Five years ago, Jim Irsay tearfully told Indianapolis that his franchise’s greatest player, Peyton Manning, would always be a Colt.
The question now is, will Manning remain just a loyal alumnus?
On Saturday, after three weeks of deliberation, Irsay pulled the trigger and fired GM Ryan Grigson, who’d been hired a few months before Manning departed to lead the Colts into the post-Manning era. And that put the Indianapolis spotlight back on the man who played 14 seasons of his illustrious 18-year NFL career in Indiana.
NFL sources believe Manning has a job waiting for him with the Colts if he wants it, and he’s well aware of that. Should Manning decide to come on board, he’d likely have a title in akin to Executive Vice President of Football Operations and play a role similar to the one that John Elway accepted with the Broncos in 2011. (That role has, of course, evolved since; Elway is also the Broncos’ GM now.)
At the press conference announcing the dismissal of Grigson, Irsay conceded that he’d discussed the idea of Manning coming aboard with the former Colt, but said that, at this point, he doesn’t see him doing so. For now, Jimmy Raye III, VP of football operations, will be the acting GM. Irsay says the team plans to run a thorough GM search.
There are several factors to consider here from Manning’s end. One, he doesn’t do anything halfway. If he goes in, he’s doing it with both feet, and that would mean an end to the retirement he’s enjoyed thoroughly over the last year. Two, he and his family very much enjoy living in Colorado. Three, he’d likely have options if he waits, as it seems he will now—and this one wouldn’t necessarily go away.
That said, those around Manning have believed since he retired that this type of job is where his second career would likely lie. Coaching, in the eyes of most who know him, isn’t quite big enough for the businessman in Manning. TV wouldn’t satisfy the competitive juices that still course through his veins. Ownership, one day, is possible as part of a consortium. But for now, running a football operation would seem to fit him well.
First, he knows the job. He loves the personnel and scouting gossip. In his years in the NFL, Manning kept close track of everything that went on in pro football. The draft. Free agency. He knew who the up-and-coming coaches were, and he was up to speed on f the risers on the scouting side as well.
In a way, his total immersion in the game as a player would lay the groundwork for the job of running a team. Plus, during his four years in Denver he got to observe Elway—his peer in more ways than one—do that job.
Of course, a former player returning in such a capacity isn’t without its potential pitfalls (How would you fire him if he wasn’t great? How will he deal with those he has existing relationships with?) Conversely, with experience as the Colts’ most important employee for 14 years, Manning has a unique perspective on how the entire operation is run, and how to deal with his bosses, most notably Irsay himself.
When assessing the prospect, one source in Denver said, “There’d honestly be no one better.”
Of course, there’s no guarantee Manning would become another Elway. When Elway arrived in Denver, he knew what he had to learn, and took the time to do it. Plus, projecting candidates into GM roles isn’t that different from projecting players into roles—they’re just projections. Also, Manning is different from Elway in that he is more calculating in his decisions, whereas Elway has always been known for his decision-making instincts.
And of course, Elway had experience running car dealerships and an Arena League team before taking the Denver job 12 years after his retirement as a player.
But is the idea of bringing back Manning a bad one for a Colts team that’s gone sideways the last two years?
It isn’t. He’d be coming in for reasons similar to those that brought Elway back to the Broncos five years ago. Elway had to clean up a culture turned upside down by Josh McDaniels. Manning would have to unify a building that’s been divided. If you knew Manning as a player, you could see his ability to do that.
For now, the answer Manning seems to have given Irsay is no. That said, there’s still time. And the opportunity to do it is still there—if he wants it.
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