Jim Irsay's $28 million decision comes down to 27 seconds of really bad video.
The public relations war between the Indianapolis Colts' owner and quarterback Peyton Manning hit a high note late last week with the release of a video showing Manning making four throws while working out at Duke University under the guidance of coach David Cutcliffe, Manning's offensive coordinator in college.
For what it's worth, Manning looked terrific. Then again, trying to make a decision about a quarterback coming back from disk-fusion surgery based on that is about as intelligent as picking a wife out of a mail-order catalogue.
Here's the problem: After all the volleys between Irsay and Manning in recent weeks, it has become nearly impossible for Irsay to retain the services of the second-greatest Colts player of all time (sorry Peyton, but everybody knows the symbol on the side of the helmet really stands for Unitas). The water is too murky and Irsay has gone too far in his renovation project.
The great flaw in all of this is that Irsay can't have Manning work out one last time or two. Not for old-time's sake, but for a real evaluation. You know, like, can he really make necessary throws? Can he be strong enough the next day to go through practice? Can he do all the things it takes to play again?
If Manning can do all of that, Irsay should keep him, even if that means having to sit Andrew Luck for a season or two.
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The NFL's collective bargaining agreement doesn't allow coaches and executives from a team to work out veteran players before the beginning of April, when the offseason program is scheduled to start. There is a small loophole in the agreement that allows a team's medical staff to work out a player who fails an exit physical, which is what happened to Manning. But having a doctor and a trainer do a football evaluation is problematic (and videotaping isn't allowed).
Of course, Irsay also put himself in a bind by agreeing to Manning's contract in the first place. While he thought he was dealing with a relatively healthy player at the time, Irsay has become undone by his own trust and the whims of Manning's 35-year-old body.
Having the No. 1 overall pick in next month's draft as a consolation prize puts the Colts a step closer to recovery. But Irsay didn't want consolation; he wanted everything to make up for his team's miserable season. He wanted to have both Manning and either Luck or Robert Griffin III (bet on Luck). That would have given him all sorts of power to rebuild the Colts.
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In addition, it would have allowed Irsay to avoid the decision he's about to make that could blow up in his face. If Manning returns and plays well (as that 27-second video seems to portend), Irsay could long be known as the guy who cut Peyton Manning. He'll survive it (he is the owner, after all), but that's not how any serious football man wants to be regarded.
That's the kind of emotional situation that could lead Irsay to make a snap decision come Thursday, when the deadline comes to keep or cut Manning. People close to him expect he will follow through on his plan to move on from Manning because the risk is too great.
"We all know Jimmy is an emotional guy," a team source said. "I don't think he's going to change his mind, but I wouldn't be completely shocked if he did … the best, most successful time he has had owning the team came with Peyton as the quarterback. Sometimes it's hard to let go of that."
For his part, Manning no longer appears terribly interested in playing for the Colts again. Not after Irsay got rid of the coaching staff and fired the father-son executive combo of Bill and Chris Polian. That's one of the reasons why, at least in the view of those who understand the dynamics, some people think the 27-second video was leaked to ESPN. Manning, it appears, wants very much to show up Irsay when he returns to the field.
That said, nobody in the NFL is making a decision on Manning based on what was seen on that video. Manning is going to have to show coaches, executives and maybe even some owners, that he can go through the gamut of throws and do it for long enough to show his arm won't wither.
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Then he's probably going to have to do it again the next day, just like he would during training camp or minicamp.
Hopefully, Manning will be able to do that. Hopefully, he'll be able to spin a pass with the same grace and strength he did before this tumultuous past season. Certainly, he's worth the price of admission.
Just like he would be worth $28 million this week … if Irsay could really watch him throw.
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