INDIANAPOLIS -- On the outside of Lucas Oil Stadium downtown, there remains a banner portrait of Peyton Manning, the man most responsible for the impressive structure's presence and the success of the franchise that plays inside it.
Maybe that picture comes down in the next few days. It almost certainly will be replaced by a statue in time.
But for these next few days, what it's most representative of is the awkward dance that the club and its legend have engaged in since the end of the 2011 season. From the verbal jabs during Super Bowl week to the comments of owner Jim Irsay soon thereafter to the emergence of a clandestine video of Manning throwing and throwing well last week, the two parties seem to be going through the stages of grief most associated with a painful breakup.
We're closing in on the endgame. On Thursday, Manning's well-documented $28 million option bonus is due. Irsay has said publicly the uncertainty around the quarterback's health would make it tough to pay, inviting Manning to renegotiate. Manning's health, though, looked less uncertain in that video, which was remarkably well-timed (Whoops! How'd that get out there?), and certainly worked to put the ball back in the Colts' court.
And round and round we go. Most folks expect Manning to be cut before the $28 million bonus comes due. Though no final decision has been made, sources on each side say the final step is up to the quarterback and owner exclusively. Much as they revere each other, the truth is that both sides have spent the past few months moving on from one another. Now, finally, closure is coming.
So where do we stand? Let's go through it ...
How we got here
Peyton Manning had four neck procedures over the course of 19 months, the final three of which came in a four-month span, between May and September of last year. The most recent surgery was a spinal fusion surgery. By December, Manning's neck had healed, but he still needed the nerves to regenerate in his arm, allowing him to rebuild strength in his grip and triceps.
The nerve regeneration was, and is, the big variable in this case. Strength has begun to come back over the past six weeks or so for Manning in those areas. He's been throwing since December, and according to five sources with knowledge of his rehab, the quarterback steadily has improved. There's no guarantee that he'll get back to 100 percent, but doctors say the nerve regeneration can be expected to continue, and will not regress, and his neck will not be an immediate problem going forward.
While those around Manning now seem confident he'll be ready for the 2012 season, the uncertainty of the situation, added to the club's collapse in 2011, prompted Irsay to make wholesale changes. The team fired old standbys Bill Polian and Jim Caldwell, and brought in a first-time GM (Ryan Grigson) and coach (Chuck Pagano). And if that's not enough, they own the first pick in the draft with a player some regard as the best quarterback prospect in a generation (Andrew Luck) available.
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What to expect this week
A few weeks ago, it became abundantly clear that those around each of the principles in this case -- Manning on one side and Irsay on the other -- started to back away from the story. The implication, of course, is that this will be decided by those two men.
One thing that's certain, no matter what happens, is that releasing Manning would not be a simple player transaction. The soon-to-be 36-year-old has meant as much to Indianapolis as an athlete could possibly mean to a city. He's changed the football culture through the state, and helped spark the growth of a sleepy Midwestern city. It's difficult to quantify his impact.
So it's understandable that Irsay would struggle with finding the right form for handling this incredibly delicate spot. Expect to hear murmurs until we get the final word about how maybe, maybe, the Colts and Manning can work it out. And until we hear that final word from Irsay, it's impossible to rule anything out.
But what the past two months have proven, if you examine actions and not just words, is there's a recognition from both parties that this is the right time to move on for everyone. Like some breakups, it's not anyone's fault. This is just the way it worked out. Before the week is out, we could well have a joint press conference with Manning and Irsay to express just that.
What to expect down the road
Presuming things go as expected, the next question that will be asked is: Will someone sign Manning while he's still building the strength back in his arm? Chances are, the answer to that question is yes. And that puts the Miami Dolphins in the catbird seat.
Miami owner Stephen Ross is convinced his team is a quarterback away from serious contention. In selling the team, the Dolphins are pushing a star-driven "Lakers" model. Manning kills two birds with one stone on that, and that's why Ross would likely be willing to assume some risk in acquiring this particular quarterback, who just so happens to have a condo in South Florida.
The Seahawks, Jets, Cardinals and Redskins have done their due diligence as well, and the list of suitors certainly would grow if Manning can prove he's healthier now than he's perceived to be. Manning's presence is looming over so much of the NFL offseason, with some would-be Peyton destination clubs also investigating free agent Matt Flynn and/or a draft trade up for Robert Griffin. All of which means that while March 8 is the end of one story, it'll likely be just the beginning of another in this saga.