INDIANAPOLIS – The diminutive rock legend stopped in mid verse, a disgruntled scowl on his face. As Stephen Stills paused during the iconic Buffalo Springfield classic "For What It's Worth" to complain about unsatisfactory amp levels and the overall acoustics at the Indiana State Museum, his good friend Jimmy Irsay – owner of the Indianapolis Colts and host of a pre-Super Bowl XLVI party for which Stills and other big-name rockers were preparing in a private, post-midnight rehearsal – shook his head perplexedly.
"I don't know why he has to do all that, why he gets so frustrated," Irsay said softly on an early morning in February. "It sounds pretty damned good to me."
When it was suggested to Irsay that Stills is not unlike another prickly perfectionist and famous frontman by the name of Peyton Manning, the Colts owner smiled in agreement. As Irsay knew then, and most of the football world has figured out in the three-and-a-half weeks since, his Highfalutin Horseshoe Band is about to undergo a major lineup adjustment.
Unless something dramatic and unexpected happens, Irsay will decline to pay a $28 million option bonus to Manning on March 8, and the future Hall of Fame quarterback will become an unrestricted free agent.
Manning – if he can recover enough strength in his right arm to resume his career after multiple neck surgeries forced him to the sideline for what would have been his 14th NFL season – will then sign with a quarterback-needy team like the Seattle Seahawks, Washington Redskins, Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs or Arizona Cardinals, or perhaps a less-obvious suitor such as the San Francisco 49ers or New York Jets.
The Colts will move on by selecting former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the first overall pick in April's draft, completing an extreme home makeover of one of the previous decade's most consistently victorious professional sports franchises.
As he wades through the uncomfortable waters of a spin struggle against a popular player with prodigious public-relations chops, Irsay has at times appeared uncomfortable, unnerved and indecisive.
He shouldn't worry about any of it – nor should Colts fans. When Irsay says goodbye to one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, he'll be doing his franchise proud, and giving his newly hired general manager and head coach the best opportunity to trigger a long-term turnaround in the wake of a disastrous, era-eradicating season.
Don't be fooled by the owner's amusing Twitter offerings, his penchant for quoting rock lyrics or the PR fallout that might accompany Manning's departure: Jimmy Irsay has taken back his team, and it's another indication that he's a shrewd and skilled owner.
To be sure, divorces between organizations and iconic quarterbacks are never pretty. However, to Irsay's credit, he understands that keeping the marriage together can also have plenty of unpleasant consequences.
Having observed the saga that played out in Brett Favre's final seasons with the Green Bay Packers, Irsay saw that such an arrangement can be compromising for a franchise, even paralyzing at times. With Favre insisting that the Packers trade for Randy Moss and hire Steve Mariucci as head coach and, ultimately, dictating the ever-changing terms of his retirement (or rescinding thereof), the Packers' nominal powerbrokers often felt manipulated and emasculated.
This was not an optimal situation for Packers general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy, who had been hired after the 2004 and '05 seasons, respectively. By the summer of 2008, when Favre returned from his initial "retirement," the two men were fed up with the situation and ready to move on with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback.
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Nearly four years later, Thompson and McCarthy are comfortably entrenched in their positions, the duo still basking in the glow of a Super Bowl triumph in February of 2011 and the 15-1 regular season that followed.
Yet they almost didn't make it: After Favre was traded to the Jets and the Packers went 6-10 with Rodgers in 2008, there were calls for both men to lose their jobs. And even though Green Bay made the playoffs in '09, Thompson and McCarthy still suffered through the indignity of losing (twice) to Favre (who had since signed with the rival Vikings and would lead them to the brink of a conference championship) before attaining unassailable job security.
Fortunately for Thompson and McCarthy, Rodgers proved to be a star, and he has been surrounded by a slew of talented teammates during his tenure.
The Colts' roster, as currently constructed, looks far shakier. As newly hired general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano attempt to rebuild, the last thing they need is a soap opera starring a headstrong quarterback used to getting his way. For Grigson and Pagano to have a fighting chance, I believe moving on from Manning is the smart play.
This is especially true given the tough calls Irsay has already made. Rather than viewing the team's 2-14 season as an anomaly attributable to Manning's absence, he correctly identified the carnage as an indication of larger issues and an ideal opportunity for starting over. Irsay then thrilled 99 percent of his employees by firing domineering team vice chairman Bill Polian and Polian's son and successor as general manager, Chris, an equally impersonable presence at team headquarters.
Bill Polian had been very good at his job for a long time, which was the sole reason Irsay – a much more genial and respectful human being – put up with his dictatorial, hyper-paranoid reign. Among many stories of Polian's authoritarian insufferability: The time an employee was upbraided for referring to him as "Bill" (rather than "MISTER Polian") in an email concerning a charity event.
Polian's son, by all accounts, was a chip off the old block – other than the fact that he didn't seem to be very good at talent evaluation or have a particular affinity for watching film.
On that early January afternoon when the Polians were fired, numerous employees at the team's training facility passed one another in the halls with huge grins on their faces and literally whistled "The Wizard Of Oz" standard "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead." Other than that, they didn't really have an opinion about the moves.
From that point on, from an internal morale perspective, The Prague Spring commenced. Grigson, a longtime Philadelphia Eagles scout, is unpretentious and not prone to power-tripping. After coach Jim Caldwell was fired, Irsay and Grigson chose to replace him with former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Pagano, another unguarded, salt-of-the-earth type. The Berlin Wall had fallen, hopefully for good.
All of this left Manning, a man obsessed with cultivating a well-orchestrated comfort zone, feeling rattled and cranky. Though never much of a Polian fan on an interpersonal level, Manning understood the larger meaning of the upheaval, complaining after the firing that he was "stunned … surprised … saddened … and disappointed."
The subsequent removal of Caldwell, Manning's former quarterbacks coach with whom he had remained close, was another blow. When the new regime then fired another Manning confidante, strength and conditioning coach Jon Torine (under whose watch the quarterback had been rehabbing at the facility), critical mass was reached.
Shortly thereafter, Manning opened up to Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz, complaining about the organizational changes and saying the environment was "not a very good place for healing." At that point the PR war, waged largely through Kravitz's writings and Irsay's Twitter account, commenced. In response to his quarterback's comments, Irsay described Manning as a "politician" and advised his quarterback (via the media) to "keep it in house."
During Super Bowl week, with the whole NFL world having descended upon Indy, the skirmishes continued. After my Yahoo! Sports colleague Jason Cole reported that Manning's arm strength had yet to return and that many people close to him don't believe he'll be able to resume his career, Manning's camp seemingly leaked a report to ESPN that the quarterback had been "medically cleared" to return to football, which Irsay quickly disputed.
The back-and-forth posturing has persisted in less-conspicuous forms, with Irsay suggesting the team would be open to retaining Manning if the quarterback were willing to restructure his contract to an incentive-laden deal that reflected the uncertainty surrounding his return.
This won't happen, and Irsay knows it. For one thing, he doesn't want it to. The owner is firmly in control, and the last thing he wants is to perpetuate a situation that cedes undue power to one of his players. This was obvious last November when Irsay angrily upbraided members of the team's medical staff after learning that Manning had been conducting rehab sessions outside of the team's supervision.
The owner wasn't thrilled in December, either, when Manning, according to SI.com's Don Banks, tried to persuade Polian and Caldwell to play him in red-zone situations in the team's home finale against the Houston Texans.
It seems clear that both Irsay and Manning are expecting a breakup and that each person is trying to make it look like the other is primarily behind it. I wish Irsay would drop the façade and speak the truth: He has great affection for Manning and appreciates all the quarterback has done for the franchise. He will always be grateful for those contributions. But things change, and it's time to start a new era. The final and necessary moves toward that end are Manning's departure and Luck's arrival.
Anything short of this makes Irsay look weak, and that's not an accurate representation of reality. Contrary to public perception, he's a strong leader who adheres to his convictions. It was Irsay, organizational sources say, who ultimately implored Polian to pick Manning over the other highly regarded quarterback at the top of the 1998 draft, Ryan Leaf. (Imagine if that decision had gone the other way.)
Irsay also made the call on the hiring of Tony Dungy following Jim Mora's dismissal in January of 2002, another tremendous move. And you can bet that if Grigson becomes tempted to take Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III ahead of Luck in April, the owner will step in and overrule that, too.
As one Colts source said earlier this week, "Luck is The Guy. I don't care what happens [at the combine]. I don't care if Griffin flies."
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Even Griffin probably can't do that, but we do know that time flies: Manning will be 36 next month, and it's possible he has played his last NFL game. He almost certainly won't suit up again for the Colts, and I think by now most Indy fans are at peace with that.
Irsay should acknowledge the inevitable and be as decisive publicly as he has been behind the scenes. And if he wants to win the PR war, he can insist that Manning throw for team officials between now and March 8, if only to satisfy his curiosity. According to an nfl.com report Saturday, only team medical officials would be allowed to observe such a session, as per the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement.
Should Manning refuse, Irsay can rightfully claim that paying the quarterback $28 million without having any sense of the state of No. 18's throwing arm would be irresponsible. And if Manning agrees, and somehow looks impressive, Irsay can still decline to pay the roster bonus, saying simply that he feels it's time to launch a new era.
For what it's worth, the owner would be absolutely right, and the signs have been visible for months. As Irsay's buddy Stills might say, "It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound? Everybody look what's goin' down … "
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