Once upon a time, we thought we knew how the Peyton Manning story would end in Indianapolis. After a long and record-breaking run as the Colts iconic quarterback, face of the franchise and civic treasure, Manning would finally leave the game behind, slide into a comfortable and over-celebrated retirement and toss the keys to the next young passer unlucky enough to follow his act in the helmet with the horseshoe on it.
Missed that one by just a tad, didn't we?
What a long, strange trip it has already been when it comes to Manning and the preamble of what figures to be an awkward and painful divorce from the only NFL organization he has ever known, and helped raise to elite status. When he and the Colts do part ways at some point in the coming days -- and it still appears to be a matter of when, not if -- it'll almost register as a relief that the spectacle of it all is at last over.
Under Bill Polian's stewardship, the Colts were as secretive and tight-lipped as any franchise in the league, guarding every scrap of football-related information as if it provided the competitive advantage that would make the difference between winning and losing the Super Bowl. That was the way the longtime Indianapolis football czar did business, he won with it, and it was understood that his methods would be followed.
But Polian has been gone for about 40 days now, fired along with his general manager son, Chris, and an information free-for-all has ensued on the Manning front in his absence. I'm not saying I miss the Polian Way, but this story, the team's messy end of the Manning era, has been like a driver-less car careening out of control. We're all just following it warily, trying to see where it goes next.
Two reasons for the unprecedented way the Manning saga has unfolded pop to mind: It's such a unique story to begin with, with No. 18's mysterious neck condition being such an unknown, and Jim Irsay is such a unique team owner. And calling Irsay unique really doesn't even tell the whole story, does it?
Irsay's life is just an open book, and with him, there's seldom an unexpressed thought. Or at least un-tweeted. He did tell us plenty even while the Polians were in charge of his team, but there has never quite been the confluence of a story of this magnitude and complication combined with a team owner who is committed to social media, and keeping the multifaceted lines of communication open.
It has been a sight to behold, and last week in Indianapolis, with the entire NFL-watching nation training its eyes on the city in anticipation of the Super Bowl, Manning, Irsay and the future of the Colts was still the hottest story. They kept telling us that they didn't want to steal the spotlight from the game, then they kept right on stealing the spotlight from the game. It was like that scene in "Casablanca'' where Inspector Renault says he's "shocked, shocked" to find that gambling is going on in this establishment, right before collecting his winnings.
My favorite little back-and-forth of Super Bowl week came Thursday, when Manning pretty clearly leaked a story to ESPN that his doctor and a second doctor have cleared him medically to resume his NFL career, which was designed to build some momentum for the idea that his comeback was on its way.
That night, Irsay responded, by Twitter, of course, that Manning had not passed the team's physical, and had not been cleared by the Colts doctors. It effectively knocked down the ESPN report and meant nothing had changed in terms of the reality of Manning's situation with the team. Irsay indicated that Manning remained in limbo, working on his rehabilitation, but had not shown enough progress to make his return to the field a foregone conclusion.
Oh, and did we mention that Irsay's late-night response to that story occurred while he was throwing his own Super Bowl party at the Indiana State Museum, a soiree that Manning was in attendance at? Must have made for a bit of tension at the old punch bowl.
We all just lived through the Favre-Packers divorce a few years back, and it's hard to top that one for a circus-like quality. But Manning versus Irsay could give it a shot before all is said and done. After all, Irsay is a loose cannon, and Manning seems intent on answering any of the owner's salvos that he deems counterproductive to his future.
While Favre said plenty throughout his acrimonious split with the Packers, imagine if Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson had taken to Twitter or called press conferences to tell the club's whole side of the story. First off, Thompson would rather poke his eyes out than go that route, but trust us when we tell you that Taciturn Ted has never said more on any topic than he intended to. It would have added gallons of fuel to the Favre fire if the Packers had gabbed away, and that's where Irsay is different from any other NFL owner. He likes the fire and the cool way it goes "whoosh'' when you throw more fuel on it.
What we've gotten from it all is a steady drip, drip, drip of news and headlines and statements about Manning and Irsay, or Manning and the Colts, and it started to reach the comical point last Friday when the club put out a statement that really didn't say anything at all, then attached that ridiculous picture from Irsay's Super Bowl party, with Manning, Irsay, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell among those bookended by singer John Mellencamp and actress Meg Ryan. As ProFootballTalk.com so adroitly noted, it looked incredibly awkward, like a divorcing family's last Christmas card. I wonder who gets the dog?
True, Joe Montana left the 49ers with less than warm and fuzzy feelings, the Colts sentenced Johnny Unitas to San Diego without a parade, and Favre's break from the Packers was a daily soap opera. But there still has never quite been a story like this one, with Manning and Irsay already at a point we once could never have fathomed, and every few days bringing a new round of conflicting reports about Manning's rehab progress (noodle arm or returning to a high level? You decide).
The latest tidbit has Manning now working out away from the team facility at Duke University, while everyone else waits for the quarterback and the owner to meet, and for the next cleat to drop. This is a separation, but only an inch at a time.
I think it's almost at the stage where Irsay and Manning need to do us all a favor and just get it over with, announcing their divorce. We're starting to grow weary of the shadow boxing we've watched unfold for weeks now, and it's growing into the winter of our discontent. At least when it comes to No. 18 and his ever-accessible soon-to-be-former boss.
We love Irsay's irreverence, but maybe it's time this story calls for some reverence. Or at least restraint. Pick a time and a place and have the talk. The Big One. And this time, for once, keep it on the lowdown. When you finish, call a press conference, announce a definitive resolution to the situation, and hug it out, no matter what the outcome. Manning and Irsay are going to see each other around the NFL in years to come, so they might as well try to say goodbye on good terms.
This isn't how we thought it would end for Manning in Indianapolis. For now, there will be no happy ride off into the sunset. Blame it on things changing, and stuff happening. The good news? The very end has yet to take place. There's still a little time to put the messiness of the past few months aside and remember the best of Indy's ultra-successful Manning-Irsay era. We know it's time for them to part ways. All that's really left untold in this story is whether they can manage to still part as friends?