INDIANAPOLIS -- The irony is too rich to miss here this week. The juxtaposition as stark as it could possibly be. Peyton Manning isn't in this Super Bowl, but somehow he still looms over it, with the drama surrounding his future providing a backdrop for a game that's chock full of intriguing storylines.
For the first time ever, the Super Bowl will be played in Manning's city, in a stadium he helped get built, and one of the game's biggest stars is his own younger brother, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. But on this grand stage, the topic that dominates is whether Peyton Manning will be making his exit shortly, with a city and an organization seemingly preparing to bid farewell to the one-of-a-kind player who made them Super Bowl-worthy to begin with.
It's as if this game has somehow started to serve as Manning's last act as a Colt, his final gift to a franchise and a city that he has largely defined for almost 14 years. In time, maybe we'll remember this as the week the Super Bowl came to Indianapolis, and Manning began the process of leaving. In essence, it's the victory lap he may otherwise never get to take.
"It's really a pretty unique situation,'' said Hall of Fame receiver and current NFL Network analyst Michael Irvin. "You try to compare it to what Brett [Favre] went through in Green Bay, but that was different. They had such tradition with the Green Bay Packers. Green Bay was established. But whatever came out of Indianapolis, whatever we have of what [Colts owner Jim] Irsay called 'The Horseshoe,' is Peyton Manning. The Horseshoe was nothing before Peyton got here. [The Horseshoe] wasn't lucky. It was killing [the Colts] before Peyton got here.''
The sense here in Indianapolis is that the reality of Manning's time being done as a Colt is starting to fully sink in. While no one knows exactly where he is in terms of his rehabilitation from last year's neck surgery, it's becoming pretty evident Manning has not progressed to the point where he'll be cleared medically in time for Irsay to authorize payment of the $28 million option bonus his quarterback is due on March 8. That means Manning will likely be granted free agency by the Colts, and his quest to get healthy and resume his playing career -- or grapple with the question of retirement -- will occur elsewhere.
For the Colts and their fans, after progressing through a football version of the five stages of grief, it feels as if they're starting to wrap their minds around the idea that life will go on without Manning, with the dawn of the team's Andrew Luck era perhaps at hand. But this week seems to be serving a useful purpose in the transition that's underway in Indy, with Manning's name everywhere, but the references mostly about his successful past than his uncertain future.
"If it wasn't for Peyton, we wouldn't be having this Super Bowl game, and we wouldn't have built this stadium,'' said Mark Cook, a longtime Colts season-ticket holder who took in the Super Bowl media day festivities at Lucas Oil Stadium on Tuesday. "We'd still be at the RCA Dome. We wouldn't be here.
"It'll be different without him. But we'll get another quarterback. Everyone else gets new quarterbacks, new coaches, new running backs. It's still about the team, and the colors, even with what Peyton has meant to this city. In the last couple weeks, it has started to become real.''
As recently as Tuesday in an interview with ESPN, Manning reiterated that he has no plans to retire, saying he's encouraged by the state of his rehabilitation. But he also concedes that "tough decisions have to be made'' by the Colts, and he expects that he and Irsay will meet and come to some sort of conclusion regarding his status as a Colt next week.
But it has the feel of a decision that is only awaiting its formal announcement, and there are few here who seem to believe the Colts and Manning will avoid a divorce later this month. Thus, Super Bowl week has become about way more than just the one Manning who was able to take the field this season.
"I think we're seeing the telltale signs of it,'' said former Baltimore head coach and current NFL Network analyst Brian Billick, meaning the end of the Manning era in Indianapolis. "The outside observers say give him the money and draft Andrew Luck, and that's easy to do when it's not your money. But even the club and Jim Irsay have said it's not about the money. Are you kidding me? It's $28 million. It's always about the money. If not the cash, then the cap room you're committing to if you have both him and Luck on the roster. I question the intelligence of an organization that tries to parlay this in both instances. It's a tough decision, but we're heading clearly in that direction.''
Colts fans may have been in denial about Manning's future for most of this season, but with the organization having cleaned house in the front office and coaching staff in January, the natural progression is to question whether Manning is the next domino to fall.
"It's mostly concern for Peyton that we feel, because he's really well-liked and everyone here thinks he's a great guy,'' Colts season ticket-holder George Hopper said at media day. "But I think people realize if he doesn't play, it's because he can't. The rumor is out, starting from the medical community on, that he has neurological damage and it's going to be too risky for him to play again. It's just too bad. We thought it'd be another three or four years we'd get to watch him.
"I think it started to sink in toward the end of the season that this may be a big transition for this team, what's happened since has given people a lot to think about in the sense that it could wind up being a good thing. He's a real legacy player for us, and he's going to be in the history books like Johnny Unitas with the Colts. I think people would love to see him be a part of the Colts again in some capacity, as a coach or something.''
The enthusiasm for the Colts casting their future with Luck, the star quarterback and projected No. 1 pick from Stanford, is palpable. Irsay has said Luck and Baylor's Robert Griffin III will be considered with the top pick, but the Luck bandwagon will be difficult to slow at this point in Indy.
"Obviously the people of Indianapolis, God love 'em, they're doing something right,'' Billick quipped. "Because to have the confluence of having a player of Peyton's iconic abilities, and to transition from him to the next guy -- and I think Andrew Luck is going to be that next guy -- they could have stability at the quarterback position for 25 years, likely. That's unbelievable. Twenty-five years? I'd love to have had a quarterback who could do it for 25 games, let alone 25 years. What great luck that is.''
Manning's legacy and what he has meant to Indianapolis may be unrivaled in NFL history, but his tenure there seems to be nearing its end. By the time the league reconvenes in Indy for the NFL Scouting Combine in three weeks, Manning could be an ex-Colt, or at least one in-waiting. It's a new twist on the Super Bowl-as-swan-song scenario.
"This is the sad part of it,'' Irvin said of Manning's limbo status. "There's no way I have any desire to see Peyton Manning in any other uniform. I just don't have the desire to see him orchestrate any other team. Say what you want, but I think there's [the heights] that a football player can [reach] where you can say we're not allowing him to play for another team, and I think certainly Peyton is there. I know the business is the business, but this is not right.''
Manning isn't in Sunday's Super Bowl, but the specter of his career and the open-ended question of his playing fate have overshadowed this week so far. Indianapolis has been his town, the Colts have been his team. But as everyone is starting to grasp, his time here may be up.