On the 7th March 2012 Indianapolis bid a tearful goodbye to arguably their greatest ever player, as the Colts released their fourteen-year quarterback Peyton Manning.
Manning, who sat out the entire 2011 season with a neck injury, had been due a $28 million roster bonus the following day and doubts over his health coupled with the franchise’s wishes to rebuild saw team owner Jim Irsay take the painful decision to part ways with the iconic signal-caller. Manning leaves behind a remarkable legacy in Indianapolis, with the future hall of famer instrumental in turning the once beleaguered franchise into one of the League’s most successful organisations.
Prior to his arrival in 1998, the Colts had reached the playoffs on just three occasions in the fourteen years since since their relocation to Indianapolis in 1984, and were coming off the back of a disastrous 1997 campaign, which saw the side record just three victories to wind up with the league’s worst record. However, that miserable season turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the organisation, handing them the opportunity to draft Manning with the first overall pick of that year’s draft.
After another disappointing 3-13 season in Manning’s first season under center, the franchise’s fortunes began to change in 1999 when Manning led his side back into the playoffs with a 13-3 record, capping the greatest single season turnaround in NFL history. A decade of dominance was to follow, with the Colts preceding to reach the playoffs in eleven of the next twelve seasons, including on a record-tying nine consecutive occasions from 2002-2010, with the crowning moment coming in 2007 as Manning led the Colts to their second ever championship in Super Bowl XLI.
During this period, Manning was showered with a whole host of individual honours, including a record four Most Valuable Player awards, and was named Sports Illustrated’s Player of the Decade in 2009. Manning’s impact was however not only felt on the field as his on-field success also led to the construction of the side’s current home, the Lucas Oil Stadium, which is widely referred to as ‘The House that Peyton Built’, whilst Manning was also heavily involved in countless charitable projects across the Indianapolis community.
However, when a neck injury resulted in Manning missing the entirety of the 2011 season, the wheels were put in motion for the legendary quarterback’s departure. If Indianapolis fans were not fully aware of Manning’s impact prior to last season, they certainly felt it last season, as they endured a horrific season without their talisman, finishing with a miserable 2-14 record. However, whilst that campaign may have served to underline Manning’s incredible value to the franchise, it also handed the Colts the opportunity to acquire Stanford star Andrew Luck in the upcoming draft, said to be the best quarterback prospect since Manning himself, thus paving the way for Manning’s departure.
Whilst this move may yet work out in the best interests of both parties, it didn’t have to be this way, as the Colts could have decided to trade away their coveted first overall pick for a bounty of draft picks, similar to the haul the St. Louis Rams just received for the rights to the second overall pick of the draft. This would have allowed the organisation to surround Manning with the sort of talent that could have allowed him to pursue further Super Bowl glory for Indianapolis, as he entered the twilight of his career. At the same time, the Colts could have taken the opportunity to groom a mid to late round pick, perhaps underrated Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore or Arizona’s Nick Foles, to take over from Manning in the future.
However, the Colts instead chose to part ways with their hero for the opportunity to build around Luck, making Manning one of the most coveted free agents of all time, and placing an extreme amount of pressure on Luck to succeed. Luck undoubtedly has a tremendous amount of potential and should become the franchise’s cornerstone for years to come. However, should the young quarterback fail to live up to the tremendous expectations and Manning returns to near his sublime-best, this could yet go down as one of the worst decisions in NFL history.