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Peyton's Super Bowl game plan is clear
No matter who wins, no matter the final score, there has never been a Super Bowl like this.
And there probably never will be — a championship game in which all storylines concern a man who won't even take the field.
It's all about Peyton, each potential arc in the narrative. On one side you have the Giants of Eli Manning, Peyton's kid brother. The other team is quarterbacked by Tom Brady, Peyton's epic rival. And though the venue is known officially as Lucas Oil Stadium, the House that Peyton Built is more accurate and descriptive.
What's more, it would have been apt to rename The NFL Experience — the league's pregame theme park — The Peyton Manning Experience. This used to be basketball country. But that feels like a long time ago, a generation, at least. All I've seen this week are blue Colts jerseys. There might have been one or two that didn't bear No. 18, but I can't recall.
As the week began, the man himself deigned to issue a series of proclamations in an exclusive interview, and again, it was something only Peyton could do. An exclusive sponsored by Gatorade, really?
"It's well documented how I feel about this city, the fans, the Colts, Jim Irsay," he said, referring to the franchise's owner and, less directly, to the fact that he's made this town his home.
A week ago, Irsay noted, somewhat uncharacteristically, that Manning was behaving like a politician. The Gatorade interview, then, was like a stump speech, with Manning assuring the locals how much he loved them just as the national media came to town.
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As for his relationship with Irsay? "It's always been great," Manning said. "And it will continue to be great, I assure you of that."
To hear Peyton, the Gatorade exclusive was almost a non-story. What really irked him, however, was the focus of the pregame hype. It shouldn't be on him, he said. It should be about Eli and Tom, the Giants and the Patriots.
Methinks he did protest too much. Actually, methinks he's full of it. Any doubts what the Manning camp was angling for, and how the quarterback's operatives were exploiting this Super Bowl venue, should've been dispelled Thursday afternoon. That's when ESPN broadcast another exclusive — a very legit one, mind you — citing two doctors who had cleared Manning to return to football.
The reporters did a great job to break the story. But the timing is more than a little suspicious. This is the same Peyton Manning who didn't want to detract from the game? Really? It was almost like A-Rod's agent leaking details of a new deal during the World Series.
I don't know what it means, exactly, that Manning's "medically cleared." I do know he'll be 36 in March, and he's had three neck surgeries in 19 months. Irsay felt sufficiently boxed in to respond on Twitter early Fridays morning: "Peyton has not passed our physical nor has he been cleared to play for The Indianapolis Colts. Team statement coming on Friday."
In other words, while the muscular and neurological condition of Manning's right arm remain unclear, he's outplayed the owner from the start. This much is sure: Manning's a better politician than Irsay.
There are two facts to consider. First, Peyton has a $28 million signing bonus due March 8. Second, the Colts have the first pick in the draft, a selection that entitles them to Stanford's Andrew Luck.
For each fact, however, there's an erroneous, unquestioned corollary. First, it is assumed that Manning and Luck could not coexist, a point first advanced by Peyton's daddy, Archie.
Nonsense. Nothing should dissuade the Colts from getting Luck. Just the same, there's no good reason he couldn't back up Manning for a while. In fact, it might be good for both of them, not to mention the team and the fans. Aaron Rodgers backed up Brett Favre. Steve Young backed up Joe Montana. If need be, Luck can serve an apprenticeship under the greatest passer in league history.
The kid wants to start? Great. He should want to start. But wasn't this what the whole rookie salary-cap fight was about?
The second unchallenged orthodoxy is this notion of $28 million or bust. This is the NFL right? No contract is forever. No one — not even Peyton Manning — is above renegotiating.
The Colts were even worse than their 2-14 record would suggest. They were an old 2-14. Even if Manning proves football-ready, the $28 million will make it difficult, if not impossible, to rebuild and replenish the roster. Still, there's nothing stopping Manning and Irsay — who claim to love each other so much — from spreading the risk. Negotiate a new bonus. Spread it around. Defer it. Or offer him a new contract, better than he'd get anywhere else.
The point is, if Manning really wants to be a Colt as much as he says, it shouldn't be an insurmountable problem. If he wants all $28 million now, well, that's another story. It might just mean that, despite his declarations, he likes the money more than he likes Indianapolis.
It's worth mentioning that the Patriots' quarterback left some money on the table when he renegotiated his deal in 2005. Manning's main rival didn't want to be the only rich guy on a depleted team.
Oops. My bad. It's Super Bowl week. I don't want to make this about Tom Brady.
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