Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Peyton Manning's Graceful Exit Could Be Good or Bad

They say all good things must end.

Those were the words of the late voice of sports commentator Don Meredith. The strangest ending Peyton Manning ever saw happened after spending 14 seasons as the Colts starting quarterback. Maybe, just maybe it makes sense to part ways with Manning. It comes as no surprise that Colts owner Jim Irsay released the iconic quarterback, uncertain about Manning's short-term and long-term health, and instead has chosen to move forward with QB sensation Andrew Luck, who is potentially his replacement.

That's the advantage of having the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and, if the Colts weren't fortunate to have sole possession of the No. 1 overall pick, then they probably would have decided to keep Manning as a centerpiece in Indianapolis. The decision to divorce Manning was about health, not money. The concern was whether he was healthy enough and, obviously, Irsay had an assumption that he may not have been in good health to play in 2012.

Manning is not a boy wonder, a sensational star, say, as he was maybe 14 years ago when the Indianapolis Colts selected him first overall in the 1998 NFL Draft. He is not a phenomenon rookie, he is a veteran well past his prime. Better yet, he's free to move around the country as of now and could sign elsewhere, with another NFL franchise for a chance to contend for his second Super Bowl ring. A tale of an iconic figure, once the son of the city who brought a sense of euphoria for an organization and community where fans admiringly glorified football and were amazed by Manning, who became the Colts greatest player ever, the ultimate skilled passer -- was enthusiastic about the toughest position in team sports.

There is a children's hospital named after him -- Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent, and Manning is depicted virtually as a role model to children. There are the creations of the $720 million Lucas Oil Stadium, the house he had built and the place that will honor Manning's name, rightfully so, in which fans will always remember the triumphant memories. On this day, Irsay was saddened, like a toddler who had his candy snatched from him, during a news conference that Manning announced farewell and ended a long relationship. The man he employed for over a decade was teary-eyed standing at the lectern before a crowd of reporters and gave an emotional goodbye speech. He had a smile, while he tried with difficulty to hold back tears, while he tried to speak in clarity without mumbling words.

"We both wanted to be together," Irsay said. "It's been very difficult, just tearing at our hearts, to try to look at the best solution."

This in no way usual was personal, but strictly business. If anything, the two men were close friends and had bonded a friendship that was contiguous, but when it comes to running a business, Irsay feels he has to move in a new direction. This might have been, as a team owner, the toughest choice for Irsay, parting ways with the 4-time MVP -- all with the Colts. This was the only team Manning has ever known, and indeed, it was a somber and downcast day. It must have painfully been tough for both men to announce an unsurprising departure.

"Nobody has had it better than I've had it playing for the Indianapolis Colts the last 14 years," Manning said disheartened after such longevity and playing for one team all his career.

The next step for Manning is getting interesting, and much as Colts fans hate to see him depart, Indianapolis is a rebuilding team and the veteran is not in its future plans. Not once did he look disappointed or angry. And it is quite knowing, determined to continue playing elsewhere though he's coming off four neck surgeries, that Manning is considered to be one of the best quarterbacks of all-time. Little by little, he's recovering from his neck and arm injuries but truly wants to win another Super Bowl before his career ends.

He was the star of the Colts, and Irsay said Manning's No. 18 jersey would be retired eventually. It's not surprising that he parted ways with his franchise quarterback. The word was out weeks ago. It figured the Colts would move on and roll the dice with Luck or Robert Griffin III.

"The circumstances," Manning said. "It was the third guy in the talks with us all the time. It wasn't his decision. It wasn't my decision. The circumstances kind of dictated that. It's not what either of us wanted."

This may have been the most classy sports divorce ever, and they each announced it with civility. Maybe Manning will end up in South Beach, as a member of the Miami Dolphins, potentially the next great commodity since the great Dan Marino. It's a goodbye no one ever saw coming, but Manning's release wasn't surprising when it was rumored in recent weeks.

There is now debate and heavy talk over his next destination, awkwardly relieved of his duties after he was the symbol of Indianapolis sports, an iconic athlete everyone adored roughly for laying the foundation of relevance and carrying the Colts essentially to success -- and then, in the end, he gets cut. This has been coming for weeks, an ongoing saga the two sides increasingly gave rise to shortly before Indianapolis welcomed in Super Bowl XLVI. The news is not so surprising, but his exit from Indianapolis was unprecedented and directed professionally with tremendous grace.

"We had good, healthy talks about where everything was, what the circumstances were. It was kind of that circumstances was the third guy in the talks with us all the time," Manning said of their compromise as Friday deadline quickly approached for the Colts to cut him loose or pay a $28-millon bonus.

"It wasn't his decision. It wasn't my decision. Circumstances kind of dictated that. It's not what either of us wanted. It's just kind of the way it worked out to be."

No one knows what can happen, now that he's not a Colt. And no one knows what can happen for the Colts, now that Irsay made it real clear that Manning is done. Goodbye. Thank you. Best of luck. The harsh reality is, Irsay felt his services weren't necessary moving on in the future, focused on rebuilding his team with youth and a robust, rookie quarterback by selecting Luck or Griffin come April. It turns out he was disillusioned to grapple with a miserable 2-14 season and painfully witnessed his Colts, without the injured Manning last season, struggle in a dismal season.

So now, he can rebuild with surefire No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck of Stanford, who has a self-disciplined, challenging effort in replacing a legend of 14 years. At 36 years of age -- his birthday on March 24 -- it's uncertain whether Manning still will be his usual self, a prolific quarterback we all became attached to, embracing and cheering on an American profile, the symbol of pro football. As a general sense, with Manning recovering from ailments that forced Irsay to release his star player, it's not distinguished whether he's the Manning we all know so well. The best-case scenario is that he returns to normalcy and good health to lead a team, call the plays on the field, compile double-digit wins and earn a trip to the playoffs with his new team.

He exposed all of that as a member of the Colts, just achieving more than the average pro quarterback in a league of longstanding publicity and in one community to sell tickets and market its product. Manning is newsworthy of excellence and is an appealing star that fans die to witness. And, although, he's not a Colt, he probably will still, and should be lauded as one of the brightest athletes in American sports.

"There will be no other Peyton Manning. That's something that in a special place and a special time over the last decade and a half we've been so blessed to have him," Irsay sad sadly.

"The good times that we've had together, the laughs we've shared together," Irsay also alluded to, and then somberly broke down in tears. "You know, growing up together in the organization. You know, when a 37-year-old owner met a 22-year-old player coming out of Tennessee and the dreams that we had and experienced are beyond my imagination."

But now, after all of this, he's the most attractive free agent on the market and teams have already expressed interest in the veteran. Though the love and affection were genuine and exquisitely was the most amiable love affair between any player and owner in sports, he now can find a new home potentially in Miami, Kansas City, Arizona, Denver, Cleveland, Seattle or New York Jets, among them.

For reference, it's a factual indicator that a legion of teams are rifling through Manning's resume of 141 win total, a sweeping 399 in career passing touchdowns and 208 career regular-season starts. Couple it all with Manning amazingly reaching 54,828 in passing yards and winning eight division titles. He can put on the kind of exhibit an inferior team without a quarterback has been longing for. We are officially on Manning Watch, weeks of long-lasting debates and, trust me, all the speculations of which team he possibly will end up with won't dematerialize anytime soon until he agrees to a deal with a team.

It would be smart, willing to put his life on the line and take a chance of possibly suffering a life-threatening injury to play the game he truly loves, for him to seek a team in contention. And with his extreme competitiveness, he can likely turn a substandard team into a consistent winner. It's not only much of a business solution, it's having the rights to possess Manning on your team. It's profoundly plausible he'll be loved as much as he was in the Midwest. Maybe there are no midwestern values, but he certainly has earned the nod to a level of recognition and consciousness. Wherever he plays next season, Manning will definitely be a fool not to choose a team built for the playoffs.

The teams, flirting with one of the sharpest passers in the game today -- if he does stay healthy, would like to aggressively negotiate and remain in the bidding sweepstakes for Manning. It's conceivable to feel the magnitude behind a stud with perhaps enough left to play for a few more years, if any. But any team desperately willing to sign him wants to win now, and will be taking a risk by bringing in a star quarterback with health concerns. What we have here is the latest version of Brett Favre and Joe Montana -- Manning getting released as an aging and unhealthy gunslinger.

He's not the lone pass thrower to finish his career elsewhere. It's commonplace, nowadays, to see a top player have an exceptional career with one team, and then end it elsewhere. It feels strange, sure. But it's not unusual. And in this case, it's not bizarre to see Manning and the Colts part ways, with a medical history of neck troubles that could put his career in harms way. This is actually a new journey in Manning's lifetime, for which he might be greater than when Joe Montana was the starting quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs later in his career, only leading them to the playoffs but not one championship.

This is actually a person of morals and professionalism, unlike a few years ago when a selfish, egomaniacal Farve annoyed populace as a nuisance in pro sports with his un-retiring, retiring drama that almost damaged a well-accomplished career -- wounding up playing for the New York Jets briefly before signing with Green Bay rivals the Minnesota Vikings for retribution over Packers GM Ted Thompson. Before his career came to a halt, Wayne Gretzky, an all-time hockey great, played for the Los Angeles Kings after his days spent in Edmonton. Marcus Allen left the Los Angeles Raiders and bound the Chiefs in 1993 remember? Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, netted 40 points for the Wizards, after he had already retired from the Chicago Bulls remember?

Put it this way, whether he plays in Miami or Arizona, there's nothing abnormal about him extending his career with an organization other than the Colts. What we've all seen from Manning in his farewell conference is the type of exit we like to see from a popular superstar. He summed it no better -- with dignity, humbleness and sincerity, Manning departed with class and thanked Colts fans, as everyone should understand the perception of graceful and charming adieus.

If only Favre and LeBron James weren't narcissistic and instead classy.

At the end of the day, Manning is that guy -- the classy, humbled, thankful athlete.

And sooner than later, he'll be welcomed to his new home.