Irsay’s head would lead him to Luck

On this matter, Jim Irsay didn’t dawdle.

Less than 24 hours after a 2-14 season mercifully ended, the Indianapolis Colts owner decided that Bill Polian — the architect behind his franchise’s era of prosperity and two most recent Super Bowl appearances — needed to go. The same for Polian’s son Chris, who was overseeing personnel decisions as general manager.

Irsay’s concise explanation for the firings: “It was difficult, it was time and it was the right decision to make.”

The NFL now waits to see whether Irsay is thinking along the same lines with Peyton Manning.

The 500-pound pink elephant was doing a Victor Cruz salsa dance during Irsay’s Monday news conference at team headquarters. Asked about his star quarterback’s future with the Colts, Irsay said no conclusions will be made until Manning receives a full medical diagnosis. Manning missed the entire season after undergoing his third neck surgery in a 19-month span.

“The key thing for me has always been, particularly since the (spinal) fusion, is it safe for him to go on the field?” Irsay said. “Is it something where he is healthy enough to resume his career, to play at a high level but also be in harm’s way in the physical game that we have?

“What he means to the franchise, what he means to the Colts and the league, (his health), to me, always has been the most important decision.”

Irsay’s choice would be cut-and-dried if Manning isn’t cleared to play again or decides that the long-term health risks are too great to continue at age 36. But if Manning is given the go-ahead, making the final call on whether he returns in 2012 will be a far tougher call than pink-slipping the Polians.

By media accounts, the working atmosphere inside Colts headquarters under the Polians had become toxic. But the bigger problem was Polian’s inability to conjure the same draft-day magic that helped elevate the 2006 Colts into becoming Super Bowl champions and reaching the championship game again three seasons later.

Polian is a Hall of Fame-worthy general manager. He will always receive credit for sagely choosing Manning over Ryan Leaf with the No. 1 overall pick in 1998. Polian also could still unearth a late-round gem like wide receiver Pierre Garcon in 2008. But the Colts have whiffed on far too many early picks in recent years.

Defensive end Jerry Hughes — a 2010 first-rounder with 12 tackles and one sack in two seasons — has joined a list of busts that includes wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez, tackle Tony Ugoh and running back Donald Brown. No Colts player drafted within the past five years has reached a Pro Bowl, which is a far cry from when Polian was striking gold in the early 2000s with such selections as Dwight Freeney, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark. It’s also disastrous for a franchise structured around building through the draft, re-signing top players to contract extensions and eschewing lucrative free-agent pickups.

The handling of the quarterback position this season helped seal the fate of both Polians. When Manning’s availability came into question in August, Kerry Collins was lured out of retirement with a one-year, $4 million contract. He was 0-3 as a starter before landing on injured reserve with a concussion. The 38-year-old Collins, when healthy, performed just as poorly as Curtis Painter, whose two seasons as Manning’s understudy didn’t translate to competent play. By the time journeyman Dan Orlovsky led the Colts to their only two wins, in December, the Polians were in big trouble.

The next general manager will decide the fate of Colts head coach Jim Caldwell, who deserves just as much blame as the Polians for this year’s collapse. A lack of talent at some positions and a rash of other injuries besides Manning’s still don’t justify failing to take a lead in nine consecutive games or flirting with an 0-16 record.

The next GM also shall have input on how the Manning situation will be handled. Irsay admitted the Colts are in a “rebuilding stage.” The Colts would have an easier time embarking on that mission by releasing Manning before he is slated to earn a $28 million roster bonus on March 8 — which is five days before the start of the free-agent signing period — and spending the money on other positions. A Manning trade is highly unlikely because of his contract structure and the salary-cap hit Indianapolis would take.

Irsay has long displayed loyalty to Manning, proclaiming that he would be a Colt-for-life when he signed him to a five-year, $90 million contract last summer. The fact Manning may still be able to regain his status as one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks further complicates matters.

Saying goodbye also could get Brett Favre ugly if Manning wants to return and cap his NFL legacy by staying with the same team throughout his entire career. But while he has tried to gingerly avoid addressing hypothetical situations, it’s hard to imagine someone as competitive as Manning wanting to spend the final few years of his football career on a long-shot team rather than with a squad that has a better chance to win another Lombardi Trophy now.

The Colts should charge forward with Andrew Luck after choosing the Stanford University prodigy with the top draft pick in April. Keeping both quarterbacks in 2011 — an idea Irsay has publicly floated because of his affinity for Manning — would likely end up doing more harm than good. As reinforced by his performance Monday night in the Fiesta Bowl, Luck is as ready to start in the NFL now as Manning was when he first entered the league in 1998.

Manning was under center from the get-go and never missed a game before this season. The lumps Manning took in his younger days helped lead to quicker NFL success. The model should be the same for Luck, who is considered the league’s most can’t-miss quarterbacking prospect since — you guessed it — Manning.

This won’t be easy, but expect Irsay to soon make the right decision. Irsay should commit to Luck and prepare to move on without Manning — provided he’s thinking with his head and not his heart, like when firing a longtime employee and confidant like Bill Polian.

It’s time.