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When it comes to Manning, the future is impossible to predict

It wasn't a newspaper columnist who said it. Or a fan. Or a coach. Or even his wife.

Seven weeks after Joe Montana underwent surgery to repair a serious, career-threatening back injury in 1986, the quarterback's own orthopedic surgeon said Montana would be "crazy" to return to the football field ever again.

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Believe it or not, they didn't even need Twitter to create a mini-firestorm from those comments. Despite wonders at the time regarding the context of the doctor's sentiment -- it now sure looks like the doctor meant anyone who played football at all was "crazy" -- some folks just didn't want facts getting in the way of a good story.

See, Peyton Manning? It's cool! The world has always been impatient and overreactive! We're pretty sure people were even calling for Henry VIII to retire in 1536 after suffering a leg injury in a jousting accident -- and he reigned 11 more seasons.

Looking back on Montana's instance, at least, we are afforded the ability to flip to the next page and learn the fate of the 49ers' great. He played far sooner than anyone expected, returning that same season and later in his career winning two more Super Bowls.

The lesson here, as it pertains to Manning, isn't that he's destined for a successful comeback from neck fusion. It isn't to suggest he's even going to comeback at all. Instead, it is to suggest that we all need to stop trying to flip the page when it has yet to be written.

Over the last several weeks, we've heard it all: Manning will sign with the Dolphins. ... No, he should go to the Redskins. ... How about the Cowboys? ... Or the 49ers? ... Or maybe Michael Vick could run the Wildcat and Manning could start in Philadelphia!

Let's hope, for the sake of sanity, these are nothing more than ice breakers for people with too little to talk about. If that's the case, keep on trucking. Nothing wrong with a little bar-stool banter. But please, whatever you do, leave any level of conviction out of the conversation.

How can anyone possibly believe Manning is the answer for his/her team at this point? Then again, how can anyone say he won't eventually get there?

As much as we want to dissect the possibilities for Manning's future, we simply don't have the necessary facts to do so. It's nothing we didn't already learn in eighth-grade math class. As frustrating as it might have been, without the proper input, the graphic calculator would come back with one crappy answer: Error.

An admission: On Thursday, knowing Manning met up with his old coach, David Cutcliffe, on Duke's campus, I flew to Durham, N.C., hoping I could find Manning and watch him throw some passes. I was unsuccessful for a number of reasons, one of which was that Manning apparently threw in a private indoor facility.

Our desire to make the trip, though, was simple: If this conversation is going to lead us anywhere, we need something of substance to lean on. Some valid evidence -- not just second-hand voices -- to help indicate Manning's ability less than a month before the Colts need to decide whether to keep or cut him.

But even if we'd gotten a few passes recorded onto my camera, would that even be a fair assessment of Manning's worth? Maybe right now. But the 2012 season isn't starting right now. Regardless of any current indicators, Manning deserves the opportunity to make a full recovery before his future prospects are assessed.

With teams needing to make some important decisions at the quarterback spot, there will soon come a time when the margin to provide such proof will have significantly slimmed. We just aren't there yet.

Surely, as we all impatiently await Manning's fate, we can at least use the game's own recent history to provide reasons why we should all chill out. Montana's comeback in 1986 is one example. More recently, Chad Pennington's comeback in 2008 is another.

Pennington didn't sign with the Dolphins until Aug. 8, 2008. Yet he picked up the offense, managed the team's talent -- and led Miami to an AFC East title and the best turnaround in NFL history.

Although Pennington recently told the *Palm Beach Post* he thinks Manning's neck injury makes his chances for a return far riskier than Pennington's previous returns, none of us are equipped to know exactly where Manning's neck stands at this point.

We do know this: Manning is among the most talented, most intelligent people to play the game. Nobody needs less time to grasp a new offense than the future Hall of Famer. And at the end of each NFL season, a Comeback Player of the Year is named.

In every one of those instances, we could have never projected the fate of any of those honorees one year earlier. That, after all, is the point of the award. Sports is full of inspiring stories, and it's possible Manning will become one of them.

We just don't know yet.

In the coming weeks, some teams needing a quarterback will face very tough decisions with Manning in the back of their minds. Should they invest in a quarterback like Matt Flynn during free agency or draft a prospect with an early pick? Or should they wait to see how Manning's health improves?

That's a quandary that deserves some serious consideration. But it isn't one anyone can answer with a definitive tone. Not until we give Manning more time to fully heal. Not until more pages of this book has been written.

A doctor told Montana he'd be "crazy" to ever play again -- and Montana still succeeded. So what's going to happen with Manning? We'd all be crazy if we acted like we knew for sure.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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