Has Peyton Manning played his last game as an Indianapolis Colt?
Can you imagine Peyton and Eli Manning both quarterbacking teams in the glitzy New York market? That's one possible outcome in the high stakes chess match to be waged by the Indianapolis Colts and their iconic quarterback over the next three months.
Without question, many of the NFL's top offseason questions revolve around the Colts, Manning and his presumed successor, Stanford's Andrew Luck, the likely top pick in the 2012 draft.
• Following three neck surgeries in 19 months that ultimately cost him the 2011 season, will Manning, 35, be healthy enough to resume his Hall of Fame-bound career?
• If the player who didn't miss a game over his first 13 seasons is declared healthy, will Colts owner Jim Irsay and his new GM (following the surprising dismissal of Bill and Chris Polian) pay Manning the $28 million option bonus due on March 8?
• Will Manning agree to restructure his contract to remove the option bonus and spread that money over a cap-, team- and player-friendly new deal?
• Will the Colts be willing to invest substantial salary cap dollars into both Manning and Luck and still be able to -- and desire to -- retain other key but aging free agents such as Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis?
• Or will the Colts part ways with their legendary star and hand the starting job to the incoming Luck if he is indeed the No. 1 pick, with Manning looking for a new team willing to take on the risk and expense to sign him?
So many questions and not a lot of time to make crucial decisions for the Colts future.
I believe there's a strong argument that it's in the best interest of the Colts and Manning to restructure his contract before March 8. Then he would remain a Colt through at least the 2012 season and pair with Luck to form potentially the NFL's best quarterback tandem (and this season again proved how important a strong backup quarterback is... see Indy, Chicago and Kansas City and their lost seasons).
A restructuring can't happen unless the Colts' doctors first deem Manning NFL-ready by early March. If they don't, the Colts will terminate the contract before the bonus is due and release Manning. That would result in a $16 million salary cap hit for Indy in 2012 due to acceleration of the final four years on Manning's $20 million signing bonus (part of the five-year, $90 million extension signed last July). Then Manning would retire or try to catch on with another NFL team if he can pass its physical.
If, as expected, Manning is cleared medically by the Colts, things get a lot more complicated. The bull's-eye will then be on the $28 million bonus. It is very unlikely the Colts would ever pay that bonus. If they do and Peyton can't fulfill the five-year deal, they'll have more signing bonus accelerating into their salary cap if he is released or traded. For example, if the Colts pay the $28 million and Peyton gets hurt again and is forced to retire after the 2012 season or if the Colts wanted to trade him, they would have dead money of $33 million hit their cap ($12 million from his original signing bonus plus $21 million from the option bonus). That just won't fly for the Colts.
Manning can't be traded before the March 8 bonus date since trading does not begin until the start of the 2012 League Year, on March 13. Releasing him doesn't free up a bunch of money for the Colts to sign other free agents because of the $16 million cap hit on his signing bonus.
So that brings us to Irsay and his new GM most likely trying to restructure the contract by the March 8 deadline with the primary goal of reconfiguring the $28 million option bonus and turning it into future base salary that is not guaranteed (with perhaps some incentives for high playing time and championships).
Then things get interesting as Manning and agent Tom Condon push back in this high stakes negotiation.
Contract negotiations are about power and leverage. Manning seemingly has the leverage because he can just say no to redoing his contract and force the Colts to either pay him the $28 million bonus or release him to the open market. Teams like the Redskins, Dolphins, Seahawks and possibly even the Jets would surely have interest. But would anyone pay him the $18 million per year in his current contract or anything close, considering the injury risk and that they haven't seen him play an NFL game in 14 months? The Colts, with the $16 million cap hit looming if they release Manning, would likely be the most generous team.
The Saints signed Drew Brees for $60 million over six years in 2006 when he was coming off major shoulder surgery. That gutsy move turned out to be a great, franchise-altering decision but Brees was 27 at the time, not 35. All it takes is one team, but Manning could find a skittish market for his services.
Therefore I'd suggest that the leverage is about even as Manning may well be better off reworking his contract, staying with the Colts and proving that he is still a top NFL quarterback before he moves on to a new team. And with Luck rather than Curtis Painter as an alternative, the Colts have a viable, potential star option if Manning balks (which also neutralizes his leverage).
Irsay and his new GM may well decide to cut ties with Manning now and turn the reins over to Luck, who didn't hurt his cause with an outstanding Fiesta Bowl performance. The strong rookie seasons of Cam Newton and Andy Dalton also could sway them. But I don't see it with Peyton Manning in the discussion.
We have to factor in that Irsay has a strong loyalty to Manning, his best and most popular player in the Indianapolis era of the Colts franchise, and a fantastic ambassador for the Colts and the NFL.
Aside from all the lofty stats and Manning's 11 Pro Bowls, Irsay especially remembers the 11 playoff seasons with Manning under center and the Super Bowl XLI victory that Manning got him. (Peyton was the Super Bowl MVP in the win over the Bears). Then there's the new stadium Manning helped build civic enthusiasm for (thus making Irsay's franchise much more profitable and valuable). And owners like Irsay don't like paying $20 million signing bonuses to players who never play under that contract, which would be the case if Manning were released.
The good news for the Colts is that with the new CBA's rookie wage scale, they can afford Manning and Luck. Newton's first-year cap hit is $4 million, so Luck's will be just slightly higher than that. That's a far cry from the Matthew Stafford/Detroit and Sam Bradford/St. Louis deals that were significantly higher and would not have worked in conjunction with a Manning contract.
In his most recent negotiation, Manning did help the Colts cap-wise by accepting the deal with a $16 million cap hit in 2011, a $7 million savings from the franchise tag of $23 million the Colts had placed on him. He also reportedly settled for less than his initial $20 million plus per year demand.
Manning may be willing to do another cap-friendly restructure to help the Colts sign some of their free agents so they can compete in a not overpowering AFC South next season with teammates he is mostly familiar with. We certainly know that teams can move from bottom feeders to playoff teams in a hurry --witness San Francisco, Cincinnati, Detroit and Denver this season.
For Manning, money should not be the deciding factor in whether he agrees to restructure. He's made well over $150 million in his career on the field plus megabucks in his endorsement work. If he can resurrect his career on the field, he can cash in off the field. And considering that his cash payout was $26 million while he sat out this past season, he may feel that he owes the Colts some consideration with a restructure.
He'll weigh all his options and likely decide to keep his marriage to the Colts intact for at least one more season while he proves to the NFL that he can play three or four more years. In his restructure, he'll insist on a limited trade clause so that he can control where he plays in the future. And he'll be a great mentor for Luck in 2012.
If he can play like the Peyton of old in 2012, teams will look at him as a player who was durable except for one season and then returned to form. The neck will be a concern but he could move on to a team of his choice with a much larger deal than he can command if he is released this offseason with the injury cloud over his head. Perhaps the Colts will keep him as their starter for two more years if he plays well, but that may be difficult to do with such an NFL-ready QB as Luck waiting (but hey, it worked out fine for Aaron Rodgers, who sat three years behind a future Hall of Famer -- Brett Favre).
And here's another wrinkle -- if Manning returns to All-Pro form, the Colts could then trade Luck for a king's ransom (highly doubtful they would let him go, but another possibility, and they shouldn't consider trading out of the No. 1 spot this year as young franchise QBs as highly regarded as Luck are too hard to find and too important in this pass-oriented NFL). But at least they could get a couple of draft picks if they have the option of trading Manning before the 2013 draft rather than releasing him this March and getting nothing in return.
Manning's most recent statement on his status with the Colts was, "Like I said all along, the Colts are going to do what they have to do."
That may well be to keep their four-time NFL MVP for at least one more year under a restructured deal while they groom the successor to the throne in Andrew Luck.