Peyton Manning will finish his NFL career as one of the most prolific passers and field generals to ever play the game. He's a surefire Hall of Famer if he never plays again. But Manning is at a crossroads in his career, and maybe in his life. Should he play football again? Should the Colts put him back on a field? Should the Colts wait to find out if he's healthy? Can everyone take the emotion out of this decision? Money may drive the March 8 decision, but what drives the future of Peyton Manning?
What is the first decision?
Manning does not control the first decision that has to be made -- Jim Irsay and the Colts do. When I wrote contracts for the Jets, we used "triggers" or drop-dead dates to force an early decision on the future of a player. March 8 is an interesting date because it precedes free agency. The club will have to make a decision on Peyton before the start of the new year. The Colts may want Peyton to take their physical before the 8th, which I doubt he will do. What benefit would he gain from failing Indy's physical? The team would want to show its fan base that Manning simply isn't ready. At any rate, I believe the Colts and Peyton will part ways.
The Colts could ask him to push back the date of the March 8 payment of $28 million and buy time to see if his nerve regeneration improves dramatically. That option is unrealistic, considering Manning will want guarantees in that option or why keep himself off the free-agent market?
Manning could announce his retirement from football on March 7, thereby enshrining himself as a lifelong Colt. He wouldn't be the first high-profile player to weigh all his options and realize, "It's time." The club has already paid him legacy money with the 2011 contract without first requiring him to pass a physical, but they still might be interested in some form of reward for this whole thing to end in a dignified manner. The problem with the retirement ending is the Colts retain his rights as a reserved retired player and that would prevent Peyton from a change of heart down the road.
The most unlikely scenario is a trade. Manning's contract is too big for a realistic trade with his health issues, but a team could ask for permission to ask agent Tom Condon if Peyton would be willing to restructure. This is a longshot: I don't believe Manning's parting gesture to the Colts will be to get them draft compensation for his long and storied career.
Could history hold the clues?
Ten notable quarterbacks decided to walk away from Hall of Fame careers with one team, rather than bounce around the league as a hired gun. Some had real medical issues near the end of their playing days and were smart enough to get out before things got worse. Others realized they did all they could do in the game and got on with the next phase of their lives. Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Dan Fouts, Otto Graham, Bob Griese, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Bart Starr and Roger Staubach all valued the idea of one team for their whole career, even though a number of them told me they were tempted to try one more time with another team. They made the right choice. Lenny Dawson really belongs on the list, too -- having spent the real bulk of his career with Kansas City -- but he also represents how dangerous the game could be for Peyton if he decided to stay on the field this late in his career. In Lenny's last three years in Kansas City he was sacked once every eight pass attempts.
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He could also look to the HOF quarterbacks who finished on the road for another team. None ever won a Super Bowl with his last team. Joe Montana came the closest by getting to the conference championship in the first of his two years in Kansas City, but was it really worth it to go 19-10 as a Chief, throwing 35 touchdowns to 20 interceptions and getting sacked 39 times? That was the high end: At the other end were Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas, who each started just four games with new teams. Warren Moon had a fine career in Houston after his early days in Canada, and he played well for the Vikings after leaving the Oilers. But in seven years with three different teams (Minnesota, Seattle, and Kansas City), he got to one playoff game and lost. As mobile as Moon was, in his last five years he only started 33 games and was sacked 76 times. For guys in Peyton's age bracket with an injury history, the hits and sacks can mount fast.
Is it better to walk away?
Manning has young children and a wife to think about. He has a legacy to consider and of course he has tons of opportunities off the playing field. He will probably turn to his father, Archie. After a long run in New Orleans, the senior Manning tried to finish his career on the road in Houston and Minnesota. In his first start as a Viking, he was sacked 11 times in 35 pass plays. I enjoy talking with Archie, and he will offer Peyton great advice about the direction he should take. Someone fairly close to Peyton told me a few months ago that Peyton has some genuine interest in doing Southeastern Conference games for CBS someday, and that someday could be sooner than we think.
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Manning hasn't thrown a pass in a real game since Jan. 8, 2011, and it would be at least 20 months between his last competitive throw and his next one. He will be 36 years old, and things change. His body strength, arm strength, reaction time and potentially a whole new cast of characters to play with could make things tough.
I don't think he can stand on the sidelines like HOF QB Sonny Jurgensen did in his last four years (only 13 starts). No team is going to give him the kind of contract he has played under in Indianapolis. I don't believe Peyton wants to finish his career on a deal that doesn't make sense to him.
What comes next?
Teams that need to have internal discussions about Manning probably include the Redskins, Cardinals, Dolphins, Broncos, Browns and Seahawks. When USC's Matt Barkley decided to stay in school for 2012, it hurt the teams hoping to find their quarterback in the draft. Only one team is getting Matt Flynn from the Packers. That leaves a number of clubs scratching their heads about who will lead them to the promised land, put people in the seats and maybe save a head coach's job.
I remember when the Texans claimed Tony Boselli from the Jaguars in the expansion draft and unfortunately he never played a down. No team can afford to give Peyton Manning lots of guaranteed money until they know he can play. For those who think his age is a factor, keep in mind Vinny Testaverde made $26 million in the NFL after his 36th birthday. Age isn't the issue for Peyton Manning -- health is. And the money will be there if he's healthy.
If Peyton is released, he really needs to go into hiding until the nerve regeneration issue is significantly improved. The offseason program doesn't start until April 16 and he can't afford to take a physical and fail. That kind of news would spread like wildfire.