INDIANAPOLIS -- As the Peyton Manning saga inches towards a conclusion, optimism quietly is emerging that the quarterback will be ready for the 2012 season.
Following comments made by Jeff Saturday last weekend during NFL Network's coverage of the combine -- the Colts center said, "He'll be playing football, I can assure you that" -- three sources with knowledge of Manning's rehab said that he's improved steadily in recent weeks in regaining strength in his grip and triceps, the two areas weakened by nerve damage.
The result has been heightened throwing strength, though the rate of improvement, a key in all of this, is unclear. But it's been enough to have those around the quarterback convinced that he'll be ready to play in 2012. One source said Manning "feels good" about where he is in the recovery process.
Manning has staged his most recent workouts in South Florida, where he has an offseason home. He worked out near Duke University earlier in the offseason as well, with David Cutcliffe, his offensive coordinator as a collegian at Tennessee, overseeing the sessions. The quarterback has tried to work with different people over the past two months, in order to have more opinions on how he can improve.
Manning is due a $28 million option bonus on March 8, and the Colts have been deliberate in their handling of the process. Owner Jim Irsay told the Indianapolis Star last month that he hoped the two sides could "make it work if he wants to be here," though Irsay said a restructuring of the money would be a necessary step to making that happen.
The assumption has been that the Colts will release Manning before March 8, but no final decision has been made yet. Those on each side insist that the final call will be between Manning and Irsay. The two have remained in touch in recent weeks.
The simple fact that Manning has improved, at any rate, is considered to be very good news from a medical standpoint, a strong sign that the nerve regeneration has begun.
"Usually there's a long dormant period, where nothing's happening," one orthopedic surgeon with knowledge of Manning's injury said. "Then, you start to see that improvement. Sometimes, the nerve can be asleep for months, and then you see a flicker, and then accelerated recovery. It's not unusual to see a long dormant period, then the re-nervation period start and go to steady recovery."
He then added, "Once it's significantly improving, the nerve's not going to degenerate again."
The doctor added that once nerve regeneration begins, a rough estimate can be drawn to when a player will return to full strength. There's no guarantee, however, that a player, especially one in his mid-30s, will get all the way back to 100 percent.
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"You can plot the level of function and strength compared to the opposite arm, and plot it out to where he would be based on the current level of improvement on March 8," the surgeon said. "And if that plots out to over 90 percent by Sept. 1, teams would be crazy not to take a shot on him. If it's a slower rate, that's a different story."
One thing that's been certain: Those around Manning are adamant that the Colts legend will do everything in his power to return to form.
Cooper Manning said in January that his younger brother is determined to return, adding that, "What I do know is Peyton is going to do every single thing a human being can possibly do to get ready to play again." And Archie Manning lauded at the time how his son has had a "great attitude" in rehabbing.