If you haven't been paying attention to the signals owner Jim Irsay has been sending with his comments over the past few months -- and trust me, people I've been talking to have -- Manning's extensive interview with the Indianapolis Star makes it abundantly clear.
Manning is now a stranger in a familiar land; a stranger in the very stadium he built. The coaching staff and front office have been blown out, and while Peyton's been watching everything unfold from inside team headquarters, he's still completely cut off from it all. It's not his franchise anymore. The Colts, as I've been writing and talking about for months, are going in a very different direction.
Here is what Manning told Indy Star columnist Bob Kravitz about the environment around team headquarters these days: "I'm not in a very good place for healing, let's say that. It's not a real good environment down there right now, to say the least. Everybody's walking around on eggshells. I don't recognize our building right now. There's such complete and total change."
Everything Irsay has said and done since the final month of a 2-14 season indicates this franchise is gutting the team and rebuilding. Irsay is fully in charge after firing the Polians, and he is going to draft a quarterback first overall. Andrew Luck is clearly the most likely candidate, but the Colts will take a hard look at Robert Griffin III, as well.
No longer are the Colts one player -- or sometimes even one play -- from a Super Bowl. Not even close. And some of Manning's closest friends and teammates, like center Jeff Saturday and receiver Reggie Wayne, could very well be on their way out. Irsay needs to get his budget and salary cap in order after years of being near the very top of the league in payroll. Following the failure of 2011, a total recalibration is in order. And those helping Irsay with the decisions, like rookie general manager Ryan Grigson, have no ties to Manning whatsoever. Other general managers have seen this coming, and it's reached a point where execs around the league I speak to would be much more surprised by Manning staying in Indianapolis than moving on, or simply retiring at some point.
The bottom line is the Colts still don't have a clear picture of Manning's medical situation and his future in the league. And the reality is, they likely won't gain much more clarity by March 8 (the deadline for Manning's $28 million option). After paying Manning $20-odd million this year to essentially rehab from surgery, taking another leap of faith is a lot to ask -- especially with the NFL-ready Luck sitting right there in the draft. Facilitating a trade at this point would be quite tricky, as Manning's option is due before the official beginning of the league year, and thus before the trading period begins. And the Colts wouldn't get the kind of compensation Manning's body of work would demand, anyway. No, what's most likely to happen is Irsay and the future Hall of Famer will sit down -- probably sometime between the Super Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine -- and candidly talk about what makes sense for all parties. Taking everything into account, the best solution appears to be an amicable split, allowing Peyton to hit the free agent market.
As much as Peyton still talks about his love for Indianapolis -- and playing for one team his entire career -- staying with this franchise doesn't add up for him, either (contract aside, perhaps). The Colts must restock a weak offensive line. They lack a powerful run game. They can't stop anyone on defense. And how awkward would it be to see Manning competing with a rookie for snaps? Not to mention, he may have to grasp a completely new system with a new coaching staff in place. Is this really what Manning wants at this stage of his career, after all he has accomplished?
Peyton's all about winning, and the Colts just don't have the makeup of a contender anymore. Even if Manning returns to health -- a big if, at this point -- would Indy really be back to hanging with the Patriots, Ravens and Steelers among the AFC elite in 2012? Not likely. Which brings us to potential landing spots for Peyton in free agency.
Mayock: Top draft prospects
We've reported in the past that other general managers and executives identified Arizona and Seattle as places that Manning would be interested in. Both teams could obviously use an upgrade at the quarterback position, and both have rising young defenses, along with run games that made strides this season. The Cardinals have a game-breaking receiver in Larry Fitzgerald, and Sidney Rice can be a weapon in Seattle if he can just stay healthy. Both teams are in a division that has traditionally been weak (though the rise of the Niners changes that a bit). And just like Peyton's current home, neither city has an overwhelming media presence. The Seahawks have been a heavy spending team. The Cards? Well, not so much. Getting out of Kevin Kolb's contract wouldn't be a problem, but would the Bidwills be willing to step up for No. 18? It's worth noting that Manning has gotten to know Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt at Pro Bowls over the years and they share a mutual admiration.
For all the hype you will undoubtedly hear about some other quarterback-needy teams -- like the Redskins, Dolphins and Jets -- let's not forget who would be calling the shots in free agency: Manning. He'd dictate which team or situation makes the most sense for him, and he's earned the right to be picky.
Washington's offensive line is every bit as bad as Indy's and the roster is deprived of skill players. The Redskins also have a history of turmoil and instability. And don't forget, in the NFC East, he'd be facing little brother Eli twice a year. I don't see it, and execs I talk to expect Washington to make a move for St. Louis' No. 2 overall slot in the draft, and select whichever quarterback doesn't go first overall (at this point, it looks like Griffin).
As for the Dolphins, it's hard to look at their recent track record and project them to win a Manning sweepstakes. They never seem to get their man. They didn't land Jim Harbaugh a year ago, could not pull off a trade for Kyle Orton in preseason and then missed out on Jeff Fisher a few weeks back. Though Miami boasts a defense with bite and some receivers, I'm not sure Manning lands there with a rookie head coach in Joe Philbin. (Having free agent quarterback Matt Flynn follow Philbin over from Green Bay probably makes more sense, anyway).
Remember this, as well: If Manning is a free agent and can't pass a physical in March, how long can any team be willing to wait? Quarterback is the most essential position in the NFL. Flynn, for instance, is going to sign somewhere within the first week of free agency. Can you sit that one out and wait on Manning? He might still be in medical limbo come late April. Would a team pass on drafting a quarterback high and hope the nerves fully regenerate?
The timing could end up being quite a challenge for all parties. And in the end, Manning just might end up being prophetic in an ironic sense when he speaks of his desire to play for only one team. If spring rolls through and he cannot play and the Colts have clearly moved on, the specter of retirement could loom large. Indianapolis could remain his home. If his playing days are done, Irsay will undoubtedly be willing to create a position for Manning as a coach, front office exec or ambassador.
Maybe Rob Lowe will end up being right, after all.