Wednesday December 7th, 2011

Would the Colts voluntarily part with Peyton Manning? It might be their best option. (AP)

Are the Colts 100 percent certain that they can make a worst-to-first turnaround next season? Do they really believe that they can recover from their inevitable last-place overall finish this season to Super Bowl contention in 2012?

If not, someone's going to have to convince me that bringing back Peyton Manning, potentially at the cost of Andrew Luck, would be worth it.

Peter King, a couple weeks back, broke down the intricate financial details surrounding Manning's lucrative contract. Here's the Cliff's Notes version:

• Manning is due a $28 million contract bonus before March. If the Colts give him that money, it would trigger the remaining four years of his contract and would put Manning's salary cap hit for 2012 at $17 million.

• The Colts cannot trade Manning prior to paying him that bonus, so the only two realistic options are to release him before it kicks in or hold onto him for at least another season.

• Cutting Manning would save the Colts approximately $6.6 million toward the 2012 salary cap -- Manning's cap hit would drop from $17 million (with $35.4 million actually paid out to him because of the bonus) to $10.4 million, if Indianapolis released him.

The numbers are staggering, especially for a team like Indianapolis, outside a major market.

There's almost no way the Colts can make that kind of leap if Manning does not show, in the next two months or so, that he's fully recovered from multiple neck surgeries. Which means the Colts find themselves in Peyton Purgatory at the minute, keeping tabs on Manning's rehab while simultaneously trying to look ahead toward April's draft.

Yet, even if Manning does fully recover ...

What we're talking about is a colossal commitment to a quarterback who will be 36 years old before next season and is coming off a major injury. Even in the best-case scenarios, how many seasons does Manning have left in the tank? Two? Three?

Even under the most aggressive rebuilding approaches, Indianapolis will have a difficult time returning to the Super Bowl in that window. It's true that the Colts won the previous nine AFC South titles with Manning at the helm, but anyone who thinks this team is set at every position but quarterback hasn't been paying attention.

The situation on the rest of the roster could get worse, too, before next season. A short list of the Colts' pending free agents includes Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Jacob Tamme, Jeff Saturday and Robert Mathis. It's possible that the Colts could lose most or all of that group, especially when you consider that a player like Garcon, for example, will be due a huge bump over his current $550,000 salary.

Colts owner Bill Polian said a few days ago that Indianapolis is willing to pay Manning's salary and draft Luck, should it come to that.

"The payment to the first-round draft choice is far less than it was under the old (collective bargaining) agreement, so you could afford that," Polian said, no doubt thinking about the reasonable four-year, $22 million deal Cam Newton received from Carolina. "I’m perfectly fine with that approach."

That's all well and good, but we're talking, in that scenario, about the Colts spending more than $20 million of salary cap dollars on the quarterback position, despite a roster that needs a pretty serious overhaul. The salary cap was $120 million in 2011 and will likely rise in 2012, but that's still a large chunk of the allotted amount tied up in one position.

Keeping Manning and drafting Luck risks not leaving enough wiggle room to load up enough to be a serious player in the AFC -- the one and only result that would make sticking with Manning acceptable.

Plus, as Archie Manning himself said this week, Luck is the type of prospect that looks ready to jump in and play from day one, especially given the success of most rookie quarterbacks this season. It makes little sense to draft Luck and sit him on the bench until Manning's ready to call it quits.

Keeping Manning in lieu of drafting Luck might allow Indianapolis to trade the 2012 No. 1 selection for a boatload of draft picks, but then what happens when Manning retires or, heaven forbid, suffers another serious injury? Would trading down and taking, say, Matt Barkley make any more sense in the short- or long-term? And if Indianapolis doesn't select a top-tier QB this season, then what's plan B?

Under normal circumstances, a potentially 0-16 team with no QB of the future behind a breaking-down, aging QB of the present should take Luck -- the overwhelming consensus for No. 1 pick -- without so much as a second thought.

But as long as Manning's around, it seems as if the Colts believe they can just flip the switch once he returns to the lineup and be a dominant force again.

Given that there are no guarantees Manning will come back or be the same once he does, that's a risky approach to take. Add in the mind-blowing financial aspect of the Manning proposition and it pushes the needle further toward foolishness.

Unless the next two months produce for Indianapolis a 100 percent healthy and committed Manning, the re-signing of several key in-house free agents and interest from the top available players on the market, it will be time for the Colts to start focusing on the future. And given the money involved, it's starting to look like the Colts could be better off if that future was Manning free.

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