Three days after Peyton Manning publicly complained about the dour atmosphere at team headquarters following a 2-14 season and a rash of firings, Colts owner Jim Irsay introduced his new coach, then stunned everyone by calling his franchise quarterback a "politician" who had decided to air dirty laundry.
"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 Thursday, referring to the team's longtime 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."
The comments suggest a rift between Manning and Irsay, who's just six weeks away from a March 8 deadline to pay the four-time NFL MVP a $28 million bonus or risk losing him as a free agent. And it all blew up in public on a day when the team wanted the attention focused on new coach Chuck Pagano, who left his job as Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator to take over a team with a host of problems to address.
The biggest question mark of all is Manning, the face of the franchise and the primary reason for its run of success over the past decade. He's clearly upset with the fallout of the Colts' dismal season in which he never played a down after Sept. 8 neck surgery -- his third such procedure in a span of 19 months.
"I have so much affection and appreciation for Peyton. I mean, we're family. We always will be, and we are," Irsay said. "He's a politician. I mean look at, when it comes to being competitive, let's just say on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest, we're both 11s, OK? So there's been plenty of eggshells scattered around this building by him with his competitive desire to win."
La Canfora: Where will Peyton go?
The Colts' horrendous season means they landed the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, which Irsay has said he will use on his quarterback of the future -- presumably Stanford's Andrew Luck. If so, Irsay must decide how much money he wants to invest in one position since Manning signed a five-year, $90 million contract in July and is also due the bonus.
Irsay reiterated Thursday what he has said all along, that his choice will come down to Manning's health, not money.
"I think fans already understand that," Irsay said when asked if Manning might have played his final game in Colts blue. "This isn't an ankle, it isn't a shoulder. Oftentimes, the NFL is criticized for putting someone out there at risk, and I'm not going to be doing that. I think he and I just need to see where his health is because this isn't about money or anything else. It's about his life and his long-term health."
Not surprisingly, Pagano wants Manning on his roster, although it's Irsay's decision to make.
"I just came from a great organization and just spent some time with one of the greatest leaders (Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis) to ever play this game," Pagano said. "And there's one of those leaders right here (Manning) and those are the types of individuals and people that you have to surround yourself with."
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press