With Peyton Manning's future in Indianapolis just days away from being decided, Colts owner Jim Irsay said Tuesday the team's franchise quarterback still controls whether he will remain with the only NFL franchise he has ever played for, but that the club cannot exercise the $28 million option bonus that is due Manning on March 8.
"I want him to make the call,'' Irsay told SI.com Tuesday afternoon. "I want him to be able to make that decision. "He knows with the option bonus that's due we'd have to re-do the contract, and you can re-do the contract. You can do that. If he can play again and he wants to be here, and I assume he does, I want him here. But his arm has to come back and it's a matter of the nerve regeneration taking place. Any contract we would have has to take that process into consideration.''
Irsay said he expects to have the long-awaited meeting with his veteran quarterback to decide Manning's fate in "the next week or so.'' But any discussion about Manning's future in Indy will have to include the restructuring of his 2012 contract into an incentive-laden, performance-based deal, given the uncertainty that surrounds Manning's slow rehabilitation from two 2011 neck surgeries.
"He may not ever be able to play again,'' Irsay said. "We just don't know that yet. It's a question of whether his arm comes back, and the nerve regeneration occurs. It's always been an issue about his long-term health after football, that's the big issue. And then there are salary cap consequences that have to be dealt with as part of his return. But it's going to be his call whether he stays.
"If he can get healthy and he wants to take the risk of playing, I'd rather see him be here and play for us this year. It can be worked out. If he can get back to the point of being the old Peyton Manning, he can play for us this season and handle it better than a rookie quarterback would be able to handle it.''
The Colts hold the No. 1 draft pick this year and are widely expected to make Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck their selection. In fact, Irsay several times on Tuesday referenced Luck in speaking of the Colts approach to the 2012 season, with or without Manning being involved. Indianapolis is on the clock in terms of its coveted top pick.
"This thing has been tough,'' said Irsay, meaning the club's recent showdown of sorts with Manning, regarding his playing future. "But at the same time, if he (Manning) came in and mentored the young guy and was his old self, we'd have a heck of a chance to be much better in 2012 than we were last season. That's if he's his old self, and that's a big if, obviously.
"But if he can play, he could do that for us this season and then he'd have the choice of whether to retire, with his number retired, the statue built and the whole thing. If he's healthy, he'd handle 2012 better than Andrew could. But ultimately I have always wanted him to make the decision, with us having pointed out the risk and the stress he's putting his neck under by playing. The biggest aspect is I want him to be comfortable with his decision.''
While there have been conflicting reports recently regarding the status and strength of Manning's passing arm, clearly Irsay believes his quarterback's rehabilitation process is far from complete and remains an open question.
"If he's the old Peyton Manning he could come back this year and maybe do more with less,'' Irsay said. "The question is, can he ever get back to that point? We don't know that yet.''
Irsay said he does not believe Manning has ever intended to force the issue of the $28 million option bonus being paid before he has proven he'll be healthy enough to play next season. By picking up the option bonus, the Colts would be committing more than $35 million in compensation to Manning this year, including his $7.4 million base salary. That after the Colts paid him about $26 million in 2011, with him missing the entire season.
"That's the last he'd want to do for this team, put us in that kind of salary cap situation,'' Irsay said. "He wants to come back and he wants to win. I should say I assume he wants to come back. With Peyton, sometimes you never know. But that's why we're going to have a meeting in a few days. I think he has some real comfort in the idea of finishing his career here, but I think he's conflicted perhaps given the circumstances. We'll find out soon.''