INDIANAPOLIS -- Jimmy Irsay sat at his desk on an early August afternoon, reflecting back upon a moment that changed everything.
Above the Indianapolis Colts owner's head, displayed in a glass case, hung one of the most famous instruments of the 20th Century: Jerry Garcia's "Tiger," purchased by Irsay for nearly a million dollars at an auction in 2002. One day before the 19th anniversary of the famed Grateful Dead frontman's death, Irsay was taking a long, not-so-strange trip down memory lane, and it included neither Shakedown Street nor the corner of Haight and Ashbury.
Rather, Irsay was strolling down Peyton Place -- and talking about the decision he made two-and-a-half years earlier that rocked the football world.
When Irsay decided to cut ties with Peyton Manning following the 2011 season and target incoming rookie Andrew Luck as the future Hall of Famer's high-profile replacement, it set in motion a chain of events that reshaped the NFL landscape.
With Manning coming off a career-best, 479-yard passing performance for the Denver Broncos last Sunday, and Luck -- who'll lead the Colts (3-2) into Houston for a Thursday Night Football showdown for first place in the AFC South -- already one of the league's brightest young stars, we might as well revisit one of the more significant gridiron transactions in recent memory.
"No question, it really changed the whole dynamic of the league, if you really look back," Irsay recalled in an interview that took place before he was hit with a six-game suspension for violating the league's Personal Conduct Policy. "When (we released him) and with the coverage of Peyton's free-agency tour and everything, and the teams that were involved ... you know, as soon as that decision happened, the dominoes came and affected the league in such a massive way.
"Because really, you have the great quarterback of the era along with (Tom) Brady, and then you have the new one with Andrew coming in, and then the whole league was virtually reshaped as those dominoes started to fall. And the Broncos had the (Tim) Tebow situation, too. There was so much that happened."
For Irsay, the decision not to pick up Manning's $28 million option bonus and allow him to become a free agent completed an extreme home makeover that included the purging of his longtime top football employee, vice chairman Bill Polian, along with Polian's son and successor as general manager, Chris, and head coach and Manning ally Jim Caldwell. In essence, he was an owner taking back his team.
We could spend a good deal of time talking about how Manning's decision to go to Denver impacted the numerous other teams who pursued but failed to land him, including the San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals and Tennessee Titans. We could also ponder what might have happened had Irsay elected to keep Manning and pass on Luck, especially when you consider the blockbuster trade the Washington Redskins made with the St. Louis Rams for the ability to draft Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III with the second overall pick in April of 2012.
Most pertinently, we can state with reasonable conviction that Manning's relocation from the heartland to the Rockies worked out exceptionally well for his former and current employers. The Broncos, coming off their first Super Bowl appearance since John Elway retired in 1999 after back-to-back championships, earned the AFC's top playoff seed in each of Manning's first two seasons and are off to a 3-1 start in 2014, the only blemish being an overtime defeat to the defending champion Seattle Seahawks. Manning was the runner-up to Adrian Peterson in the 2012 MVP voting and won the award for a record fifth time in 2013, throwing 55 touchdown passes to shatter the NFL's single-season standard.
The Colts, meanwhile, are trying to secure a third consecutive playoff appearance. And Luck, a Pro Bowl participant after each of his first two seasons, has been every bit as good as advertised -- and, coming off a stellar career at Stanford, he was billed as perhaps the biggest can't-miss quarterbacking prospect since Manning in 1998.
Luck's legend grew last January when he engineered one of the greatest comebacks in NFL postseason history, rallying the Colts from a 38-10 deficit to stun the Kansas City Chiefs, 45-44, in a first-round playoff game -- a recollection that makes Irsay emotional.
"There's such excitement around the team -- our fans are so energized, and they realize how special Andrew is," Irsay said. "And then to have the magic of that Kansas City game. That literally -- and I told the team this in the locker room -- it was one of the greatest wins in franchise history.
"Andrew is just everything as advertised, and more. He is such an amazing young man and is just so focused and talented, and it's such a blessing and such an exciting thing to be around. When you're around Andrew and you kind of get immersed in this new era, it's energizing."
As much as Irsay enjoyed Manning's 13-season run as the Colts' franchise quarterback, during which No. 18 led Indy to a 141-67 record, 11 playoff appearances and two Super Bowls, including a championship in February of 2007, the last act was dreary and draining. With Manning sidelined by neck troubles for the 2011 season, the Colts crumbled in his absence, wheezing to a 2-14 record and, sources say, enduring an unbecoming string of internal power struggles.
Some of the issues were provoked by Manning himself, who, according to sources familiar with the situation, persuaded some team officials to allow him to conduct unsanctioned workouts late in the season in an effort to push his way back onto the field. Before the Colts' Week 16 game against the Texans, Manning, despite a severely weakened throwing arm, pushed to return to the field -- but only in red-zone situations.
An exasperated Bill Polian told Irsay it was the owner's call, and Irsay played the heavy, informing Manning he was a no-go. (Irsay declined to discuss the specifics of the situation, saying only, "Things had gotten really, really bad.")
By the following week, when the Colts clinched the No. 1 overall draft pick by dropping a 19-13 decision to the Jaguars in Jacksonville, Irsay was convinced that it was time to end the dysfunction.
"When I walked out of the locker room in Jacksonville, after (then-Jags running back Maurice) Jones-Drew stretched for that first down on third-and-4 by the length of a football -- because if he didn't get it, we might have come back to win that game and picked No. 2, and things would have been different -- I was emotional," Irsay said. "And when I got on the team bus after being in the locker room, I just broke down in tears in front of my daughters. Because just the emotion of saying, 'That era's ended.' And I knew in my heart that it was over.
"It was such a deep time of really giving great thought to what had to be done ... and it was really, really hard. It was so hard because no one wants to say the party's over. No one wants to have to be that person. And at the same time, this new era that's dawned has been incredible."
A third of the way through Luck's third season, most people would agree that Irsay made the right call by rebuilding around the young quarterback. At the time, however, there was a legitimate debate about how the owner should handle the unique conundrum that presented itself.
Having already hired a first-time general manager, Ryan Grigson, who in turn picked another rookie, Chuck Pagano, as his head coach, Irsay was inclined to err on the side of starting over. That said, Manning's fate would not be officially resolved for several weeks, and some outside the organization believed Irsay might attempt to work out a restructured deal with the veteran and then draft Luck as his backup and eventual successor. Others urged Irsay to keep Manning and restock his supporting cast by trading the No. 1 overall pick.
In the end, the owner opted for a fresh start.
"It wasn't as easy (as people think)," Irsay said. "Because people debated Luck and Griffin, and then people also said, 'Should you be taking Luck? Can't you reorganize the team around Peyton?'
"But what people really forget is that we really loaded up for the 2011 season, we stressed our salary cap, we kept a lot of veterans and that sort of thing, and we really thought we were gonna make that run. And we knew that even if we did make the run in 2011, that we would have some real tough decisions to make going forward after that. But when Peyton got hurt, obviously, and then things just came apart, it was something where a lot of people didn't realize the type of salary-cap stress that we had, and how we had to go in this other direction.
"It was a very difficult time, and the main thing was, I wanted Chuck and Ryan to kind of be able to come in and to assume the new era without having any weight of dealing with those structural changes. They had a clean slate, so to speak, going forward. That's the responsibility that was on my shoulders."
The clean slate was akin to a Prague Spring: Without Polian's often-overbearing presence and Manning's prickly, suck-the-air-out-of-the-room aura of authority, the vibe has changed drastically at the Colts' training facility. Grigson and Pagano have commanded respect without being autocrats, and Irsay has served as a supportive yet non-meddlesome boss.
The unpretentious, resourceful Grigson, the 2012 NFL Executive of the Year, did a masterful job of transforming the Colts' aging roster -- and the team has exceeded all expectations. Indy was the league's surprise postseason participant in 2012, going 11-5 despite Pagano's prolonged absence while battling leukemia. (His stand-in, then-offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, earned Coach of the Year honors and was hired as the Cardinals' head coach after the season).
The Colts were even better in 2013; among their biggest victories was a 39-33 triumph over the then-undefeated Broncos in Manning's return to Indy last Oct. 20. Manning prevailed in last month's rematch in Denver, with the Broncos earning a 31-24 victory on the first Sunday night of the regular season.
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In an NFL world replete with snap judgments and Monday morning quarterbacking, Irsay's decision to part with Manning and turn to Luck has been almost universally heralded as the rare win-win transaction.
"It worked out like Peyton and I both hoped, and how everyone hoped," Irsay said. "He found a team that was outstanding and was able to have his greatest season and all those things. And we were able, with Ryan and Chuck and Bruce Arians, to be able to have a winning season and a playoff season so quickly, and we've built on that and now get to embrace some big expectations. It's really beautiful."