it and can make it disappear into the darkness whenever I desire,” seems to be the internal monologue to nearly everything Irsay does.
Which brings us to Peyton Manning, one of the most successful players in the history of the NFL. He remains THE iconic figure in the history of the Indianapolis Colts, and perhaps the history of the organization. At this point he has probably surpassed Baltimore Colt legend, Johnny Unitas, in historical popularity. Manning also recently had four surgeries on his neck in the span of 18 months.
After Manning’s multiple neck surgeries, Jim Irsay and the Colts had no idea whether Peyton would ever again play up to his past standards. Peyton Manning, himself, did not know whether he would be able to return to form. The misfortunes of the team in their first year without Manning yielded them the first pick in the 2012 Draft. Those who are paid to speculate presumed the pick would be used to choose Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III, the most highly regarded quarterback prospects since Manning himself. The constraints of the NFL salary cap system, which was already pressing down on the Colts roster would have made it difficult for them to both keep Manning and draft Luck without sacrificing the ability to sign and pay for quality athletes at the other 21 positions.
The Colts, however, had options. They were going to release many of their older and oft-injured veterans, freeing up some money. Additionally, due to the new collective bargaining agreement, Luck or Griffin, while expensive, would not cost nearly as much as a first pick had in previous years. The Colts could have traded the first pick, which had become a highly-valued commodity once again, as a result of the newly instituted rookie pay-scale. They most certainly could have acquired a bevvy of draft picks or veteran talent in exchange for the Luck/Griffin pick. They could have restocked some of the cupboard to make a competitive team for their old franchise QB. It would, however, have required them having faith that he could compete for three or four more seasons. It would have required that Irsay manage the differences and misgivings of his front-office employees, rather than issuing a ream of pink-slips and hiring anew.
But the most pivotal contingency, one that has not been discussed nearly enough, was that it would have required Peyton Manning to WANT to re-sign with the Colts.
Pundits spoke of the Colts’ and Irsay’s decision in terms from their business 101 classes. You manage risk vs. reward. The risk of Manning was not proportionate to the reward. Luck seemed to be a prospect that does not come along very often. According to the writers and commentators, the uncertainty surrounding Manning’s health and Luck’s almost limitless potential essentially made the Colts’ decision for them.
The one variable that was conveniently ignored by the media, the citizens of Indianapolis, and Irsay himself was whether Manning, if he was healthy, truly wanted to come back to the Colts, whether Manning would let his legacy be part of a new Colts era.
Let us not forget that Manning, too, was the son of high NFL pedigree. His father, Archie, while not a winning player, was a beloved and respected figure in the city of New Orleans. He played most of his rather middling career for the Saints, retiring after stints with the Vikings and Oilers. Peyton’s success can in no small part be attributed to the access he had, through his father, to the inner circles of football power.
Before he was even in high-school, he was profiled in sports publications as a future professional prospect. He received more devoted instructional time at the position of quarterback than nearly anyone in history. He was Todd Marinovich, except with a loving father who had more expertise and insight, as well as access to the upper-echelon of, well, everything.
At no point in his collegiate and professional life has Peyton Manning not been conscious of his public persona. He has been careful and vigilant about how his choices and behavior are perceived. The only moments where he is seemingly incapable of maintaining his winning and diplomatic disposition are those sideline moments in losing efforts, when the phrase “Manning-face” requires no explanation.
During the beginning of the neck-surgery season, Peyton was careful to be seen (eventually) but not heard. No one, not his doctors or trainers and certainly not the Colts management, seemed to have a real grasp on whether or not Peyton would be able to play again that season or ever. We all sat waiting. Vociferous only in his assertion that he hoped to play again and that he hoped to retire a Colt, Peyton stayed hidden. But as the team floundered and he rehabbed (successfully, we can now see), those two hopes did not necessarily appear to intersect in Indianapolis.
Manning had become more than accustomed to winning at the NFL level, he expected it, wound his watch to it. He had experienced losing early-on with the Colts and he clearly wanted no more of it, especially in the twilight of his career. Rebuilding was for the players who would be there to reap the rewards of their efforts, not for those who would ride off into the role of broadcaster just when the keystone was being set. Not to mention that in order to feel comfortable risking his spinal health, Manning would need to be compensated a rate that made it worth his time and peril. Manning valued his newly repaired cervical vertebrae enough that he wasn’t going to play for less than 20 million per, and the Colts would be hard-pressed to pay that amount and field a team of elite professionals around their QB.
Manning was also rather clear that he had no interest in playing on a team where his backup was a number one pick with no history of neck injuries. And yet, it remained exceedingly clear that not drafting Andrew Luck, not matter what the situation, would have been galactically stupid.
There were only two possible outcomes for Manning in Indianapolis:
1. A return to form, in which case he is a justly compensated all-time great with a not-so-great team around him. All this, while his eventual replacement would be chomping at the bit to get in the game.
2. His neck never heals completely, his arm-strength is comparable to high-school JV player, and he has, in some part, financially crippled the team that he captained to unprecedented heights for more than a decade. His legacy is sullied, his arm is a noodle, and the city that loved him starts flirting with their new boyfriend right in front of him.
Indianapolis held no upside at all for Manning, only a precarious status-quo or failure.
Another city, however, had no such baggage. If he never healed, a one year deal in Tennessee or Denver wouldn’t sully his legacy as a Colt, nor would it make him look like a bad guy. The Titans or Broncos would absorb a one year hit having taken a shot at a hall of famer. If their gamble crapped out, no big deal.
Somewhere else, Peyton could test his neck and take a last shot at the crown, or just shrivel up and go home. All the while in Indy, he would still be remembered as a demi-god. Even if he failed elsewhere, his legacy would remain, even grow with the, “What if Peyton hadn’t gotten hurt,” speculative commentary that would inevitably follow a Manning retirement.
And so, while continuing to assert the platitude that he wanted to retire a Colt, Peyton Manning exercised the same sort of self-serving caprice that the Colts’ owner, the son of Bob Irsay, had threatened more than once. He moved himself to a better location that would pay him more.
Manning, of course, was not even remotely chastised for his choice. Primarily because he and his management team played it so perfectly it didn’t seem like a choice at all. They allowed Irsay to look like he had all the agency, that he made the choice, when in reality old Good Times Jimmy was just playing the cards he’d been dealt from a highly stacked deck.
And of course everyone bought the Peyton as sad employee, suffering at the whims of management routine. After all, Peyton was a dedicated player with a CV of unprecedented regular season success. He won a Super Bowl for his team and his success led to the city of Indianapolis paying nearly a billion dollars for a new stadium. Peyton’s presence was a major reason that the Super Bowl itself was held in Indianapolis during the last year of his tenure. A four-time league MVP who changed the way the position of quarterback is played, Manning did it all while seeming humble and self-aware. He is a gifted pitchman and was a spectacular hit as the host of Saturday Night Live. He gave millions to a children’s hospital, which now bears his name. For the city of Indianapolis to publicly begrudge Peyton Manning his choice to flee, he would have had to sacrifice a child on the basketball court at Hinkle Fieldhouse, while simultaneously burning John Mellencamp albums.
But by any reasonable assessment of the circumstances, Peyton had as much to do with his Indy exit as Irsay did.
If Peyton had walked up to the microphone, ANY microphone, and said, “I want to re-sign with the Colts. Give me a one year deal, same pay, and the team can draft whoever they want. I’ll win with whatever players you put around me,” Irasy would’ve had no choice but to give him the contract, or risk drawing the eternal ire of yet another fan-base.
But Manning didn’t do this. He knew that he and Reggie Wayne could not win another championship by themselves. He knew that the defense was not going to be first-rate, or even third rate. His once-formidable offensive line was getting old and leaky.
Instead, Peyton took a look around the league and saw old Elway off in the distance, chewing his rolled oats in Denver. John had a corral of young receivers and a solid defense, and was studying the water trough for hints as to how to pull the Broncos out of the grasp of Tebow, and so Peyton gave him a call.
In the meantime, he let leak a little grainy video. Nothing that would really tell anyone anything, really. But just enough to let Jim know that if he was going to leave, Irsay had to push him out of the plane, because he sure as hell wasn’t jumping.
Sure, the folklore will say that after he was cut by the Colts, Peyton could hardly speak for several days. We’ll “remember” that when Elway initially inquired, Manning rebuffed the Broncos GM because he simply couldn’t deal with the idea of choosing a new team. But Manning was on planes within a week of his very courteous separation. He evaluated the prospective teams, the payrolls, the training facilities, conference rivals and the potential schedule. Hurry-up, no-huddle, Manning-led offense in the upper elevations of Colorado? Not a bad idea. The AFC-West, with Norv and AJ, Romeo and Scott, and the Ghost of Al Davis? Can’t blame a guy for doing the arithmetic.
Peyton gets 20 million and plays in a place that, should he fail, would only say, “Well, it was worth a shot.” John Elway gets rid of Jesus Camp. Indy and Irsay get their second once-in-a-generation pick, and get to dump their sclerotic front office. Peyton Manning did this. It should have been extremely obvious who the real play caller was in this situation, but somehow it wasn’t.
In the end, two boys born of great privilege decided they weren’t going be business partners anymore. And the one who made the final decision, the real field general (or whatever tortured analogy you prefer), was the one who just whooped the Steelers last night, in his first professional football game since January 2011.
Peyton Manning is exactly where he wanted to be and Jim Irsay owns some guitars, a football team, and a big roll of typing paper.