Bill Polian (left), Peyton Manning
, and Jim Irsay in Aug. 2010, before things got weird. (Michael Conroy/AP)
The only thing better than a prime-time matchup between two great NFL teams is one in which there's a compelling backstory with histories that go back years. And the only thing better than that, perhaps, is a backstory that somehow creates a media feud in the middle of the week before the game. That's what he have on our hands in preparation for the Sunday Night Football game between the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos at Indy's Lucas Oil Stadium. Peyton Manning will return to Lucas Oil as a player for the first time since the end of the 2010 season, as he missed the 2011 season with a series of neck and shoulder injuries. Colts owner Jim Irsay made the tough decision to release Manning before the 2012 season began, and turned his first overall draft pick (earned the hard way through a 2-14 record without Manning the year before) into Andrew Luck. The Broncos signed Manning to a five-year, $96 million contract in March of 2012.
It would seem that both teams got what they wanted. The Colts passed on Manning's $28 million bonus and grabbed the most highly coveted quarterback prospect of his generation. Luck has lived up to all the hype -- a nearly impossible task. The Broncos are on pace to set all kinds of records for offensive dynamism, and Manning looks better than ever.
A win-win? Seemed like an obvious conclusion. However, when Irsay spoke with USA Today's Jarrett Bell about the move from Manning to Luck this week, he said some things that got pretty far up the nose of Broncos head coach John Fox. Irsay recalled in the article that with his departure inevitable, Manning told the team owner that he had to select Luck in the draft.
"I think it's perfect," Irsay said. "What's happened is what Peyton and I hoped would happen. The desire was for him to get well and get to a team that has a chance to win another Super Bowl before his career ended. And our desire was to be able to transition to Andrew. To be so good so soon is stunning."
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Still all good, right? Well, it was until Irsay delved into what he saw as a very necessary franchise implosion.
"We've changed our model a little bit, because we wanted more than one of these," Irsay said, pointing to the ring his team earned by beating the Chicago Bears, 29-17, in Super Bowl XLI.
The Colts went back to the biggest game three years later, only to lose, 31-17, to the New Orleans Saints. From there things started to go downhill.
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"[Tom] Brady never had consistent numbers, but he has three of these," Irsay recalled to Bell, pointing again to the ring. "Pittsburgh had two, the Giants had two, Baltimore had two and we had one. That leaves you frustrated. You make the playoffs 11 times, and you're out in the first round seven out of 11 times. You love to have the Star Wars numbers from Peyton and Marvin [Harrison] and Reggie [Wayne]. Mostly, you love this."
"This," of course, is the ring.
Fox went on his weekly appearance on SIRIUS NFL Radio this week and blasted Irsay for the take on the single Super Bowl won.
"To me, in my opinion, they were disappointing and inappropriate," Fox said of Irsay's coments. "I mean, Peyton would never say anything. He's too classy to do that. But they sounded a little ungrateful and unappreciative to me for a guy that has set a standard, won a Super Bowl, won division titles, won four MVP awards. I'd be thankful with that one Super Bowl ring because there's a lot of people that don't have one."
Irsay, as he's wont to do, responded comprehensively on Twitter.
And in the end, Irsay was right -- he had to hire people who could create a more well-rounded team. Because in his last five years with the Colts organization (2007-11), team president Bill Polian gave the franchise little to work with. None of his first-round picks (receiver Anthony Gonzalez, running back Donald Brown, defensive end Jerry Hughes, and offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo) have played to that level, or anywhere near it. And from a depth perspective, only receiver Austin Collie (fourth round, 2009), defensive tackle Fili Moala (second round, 2009) and linebacker Pat Angerer (second round, 2010) have made the kinds of strides one must expect from players taken deeper in the draft. There is no other way to succeed consistently in the NFL. If you start blowing your drafts, you will fall to earth with a massive "thud," and it doesn't really matter how good you are -- even at the game's most important position.
Irsay hired general manager Ryan Grigson to replace Polian and head coach Chuck Pagano to replace Jim Caldwell, and Grigson's first draft provided more immediately valuable players for the Colts than Polian's had in five years. Luck lived up to his promise by redefining the franchise, but the new brain trust also made wise decisions in tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, running back Vick Ballard and receiver T.Y. Hilton. The Colts went from 2-14 to 11-5 in one season with the balance Irsay desired, and they're one of the AFC's top contenders at 4-2 right now.
On his weekly SIRIUS appearance, Polian expressed his own sense of confusion regarding Irsay's comments.
"I really don't know what to make of it to tell you the truth," Polian said, via CBSSports.com's Ryan Wilson. "I do know that he was very upset after the loss in the second Super Bowl and I think it's pretty telling that getting to the Super Bowl in his mind doesn't count. And for anyone who is in the game and who has to make that journey from training camp to the Super Bowl, you know that it's awfully difficult to get there.
"And as John Fox said today, if you have one, you count yourself lucky. I've had teams that have been to six Super Bowls and won one. I'm not ashamed of that record by any means, and I'm certainly not ashamed of what we did in Indianapolis."
Polian, currently an analyst for ESPN, has nothing to be ashamed of when one looks at the whole of his career. He's a six-time NFL Executive of the Year who has turned three franchises -- the Colts, Carolina Panthers and Buffalo Bills -- around. But when it comes to the primary reason for the Colts having to blow things up and start from the foundation, Polian can point primarily to himself.
And with that, onto the game. Please.