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Monday, February 13, 2012

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Do you know who this is?


That is Joe Montana in a Chiefs uniform.  Why am I showing you this picture?  It is to remind us that nothing lasts forever.  Even the best sports relationships must eventually come to an end.  Joe Montana played fourteen seasons for the San Francisco 49ers and led them to a perfect 4-0 record in Super Bowls.  But, Montana was in his 30's when he injured his elbow at the end of 1990 season.  Montana missed all of the 1991 season and almost all of the 1992 season.  And so, in 1993, the 49ers traded Montana to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts are in a similar situation this off-season.  Manning has played his entire career in Indianapolis.  The Colts were horrific before Peyton arrived in 1998.  By 2001, the Colts were a perennial playoff team.  In 2006, Manning led Indianapolis to a Super Bowl victory.  Manning and the Colts made another Super Bowl appearance in 2009.  Many people doubt that the Colts would now be playing in a state of the art facility or that they would even still be in the city of Indianapolis if it were not for Peyton's heroics on the field, his loyalty off the field and his popularity with the midwestern fan base.

But, Peyton Manning is 35 years old now.  He had made 208 consecutive starts for the Colts before undergoing off-season neck surgery in May of 2011.  Several setbacks from that surgery slowed his recovery.  Although the Colts kept Manning on the active roster all season and paid his entire salary, Manning did not take single snap this season.  The Colts finished 2-14.  They were the worst team in the NFL.  As such, the Colts earned the #1 pick in this April's draft.  A draft that features Stanford's Andrew Luck ... possibly the most heralded quarterback to come out of college since ... well ... since Peyton Manning.

So the time has come for a mutual parting of the ways.  But, a separation between Peyton and the Colts should not be looked at as a divorce.  A divorce implies some sort of conflict or failure.  Rather, this should be looked at as the parting of ways between college roommates on graduation day.  Not a break-up.  Just the end of an era.

Why now?  Well, if Manning is still on the Colts roster as of March 8, 2012, they owe him $28 million.  If Peyton Manning fully recovers (and that is still a big if), is he worth $28 million?  Yes.  To a team that is a quarterback away from a title.  The Colts are not that team.  It was painfully clear all season that the Colts need younger and better players at almost every position.  A complete rebuild is in order.  Free agency and the draft have not taken place yet, but Colts ownership has already started the makeover.  Bill Polian, the GM and architect of the Manning era in Indianapolis, has been fired.  Same with Polian's son.  The coaching staff has been replaced, too.  It is time for the Colts to draft Andrew Luck and let him grow through the rebuild the same way Manning did in 1998.

Parting ways will be good for the Colts, but it might be even better for Manning.  Peyton will be 36 at the start of next season.  Even if he gets back to full health, he realistically has only two or three good years left in him.  If Peyton spends those years with the Colts, he has no chance to make another meaningful playoff run.  The best scenario for Manning is if the Colts decline the $28 million option and allow him to hit the market as a free agent.  That will allow Manning to end up in a new locale without causing his new team to give up current assets in a trade.  This would also allow Manning and his new team to structure a contract that would would allow enough room in the salary cap for the new team to round out a contending roster.

There are two teams that I think would be desirable places for Peyton Manning to spend his golden years.  Desirable for Manning and desirable for the team.  The first team is the Minnesota Vikings.  Last off-season, the Vikings thought they were a quarterback away from contention when they signed Donovan McNabb.  And they might have been right.  Unfortunately, McNabb was no longer a quarterback.  Minnesota plays in a dome.  Percy Harvin is an attractive and young target at wide receiver.  And, if Adrian Peterson's knee heals properly, the Vikings have perhaps the best running back in the NFL.  The major downside to joining the Vikings is that the NFC North will likely be the toughest division in all of football.  The Packers, the Lion and the Bears will all be good teams.

The team that I think makes the most sense for both parties is the Arizona Cardinals.  The Cardinals are not far removed from a Super Bowl run ... a run that was led by an aging and immobile Kurt Warner at QB.  Manning would get to throw to Larry Fitzgerald, one of the top three receivers in the NFL.  The weather is warm in Tempe, and the climate can be controlled with the stadium's retractable roof.  The 49ers are a talented young team, but the rest of the NFC West is not particularly daunting.  Signing Manning is also not huge gamble for the Cardinals.  They will still have a very capable Kevin Kolb at quarterback if it turns out that Manning's neck never really heals.  

Before I wrap up this post, let's look back again to 1993.  How did things turn out for Joe Montana and the 49ers?  Well, in 1993, Montana led the Chiefs to their first ever appearance in the AFC Championship game.  Montana and the Chiefs made another playoff appearance in 1994.  Meanwhile, the 49ers also made the playoffs in 1993 and won the Super Bowl in 1994.   I would love to see the same result for Manning and the Colts in the next few years.