Peyton Manning or Not, that is the question Peyton Manning Andrew LuckWe knew what this season was coming down to. Why the Colts signed Peyton Manning, one of the best quarterbacks of all time, to a 5-year 90-something million dollar contract after 2 recent neck injuries, is beyond me. But with Andrew Luck from Stanford “Luck-ily” falling into their laps, what happens to their veteran?

Nearly four years ago, when the NFL announced that Indianapolis would host the Super Bowl in 2012, you couldn’t blame fans for being excited. Back then, Peyton Manning was 32, and had never missed a game in his dominant NFL career. He was coming off another stellar season, in which the Colts finished 13-3 and took their fifth straight division title. His Colts had won the Super Bowl the prior year, over the Chicago Bears. The dream of Manning marching off the field at Lucas Oil Stadium, hoisting the Lombardi trophy in front of an adoring home crowd, seemed very real.

Now, the dream has been shattered, in a way that no one saw coming. The only Manning who might be winning a Super Bowl in Indy is Eli, Peyton’s little brother, whose Giants will play my San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in the NFC Championship game (New England hosts Baltimore in the AFC title game). And just as the city he turned into an NFL powerhouse enjoys the spotlight that comes with a Super Bowl, it’s entirely possible that Peyton may have already played his last game for the Colts. 

The team is coming off a dismal 2-14 season in which Manning didn’t take a snap because of a neck injury that has already required three surgeries. The team’s third-year coach, Jim Caldwell, who led the Colts to a Super Bowl in his first season — the New Orleans Saints knocked them off — has been fired. Colts vice chairman Bill Polian, who built the 21st century Colts into consistent winners, was also let go. And in case there hasn’t been enough drama of late: on Wednesday, an actor who plays the city manager of a fictional Indiana town on television, Parks and Recreation star Rob Lowe, tweeted: “Hearing my fave, #18 Peyton Manning will not return to #NFL. Wow. #Colts.” Both Manning’s father, Archie, and his agent denied that Manning was hanging it up, though Lowe, who is friendly with Colts owner Jim Irsay, has insisted he’s got good sources. Who knows, maybe Lowe is the best-connected — and by far best-looking — NFL reporter around. But unless Manning’s injuries are debilitating, it’s hard to believe such a fiercely competitive and talented QB would hang it up for good just yet. That doesn’t mean, however, that he would still be playing for the Colts.

Because of Manning’s injury, the 2011 Colts finished 2-14, the worst record in the league, giving Indianapolis the first pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Typically, when a team with a player on the level of a Peyton Manning at quarterback receives such a high pick, it looks to trade it away, or to select a non-quarterback to improve the talent around him. But this also happens to be a year in which a prospect labeled as the next Peyton Manning, Stanford University quarterback Andrew Luck, is available. So as the Colts well know, when a Peyton Manning is out there, you grab him, just like Indianapolis did in the 1998 draft, after the team finished with league-worst 3-13 record, and Manning had just completed an outstanding college career at Tennessee.

Those Colts started Manning right away, and that move worked out pretty well for them. Wouldn’t it make sense to give Luck the ball immediately, especially since there are still serious concerns about Manning’s health? Recent history says these top prospects can play: last year’s top pick, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, just became the first rookie to pass for over 4,000 yards. Plus, what team wants to pay someone $15 million, which is about what Luck will make his rookie year in signing bonus and base salary, to be a backup?

Then again, that’s a tad better than having an $18.5 million-a-year backup, which is what Manning would be if the Colts were to keep him and then hand the ball to Luck. The Colts are facing a huge economic decision with Manning, and the most cost-effective option would be to let him go. After the NFL returned from the lockout in late July, the Colts signed Manning to a 5-year, $90 million deal, which on the surface seems reckless, since Manning had already undergone two neck surgeries. But the deal was structured to give the Colts an escape route if Manning did not recover quickly from the operations, which he clearly hasn’t.

As part of the deal, the Colts owe Manning a $28 million option bonus, which they must pay him by March 8th. Indy can release Manning before March 8th and save themselves an enormous payout: if they do so, the Colts would likely take a $16 million hit against the salary cap in 2012, according to Brian McIntyre, salary cap expert for footballoutsiders.com, an analytics site. But after 2012, Manning’s contract would come off the salary cap books, which would give the Colts an annual windfall with which to build a team around Luck. (In 2011, the NFL salary cap was around $120 million per team). Further complicating the decision is that the Colts cannot trade Manning before March 8. But if the Colts pay Manning his $28 million and then trade him, not only are the Colts out $28 million, but the salary cap penalties are even more severe: the Colts would take a $9.6 million hit in 2012, then a crushing $28.8 million blow in 2013. Plus, the Colts might not get much in return for a player whose long-term health is questionable. If the Colts bet that Manning will be healthy for the life of the contract and hold onto him, they’re out $28 million on the option bonus, and he’d take up $18.5 million of the Colts salary cap, on average, for the next four years. ”I don’t think the Colts are going to pick up the option,” says McIntyre. “Look at what’s going on: the Colts are completing a clean sweep. As good as he has been, it’s hard to imagine Manning being the financial anchor of the franchise going forward.”

Yes, we can get sentimental, and mention how it’s hard to picture Manning in another NFL uniform. But cutting the chord with a franchise player has worked out well in the past for other teams, and the jilted legends as well. The San Francisco 49ers, for example, traded an aging, achy Joe Montana to the Kansas City Chiefs at the end of his career to pave the way for Steve Young. Young won a Super Bowl in the 1994 season, and Montana led the Chiefs to the AFC championship game in the 1993 season. The franchise hasn’t won a playoff game since. Green Bay nudged Brett Favre aside for Aaron Rodgers in 2008. Rodgers also won a title, and though Favre became a national punch line because of his dithering, and sexting shenanigans, let’s not forget his 2009 season with Minnesota, one of the best of his Hall of Fame career.

The Colts are grappling with a dilemma most successful sports franchises face at some point, whether to overpay for the subpar twilight years of a team’s longtime star. While football teams have made rational decisions, baseball tends to reward aging legends for past performances, rather than future returns over the life of a contract. The New York Yankees, for example, gave Derek Jeter, 37, a 3-year, $51 million deal last off-season. Jeter hit .297 in 2011, but spent time on the disabled list and finished with career lows in home runs (6) and RBI (61). He’s no $16 million-a-year player. The Yankees are probably also ruing the 10-year, $275 million deal they gave Alex Rodriguez in 2007, when he was 32: at 36, he appeared pretty shot in last year’s playoffs, and they’re on the hook for another $143 over the next six years. The Los Angeles Angels should expect impressive production from Albert Pujols, 32, whom they signed to a 10-year, $254 million contract. But history suggests that Pujols won’t be a $30 million-a-year player when he’s pushing 40.

Football is a crueler business than other sports, thanks to non-guaranteed contracts for NFL players, and the hard salary cap for its teams. A team has a distinct disincentive to overpay a beloved, but unproductive, aging star as a token of appreciation, even if it could afford to do so and the fan favorite could still sell tickets: a bloated salary takes up precious cap space, hampering its ability to build a winner. Plus, the specialized nature of the game forces such hard choices. Indy’s 2-14 campaign is similar to the 1996-1997 NBA season, when San Antonio Spurts star David Robinson, like Manning, missed the season with an injury. The Spurs, like the Colts regular championship contenders, suffered through a miserable season, ala Indy: San Antonio finished 20-62, and also won the first pick in the draft, which they used on Tim Duncan. The Duncan-Robinson twin towers combo won two NBA titles together.

Unfortunately for the Colts, two quarterbacks can’t play at the same time. So as shocking as it may be to their fans, Indy should probably press their Luck, and part ways with Peyton. I would however love to see Peyton become a coach for his beloved Colts. Heck, Indy just fired their Head Coach, might Peyton want to take those reins and save his physical health?