Colts owner Jim Irsay is the one playing politics with Peyton Manning

One of the most popular, and ironic, insults in a political campaign is when a politician calls his or her opponent a politician. The term is loaded, of course. Dishonest. Disingenuous. Out of touch. Selfish. Even politicians loathe it.

“He’s a politician,” Jim Irsay sneered about Peyton Manning last month, a rather spiteful line about a quarterback who had made the Indianapolis Colts matter in the first place.

It was just one round in what’s become an endless back and forth political battle between franchise owner and franchise quarterback over the support of the franchise’s fans.

Jim Irsay
(AP)

Manning certainly isn’t above a little politics, but it’s the holier-than-thou Irsay who keeps taking it to new levels. Tuesday he spoke out in another series of unnecessary media interviews that tried to lay the decision on whether Manning ever again plays for Indy on the player.

“It’s going to be Peyton’s call,” Irsay told ESPN.

Sure, Peyton’s call to agree to Irsay’s renegotiated contract demands.

There is no telling if any Colts fans fell for it. They shouldn’t have. What seems clearer is this: Why at this stage of this crude, clumsy campaign should Peyton Manning trust Jim Irsay?

Let’s recap this ridiculousness, which serves as the latest proof that almost no one is immune from ugly breakups in the National Football League:

Manning missed the 2011 season with a neck injury and continues to rehab with the intent of continuing his career. The Colts, however, have to make a decision on March 8 whether to keep or cut the 35-year-old, the specter of a $28 million payment clouding everything.

Manning, in January, told the Indianapolis Star that, “I don’t want to get into some kind of fan campaign with the owner, but I think it’s well-documented that I want to play in the same place my whole career.”

So, he was saying the decision is on Irsay, the first shot in what is, undoubtedly, a “fan campaign.”

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Days later Irsay ripped Manning for being a politician (which Manning was) and reminding him that, “I think one thing that he’s always known, because he’s been around it so long, is you keep it in the family. If you’ve got a problem, you talk to each other. It’s not about campaigning or anything like that.”

Of course, Irsay was saying this in the media, which was most certainly outside the family.

Manning stood down, mostly, declaring at the Super Bowl that there “was nothing to talk about” and promising a sit down with his boss. Of course, then a story leaked through ESPN that some doctors had cleared Manning to play. It was a report that almost everyone in football believes came from the Manning camp.

Irsay tossed out a late night/early morning tweet disputing the report. He stated Colts doctors hadn’t cleared Manning.

It would’ve all been deemed petty even if it hadn’t come on the weekend Indianapolis was hosting the Super Bowl.

Then, not a week and a half later and with no obvious reason to make any comment, Irsay pops up again and begins the politicking and talking “outside the family” all over again.

He’s everything he supposedly dislikes about Peyton Manning.

And then some.

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“We can make it work if he wants to be here,” Irsay told the Indianapolis Star on Tuesday. “We’d be excited to have him back and finish his career with us.”

Translation for, ” … if he wants to be here”? If Manning is willing to renegotiate his contract that still owes him $90 million? Irsay would want something that speaks to the uncertainty of Manning’s neck, likely heavy with incentives.

Peyton Manning with Colts owner Jim Irsay Jr on stage at the Super Bowl victory celebration at the RCA Dome on Feb. 5, 2007.
(Getty Images)

That’s all well and good and fair, and there is little doubt that he could’ve told Manning that face-to-face and not through the media. He chose not to, though. It’s better to play the greedy-athlete bit on the public.

Irsay and Manning both know this deal is done. The Colts have cleaned house of the Manning era – general manager, president, head coach, a slew of assistants and even a strength and conditioning coach have all been jettisoned. Manning is next. Neither wants to take the blame. And it stands to reason that, if healthy and given his starting job, Manning doesn’t want to leave. There was a high road here. There was a smart road here. Manning has, at the very least, flirted with it. Once provoked, Irsay has avoided it at all costs.

In a sane situation everyone would’ve shut up and let Manning continue his rehab. Who knows, perhaps he is making significant gains. If so, he could possibly be in very promising shape by the first week of March, even cleared to play by the Colts’ own doctors. Then the Colts would have an interesting decision to make.

A healthy Manning is one of the two best quarterbacks in the league. You just dump that? Why would Jim Irsay go through all this talk, all this public negotiating weeks and months before he has to make a final decision, one that should be made with the most accurate and up-to-date medical information?

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Is winning in the court of public opinion that important?

Manning isn’t entirely innocent here, but he has every right to be frustrated. His owner isn’t waiting this out. His owner isn’t adhering to the same code he once scolded Peyton for violating. His owner is a politician in every sense of the word.

Manning made the Indianapolis Colts a franchise. Manning delivered four MVPs, 11 playoff appearances, one Super Bowl and so many sellouts and positive economic impact on Indy that Irsay even got a new and more opulent stadium.

Manning is the central figure in turning Indianapolis into a football town, in essentially bailing out the controversial move by Irsay’s father to move from Baltimore in the first place.

Through it all he played and played, won and won, never asked to renegotiate a contract, even offered up this current out clause to the Colts as a sign of openness about the injury. Did Irsay pay Peyton a lot of money though the years? You bet he did.

But it’s not nearly as much as Peyton earned Irsay.

The two are supposed to meet in the next week or so. The Colts have every right to change direction, start anew.

If Irsay has made up his mind to do just that – which his actions intimate – then Manning deserved to hear it face-to-face, man-to-man, right there inside the family that Irsay supposedly places so much value on.

Sometimes, though, politicians just can’t help themselves.

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Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Feb 14, 2012