Peyton Manning’s increasingly thorny relationship with the Indianapolis Colts — will owner Jim Irsay pay $28 million to retain his injured four-time NFL MVP quarterback? — threatened on Monday to strip the spotlight completely from Manning’s Super Bowl XLVI-playing brother Eli, who arrived in town with the NFC champion New York Giants.
That’s because Peyton, his status for 2012 and an ongoing public squabble with Irsay over whether the Colts will invest that $28 million option bonus on March 8 to ensure their beloved Manning remains in Indianapolis, was the hot-button topic at a Super Bowl XLVI kickoff news conference Monday afternoon with the host committee.
Peyton Manning has indicated in several recent interviews that myriad changes within the Colts’ organization make the environment uncomfortable for him as he rehabilitates from what could be career-ending neck surgery. The franchise, which finished an NFL-worst 2-14 in 2011, has endured a rash of firings and has hired a new coach, Chuck Pagano, and a new general manager, Ryan Grigson, in the last few weeks.
The Colts already have indicated a willingness to consider selecting Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Over the past two days, Irsay has denied a report that he decided “weeks ago” to release Manning sometime in February, and he told ESPN that the quarterback’s future with the Colts is a “health issue,” not a money issue. A Yahoo! report late Monday cited sources as saying that Manning’s rehabilitation from surgery has plateaued and that the slow rate of healing indicates he will not play again.
Manning, who is coming off three neck surgeries — the most recent on Sept. 8 — did not play in 2011 but made about $18 million this past season.
Irsay also said he cannot afford to make major financial decisions on a sentimental basis. “This is not a knee, not a shoulder or an ankle. This is a neck,” Irsay said on Sunday. “It’s my responsibility as an owner to make sure that if I’m going to put a player back on the field, that it’s in his best interest.”
“This isn’t fantasy football.”
It sure sounded like it on Monday, when Irsay — appearing with Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard and members of the Super Bowl XLVI Organizing Committee — all gushed over what Peyton Manning has meant to the city, the success of the Colts’ franchise and to the construction of Lucas Oil Stadium, the site of the Super Bowl.
“Peyton and I talked, and it’s something where, when you guys (media) are going to ask a Peyton question, I was going to say, ‘Why don’t you ask Mitch about his presidential run?’” joked Irsay, adding that he doesn’t regret the timing of the war of words with the Colts’ signature player.
“No, I think you try to balance the line,” Irsay said of his remarks in recent days. “Obviously the media has been very hungry for comments and those sorts of things. There’s great interest here in Indianapolis.
“You know Peyton and I, in talking this weekend and everything, we want the focus to be on the game. He’s excited about Eli and having his whole family coming in, and hosting the game. And that’s where the focus should be. Obviously it’s a story that has a lot of interest but we’re going to go about this week with that focus in mind.”
Manning’s impact on the Colts’ being elite enough to not only build a world-class NFL stadium but to play host to a huge event such as the Super Bowl, dominated the conversation among the event’s organizing leadership.
Gov. Daniels said Manning’s influence helped turn the city and state from a basketball-focused fanbase to one that celebrates the NFL just as fiercely.
“Peyton Manning and Jim Irsay are obviously two of the most important figures in the world of professional football,” Daniels said. “He’s the finest quarterback we’ve ever seen and as far as I know, the finest owner you could hope for.
“But everyone needs to know they are equally great citizens. They’re involved in all kinds of public things all the time, and they have been role models for other citizens and leaders.”
Mayor Ballard, who confessed to be a Baltimore Colts fan in his younger days, said, “to have Peyton come in here and be so special, and to be the great guy that he is in the community — he really is a wonderful, caring guy who does so much for this city and this state. We’re just lucky to have him.”
Ballard also praised Irsay’s ownership and what he’s done for the community.
Still, the specter of Irsay’s harsh words in regard to Indiana’s cherished quarterback continues to hang over the host city.
After Manning voiced his concerns last week about the new direction of the franchise and his future with it, Irsay fired back at his quarterback for going public.
"I don’t think it’s in the best interest to paint the horseshoe in a negative light, I really don’t," Irsay told reporters over the weekend, referencing the team’s helmet logo. "The horseshoe always comes first, and I think one thing he’s always known, because he’s been around it so long, is that, you know, you keep it in the family. If you’ve got a problem you talk to each other, it’s not about campaigning or anything like that."
Manning will become an unrestricted free agent if he is not paid the $28 million option bonus on March 8. Irsay says he has “great loyalty” to Manning and will not trade him, but also says he will make a decision based on what is best for the franchise long-term.
Regardless, “You dream about having a player like (Peyton),” Irsay said Monday. “You’re so blessed to have someone to come in and really be such a part of the community, part of the golden era that allowed us to win so much and everything like that.
“Eventually there will be the (Manning) statue, and there will be all those things. And look, he and I have been through a lot of battles together. You know, we’re very close. Some of the things that get out there — there’s probably a misconception because we’re family.
“We give each other flak. We’ve given each other flak through the years because I don’t have to tell all you guys about it — he’s competitive. And so am I. But I love him, and what he’s meant to the franchise.”
Super Bowl XLVI week, Irsay said, owes a great deal to Peyton Manning.
“He such a big part of that. He’s everything you dream about as an owner, in terms of getting that of player,” Irsay said. “So I’ve just been blessed with all the things that he has done for the franchise over the years.”
Eli Manning, who arrived in town with his Giants’ teammates Monday afternoon, said he hasn’t really thought much about his second career Super Bowl being held in the city that his brother made so famous.
“I really have not thought much about playing in Indianapolis. It’s not really a time to reflect right now on that," Manning said. "It’s just a matter of trying to get ready for the Patriots and get ready to play this game, and get ready for their defense. We’ll look back on the fact of playing in the Super Bowl in the town where he plays for the Colts. We’ll look on that later.”