Peyton Manning and Jim Irsay agree on one thing: The Manning Era isn’t over in Indianapolis.
Manning said Thursday that he hopes to return to practice yet this year and still holds out hope of playing if doctors say he is finally healed from his Sept. 8 neck surgery. Irsay, the team owner, said he expects the four-time NFL MVP to play at least a few more years at a high level.
There are some big questions looming, however.
The Colts must decide whether to opt out of Manning’s five-year contract or pay a $28 million bonus to keep him on the roster. And if they have a high draft pick next year — the Colts are currently 0-8 — Indy also will have to decide whether to take Manning’s heir apparent, someone like Andrew Luck or Landry Jones.
”It’s something you talk about and scenarios, who could be behind Peyton and how long you want him to sit and how much money you have committed to quarterbacks,” Irsay said. ”I think theoretically, you could have Peyton for two or three more good years and then have someone behind him, but that’s theoretical.”
Manning hasn’t played since having the procedure to repair a damaged nerve that caused weakness in his right throwing arm. It was his third neck procedure in 19 months, a series of surgeries that have caused consternation among Colts fans who wonder if the team’s long run of success is coming to an end.
”I think it’s too early to bury this era,” Irsay said during a 40-minute interview. ”I think to say that Peyton is done and the era is over is, to me, way, way too premature. I’ve always sort of known that era would be decided when Peyton is here. But I don’t feel like that era is done.”
A few hours earlier, Manning made his second impromptu locker room appearance of the season, telling reporters that he’s spending every day in rehab and that he hopes to practice with his teammates in December and play in a game later this season.
But he hasn’t yet been cleared for football activity by the doctors, and there’s no timetable for when he will.
”We’re still waiting for the fusion to take place, it’s still going slow with that and we still have some issues with the nerve and the regeneration of the nerve,” Manning said. ”There’s really not a schedule, a timeline of where I am.”
Doctors who were not involved with Manning’s surgery said it was likely to take two or three months before Indy’s franchise quarterback could make it back to practice, which is consistent with Manning’s latest comments.
Manning said the doctors have limitations on what he can do, and he did not provide details about what he can do in rehab.
Last month, Manning was cleared to stand on the sideline with his teammates during games, a significant move because of the possibility of getting hit inadvertently, and for a couple of weeks he was seen walking briskly around the team’s practice fields.
Without their franchise quarterback, the Colts have struggled mightily, falling to 0-8 for the first time since 1997, and many are wondering whether Manning will be healthy enough to make it back this season — or in the future.
Manning made it clear Thursday he intends to be taking hits as soon as possible.
”I miss playing, I really do. If I get cleared to play and I’m good enough, would I play? Absolutely,” he said. ”I’d love to because that’s how I’m wired, that’s my job and I love my job.
”If the doctor says you can go, then I’d like to do that,” Manning added later.
Last month, a jovial Manning showed up unexpectedly in the locker room and told reporters he would be getting X-rays every four weeks.
He was far more serious Thursday, especially when the line of questioning turned to topics such as drafting Luck or another heir apparent and the future of coach Jim Caldwell. Manning backed his coach, calling him a ”friend” but did his best to disengage from speculation about other topics.
Manning did, however, address his contract status.
The Colts signed Manning to a five-year deal worth $90 million in late July when it looked like he would still be ready to play this season. The $18 million annual average matches New England’s Tom Brady for the richest deal in the league.
”It’s a one-year deal with a four-year extension,” he said. ”Part of the reason to practice is so the Colts have a fair chance to evaluate where I am. The team has a right to know where you are physically and where your health is.”
How close is Manning to being healthy?
Nobody, not even Manning, knows for sure.
”What you want to see is for him to keep making progress, to get back to the point where you can say he’s making all the throws and doing the things he needs to do,” Irsay said. ”The truth is it’s a slow progression and to say that he would hit a ceiling on Dec. 15 or Jan. 1 and he’s not going to get any better, that’s really uncertain. You just don’t know.”
The surgery ended Manning’s streak of 208 consecutive regular-season starts. Indy signed quarterback Kerry Collins to a $4 million deal in August to fill in for Manning, but he wasn’t the answer and is out for the rest of the season with a concussion. Third-string quarterback Curtis Painter has been solid but unable to lead the Colts to a win headed into Sunday’s game against Atlanta.
To Manning, it has all been every bit as frustrating as it is for everyone else.
He’d just like to play.
”I’d say December is the next checkpoint, and February is another checkpoint,” Manning said. ”If I’m at a level where I’m cleared to practice, then the greatest venue to see where you are is on the practice field.”