The Indianapolis Colts’ offseason plan is now crystal clear — discard the remnants of a crumbled NFL dynasty to lay groundwork for a new one.
Step One: Fire the top football executives.
Step Two: Can the head coach.
Step Three: Cut the franchise quarterback to pave the way for his replacement.
The latter hasn’t happened yet, but it’s assuredly coming. Peyton Manning’s contract dictates the Colts must wait until March before they can officially say adieu.
Don’t be fooled by new general manager Ryan Grigson’s proclamation that Tuesday’s decision to fire head coach Jim Caldwell isn’t tied to Manning’s eventual fate. It’s naïve to believe Manning’s future is “something that has not been discussed” internally, as Grigson proclaimed during a news conference. That would require one to believe the topic wasn’t broached during Grigson’s recent job interview with Colts owner Jim Irsay.
Trust me: They didn’t spend hours dissecting the rock 'n' roll song lyrics Irsay quotes on Twitter.
If the Colts wanted to make one last push for a Super Bowl title with Manning under center, they would have kept as much continuity as possible heading into next season. Manning was comfortable with the niche he carved. He played a large part in constructing the weekly game plan and then usually executed it splendidly.
Manning was as close to a player/coach as the NFL had — and Caldwell knew better than to mess with success.
Indianapolis’ next head coach is also expected to have close ties to his quarterback. Only that passer will be Andrew Luck. Although he’s backpedaling now, Irsay has previously admitted the Colts are essentially a lock to choose the Stanford University quarterback with the No. 1 pick in April’s draft.
Manning was selected in the same draft slot in 1998. He exceeded the lofty expectations that came with such status. He brought the Colts to unprecedented heights after the franchise left Baltimore for Indianapolis in the mid-1980s. Irsay secured public support for the building of Lucas Oil Stadium and the subsequent honor of Super Bowl XLVI largely because of the success that came under Manning’s reign.
In a perfect world for Irsay, the 2011 Colts would have become the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium. Manning would have continued his assault on the NFL record books while starting to earn every penny of the five-year, $90 million contract he signed in July.
When that deal was finalized, Irsay said Manning would remain with the franchise “for a long time.” That “long time” will end up being eight months.
As much as Irsay’s heart may tell him otherwise, expect him to listen to his head. It makes no sense to keep Manning when a massive franchise overhaul is already under way, especially since he is due a $28 million roster bonus if still with the team on March 8. Manning’s uncertain medical prognosis — he underwent three neck surgeries in a 19-month span, and full recovery at age 35 is dicey — seals the deal.
The only task remaining for Irsay is formulating a way to avoid a Green Bay/Brett Favre fiasco by letting Manning leave the franchise as gracefully as possible.
This course was chosen when Irsay cut ties with the Polians — Bill and Chris — the day after Indianapolis’ disastrous 2-14 season ended. Bill Polian had constructed the roster that led to a decade-plus of Colts’ prosperity. He had handed some of the executive responsibilities to son Chris, who was promoted to general manager in 2009 when Bill assumed a vice president’s role.
Once Manning was lost for the 2011 campaign, the Polians’ touch was exposed as being not so golden in recent years.
Bill Polian has stated that he was fired for not having a better backup plan at quarterback. While there is some truth to that — Kerry Collins and Curtis Painter were a disaster — Manning’s absence exposed the roster flaws he was able to cover. A string of early-round draft busts such as wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez, defensive end Jerry Hughes, running back Donald Brown and tackle Tony Ugoh helped cripple a small-market club that isn’t a major player in free agency.
Caldwell couldn’t rise above this mess with his coaching. While he deserves credit for guiding Indianapolis to a near-perfect season in 2009 and Super Bowl XLIV berth, Caldwell also must shoulder the blame for failing to design schemes to help the Colts compensate for Manning’s absence. The Colts began the season 0-13 and never even held a lead during most of those losses.
Just like Favre finishing his career with the Minnesota Vikings or Tim Tebow winning a playoff game, anything is possible in the NFL. That means Manning could remain with the Colts. But rather than waste space speculating about Manning defying the odds and returning to Indianapolis, let’s address two questions more grounded in reality.
Who will be the Colts’ next head coach, and where will Manning play next provided he is medically cleared to return?
Recently fired St. Louis head coach Steve Spagnuolo reportedly met with Grigson earlier this week to discuss a defensive coordinator position. If he isn’t considered to replace Caldwell, Grigson’s history in Philadelphia’s scouting department could lead to another coach with Eagles ties (Marty Mornhinweg?) getting a close look.
A healthy Manning will be in high demand, especially by franchises with head coaches desperate to win now, like Mike Shanahan (Washington), Rex Ryan (New York Jets), and whatever poor schmo gets hired by the Miami Dolphins to work with bumbling team owner Stephen Ross and overmatched general manager Jeff Ireland. If Manning landed elsewhere and regained his spot among the league’s other elite quarterbacks, even more pressure will be placed on Luck to fill the shoes of a future Hall of Fame selection.
That leads to Step Four of this rebuilding process for Irsay and the Colts: Pray that severing ties with the past was the right move.