In the end, they got it right. Peyton Manning and Jim Irsay stood side by side before the cameras at the Colts' team complex on Wednesday and reminded us all again of how good they've had it for so long now. Theirs was the most successful and long-running player-owner relationship going in the NFL, and they didn't let it go sour when it finally came time for this week's bittersweet parting of the ways.
The closure that Wednesday's emotional press conference brought was much needed. The thanks-for-the-memories tone struck by both men was the proper one. After their messy blame game and transparent public relations maneuvering of the past couple months, Irsay and Manning thankfully had enough foresight to remember it's how you finish that really matters. This story may not have a happy ending, but in the final analysis, it didn't have an ugly one either.
That's important, because while watching what Manning does next and where he lands will be a fun and fascinating chapter to follow in his career, his legacy is as a Colt. As it should be. No matter what happens from here on out, Manning won't be remembered for his game days as perhaps a Dolphin, Redskin, Jet, Cardinal or Seahawk. When we think of him, we will see him wearing blue and white, with that familiar horseshoe on his helmet, and those 13 mostly successful seasons worth of Colts teams that he led.
Manning was as synonymous with one franchise as any player has ever been in NFL history, and just because he probably won't get the fairy tale ending of never having worn another uniform doesn't mean he won't always be a Colt in the ways that really matter. Wednesday stood as a nice and needed reminder of that reality, and getting the goodbye right was a crucial step in cementing the bonds between a franchise and the face that defined it from 1998 on.
When Manning returns to Lucas Oil Stadium some day, the ovation will be deafening. Maybe it'll come as an opponent. Maybe it'll come when they hang his No. 18 from the rafters, or unveil the statue that surely will be built in his honor. But he'll be welcomed back with open arms, with none of the lingering nastiness that Brett Favre and Green Bay still must overcome before they inevitably reunite, or the icy coolness that marred Joe Montana's departure from San Francisco.
For a while there the last couple months, amid the jousting back-and-forth volleys launched by the Irsay camp and the Manning camp, as it became more and more obvious that their historic run together was nearing its end, I wasn't sure that an amicable divorce was even possible. Both sides hardly bathed themselves in glory, angling for the upper hand in the court of public opinion, and providing a steady drip, drip, drip of headlines in the long and drawn-out process of going their separate ways.
Even Wednesday, both Irsay and Manning couldn't avoid one last deception of sorts. The Colts owner more than once said this decision wasn't about money, when of course the $28 million bonus he owed his quarterback this month was a huge factor in the move. For his part, Manning claimed he hasn't even thought about who he might play for next, as if it just dawned on him that he would be free to sign anywhere he wished once his release became official. If you believe that, you've somehow failed to appreciate the artistry of one of the great control freaks of our time. Manning misses nothing.
But in the setting of Wednesday's stage, we can forgive them their final little white lies. Irsay and Manning tried to keep the focus on their glorious shared past, and show appreciation for what the other had done for them. It simply wasn't the time or the place to do a full post-mortem of their breakup, or to re-live the rollercoaster ride they put each other on in the past two months.
Despite what has been said by Irsay and others, I don't believe there was ever really much chance of them finding a way to stay together after the circumstances that 2011 dealt them -- the multiple neck surgeries for Manning, the 2-14 bottom-drops-out season in Indy, and the gift of the draft's top pick in a quarterback-rich year. No one could have foreseen all of that unfolding a year ago, but Manning had it right when he said, "In life and in sports, nothing lasts forever. Times change, circumstances change, and that's the reality of the NFL.''
Coming to grips with those realities, and those impending changes, wasn't a quick or easy process for either Irsay or Manning. Stuff happened that neither one of them could completely control, and it changed what seemed to be the most secure relationship in the NFL. At some point, we started to fathom the unfathomable, and by the time Wednesday's denouement at last rolled around, an air of inevitability had long since hovered over the Manning-Colts saga. Their parting was not a matter of if, but when, and the when finally arrived.
Now comes the "unchartered territory'' that Manning spoke of, his first exposure to any form of football free agency since he decided to attend Tennessee about 18 years ago. It'll be as shocking to see No. 18 in different uniform colors as it was to see Favre pull on Jets green and white or Montana don the red and gold of Kansas City. At least for a time. Here's a prediction: I bet we get used to it far quicker than we thought imaginable. The more it happens these days to the game's iconic players, the more we adjust our sense of normalcy.
But that's a story for another day. Wednesday was about a storied franchise losing its identity in order to start the process of re-making it. Manning and the Colts represent a special place and a special time in NFL history, and that just came to an end.
It was a final chapter that didn't unfold the way so many of us thought it would for years and years, but at least Manning and Irsay didn't let it end badly. The messiness of the past few months didn't spoil this moment, and the best of Indianapolis' record-breaking Manning-Irsay era received its due. Give them both credit. They got it right in the end. They were wise enough to know how good they had it, and they said goodbye on good terms, parting as friends.
As Manning reminded us, things change, often unexpectedly, and his one-of-a-kind career in Indianapolis being over is proof of that. For so long, this was his team, his town and his time. But that time is finished now. Manning's future remains unknown, but he and Irsay just put to rest the only part of their past that needs to be forgotten.