Irsay needs to keep Peyton … and draft Luck

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More than any NFL owner – hell, more than any living human – Jimmy Irsay loves to quote a good classic-rock lyric.

Earlier this week on Twitter, Irsay shared some Tom Petty lines with his legions of followers, drawing from the song “Crawling Back To You.” Given the sorry state of Irsay’s Indianapolis Colts – and the conundrum his team faces at the quarterback position heading into the offseason – that tone seems a tad desperate for my tastes.

Jim Irsay's Colts are 0-12 going into Sunday's game against the Ravens.
(AP Photo)

Though it’s not my favorite Petty tune, I’d instead direct Irsay to “I Won’t Back Down” for inspiration when sorting out the Peyton Manning/Andrew Luck possibilities: Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out/Hey yeah, I’ll stand my ground/And I won’t back down.

In other words, with all due respect to Manning, his father, Luck, his father and anyone else with an opinion about how to proceed, Irsay needs to do what’s best for the Colts – period. And from my current vantage point, I believe that very well may include a scenario in which Manning and Luck are Colts teammates in 2012, and perhaps longer.

As my colleague Jason Cole detailed on Wednesday, Archie Manning’s recent comments suggesting the two quarterbacks wouldn’t want to be on the same team – from which the former Saints QB and patriarch of pro football’s most decorated passing family later backtracked – seemed to send a message to the Colts that peaceful coexistence is not an option.

[ Related: Archie Manning’s ‘compliment’ hurts Colts ]

Translation: The franchise should either trade or release Manning after the season and draft Luck with the first overall pick to replace him, or it should keep its 35-year-old quarterback and trade the selection for a package of picks and players to help the team load up for another run at contention under a revived Manning.

If I were Irsay, I’d tell everyone to put a sock in it and strongly pursue a third option: Keeping Manning, drafting Luck and giving the Colts a chance to be good in the present and future.

It’s easy for me to say that Irsay, who has already paid Manning $24 million for not playing in 2011, should write the future Hall of Famer a check for another $28 million before the start of the 2012 league year. That’s a lot of dinero, even for a sports league in which every communist – er, owner – is guaranteed a hefty profit.

However, if there’s even a chance that Manning can return from neck-fusion surgery and play at his former level for four or five more seasons, that’s still a hell of a bargain. As I mused last week, Manning is apparently the most valuable player in NFL history: From 1999, his second season, through 2010, the Colts won at least 10 games and made the playoffs in 11 of 12 years. Right now, they are 0-12, and closing in on clinching the No. 1 overall pick in next April’s draft, two games “ahead” of the St. Louis Rams and Minnesota Vikings with four to play.

[ Playoff picture: Four teams fighting for AFC’s top spot ]

We can wonder, in retrospect, if the Colts were getting older and might have fallen off some had Manning been able to play in 2011, but it’s only speculation. Based on the available evidence, it’s quite likely that if Manning were healthy, the big story in Indy right now, as in past years, would be whether the team should go all out in its final few games or rest its starters for the playoffs.

Peyton Manning has set out the entire season because of a neck injury.
(Getty Images)

That’s how good Manning is – but he’s not bigger than the team. At least, not now he isn’t. When Manning’s neck failed him and he had surgery that, in theory, could keep him from playing football again, he lost his franchise-advisor privileges. He has $52 million reasons not to sweat this, by the way – if able to resume his career, he’ll be Indy’s unquestioned starter in 2012; in the meantime, either way, he’ll be able to buy a lot of Christmas presents for his nine-month-old twins, Mosley and Marshall.

Even if all signs point to a successful Manning return, passing on the chance to draft a truly special quarterback would be an enormous mistake. Colts president Bill Polian, assuming he’s still in charge next April, is a shrewd talent evaluator who’ll surely adhere to this philosophy. The only question is whether he believes, as most of the football-watching world does, that Luck is that quarterback.

If you are any kind of a legitimate franchise, drafting first overall should be regarded as a unique, once-in-a-generation opportunity. If all goes as planned, it’s a state in which your team won’t be again for a long, long time, and to take advantage of the anomaly, this is the question that must be asked: Is there a transcendent player – most likely a quarterback, the most pivotal position in team sports – who’s there for the taking?

Just as Polian once stunned outside observers by selecting Edgerrin James over Ricky Williams, it’s possible he’ll conclude that a different quarterback – Matt Barkley, Robert Griffith III, Landry Jones – is that guy. If so, the Colts could trade down a spot or three, get the passer they’re targeting and still come away with something extra.

[ Related: Likely top 10 QB prospects heading into 2012 draft ]

Make no mistake, however – if there’s anyone Polian believes is a viable quarterback of the future, this franchise needs to take him in this draft, even if Manning insists he’s healthy and good to go through 2016. At best, Manning will be one hit away from retirement at all times.

In all likelihood, Polian will conclude that Luck is the quarterback on whom the Colts should build their future. And if and when Polian does, Irsay needs to make it clear to everyone concerned that the Colts will select the soon-to-be-former Stanford star with the first overall pick, and that’s that.

Irsay was 23, a year away from being named the NFL’s youngest general manager, when another former Stanford star strong-armed the Colts into making a trade they’d regret. Drafted first overall by the Colts, the talented quarterback, using a potential baseball career as leverage, refused to report and essentially forced his way to the Denver Broncos. Irsay proceeded to watch John Elway go to five Super Bowls and become one of the greatest players in NFL history. That’s a mistake the owner surely doesn’t want to risk repeating.

[ Fantasy video: Week 14 players to sit or start: QBs | RBs | WRs ]

By the grace of the new collective bargaining agreement, Irsay won’t have to make an exorbitant financial investment in two quarterbacks – the rookie wage scale allows him to keep Luck on the roster for several seasons at a relatively economical rate.

Andrew Luck has long been projected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft.
(AP Photo)

The notion that Manning and Luck would be teammates for several seasons, of course, sounds far-fetched: Given the recent trend toward playing highly drafted quarterbacks as rookies, and Luck’s seemingly high degree of preparedness, there’d be a lot of critical mass working against such an arrangement.

If I were Irsay, I wouldn’t sweat it. This is what my friend Kara Henderson at the NFL Network likes to call a high-class problem, and it’s one that can be evaluated on a season-by-season basis.

The Green Bay Packers kept Aaron Rodgers on the bench for three seasons before finally trading future Hall of Famer Brett Favre – that seems to be turning out OK. The San Diego Chargers, after drafting Peyton’s kid brother, Eli, first overall in 2004, succumbed to a power-play reportedly engineered by (you guessed it) Archie Manning and traded him to the New York Giants for fourth overall pick Philip Rivers. As incumbent Drew Brees blossomed the following season, Rivers spent two years on the bench before taking over in 2006.

[ Related: Decision to put Colt McCoy back in game questioned ]

If Luck is anywhere near as good as Rodgers or Rivers, perhaps the Colts will conclude that trading Manning after 2012 or 2013 is the best move. Or, if Manning returns at the height of his powers, Irsay can always trade Luck in a year or two – it’s not like the young quarterback’s trade value will ever go down.

In the meantime, there’s no reason not to be a quarterback-hoarder.

If I were Irsay, I’d pick up my guitar, start strumming an A-chord and root for two or three more losses while singing Petty’s “Free Fallin‘ ”. Then I’d withdraw $28 million from the bank in $100 bills and deliver those fat stacks to Manning’s house (assuming the quarterback is unwilling to restructure his contract to allow the Colts to delay the decision) – then hop on a plane to California and present Luck with a preemptive Colts No. 1 jersey.

Fourteen years ago, a simple twist of fate brought Manning to Irsay. It has been a wonderful ride since, but there’s no guarantee Manning will be healthy enough to return to the driver’s seat.

It behooves Irsay to keep hope alive while taking care of his franchise’s future needs. There may not be an easy way out, but he should listen to his muse and stand his ground.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

Drew Brees
(AP Photo)

The Titans will cool off Drew Brees and upset the Saints in Nashville to keep their playoff hopes alive. … T.J. Yates will stay undefeated and the Texans will set a franchise record for victories in a season by beating the favored Bengals in Cincinnati. … Tim Tebow – yet again – will walk off a winner as the Broncos prevail in a low-scoring battle with the Bears.

And remember, you can find all of my picks here – and receive the analysis behind them by registering for the Silver Insider at ridewithsilver.com. I’ve also got Locks of the Week and media appearances galore for your viewing enjoyment, including the Rich Eisen Podcast, and some Texans playoffs and coach-pursuit chatter on the NFL Network’s “Total Access”.

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

Dallas, where I’ll watch the Giants and Cowboys battle for first place in the NFC East, with the losing coach staring at some potentially distasteful implications. In that regard, I truly hope that Jason Garrett doesn’t ice his own kicker. In fact, it would be great if there were no ice, period.

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. Shortly after telling the Chicago Sun Times’ Sean Jensen that he’ll “wait until I get 100 percent out there” to return from a sprained MCL, Matt Forte muttered under his breath, “or until they pay me 100 percent of my contract demands.”

2. Brett Favre has completely let go of the notion that he’s a professional football player.

3. After apologizing to Redskins teammates for incurring four-game suspensions that ended their seasons, Fred Davis and Trent Williams demonstrated their remorse by passing out Christmas baskets containing “Dazed and Confused” DVDs, Binaca breath spray, Visine, Sublime CDs, Nancy Botwin T-shirts and fried mozzarella sticks.

FANTASY ANNOYANCE OF THE WEEK

Matt Ryan is coming off a rough outing against the Texans.
(AP Photo)

For Cal women’s basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb, Bringin’ It Back is the 2011 fantasy equivalent of the 2010 Seahawks: Despite a losing record, the playoffs beckon. Now, she needs her seemingly overmatched team to carry the analogy even further and go all Beast Mode on her formidable first-round opponent, The Romo Empire. After closing the season with a 119-66 defeat to I Am Holmes Antonio to fall to 6-7, sixth-seeded Bringin’ It Back drew the third-seeded Empire, which doesn’t even have the quarterback for whom it’s named on the roster. Instead, it has Aaron Rodgers. Gulp. The lineup also includes Dez Bryant, Vincent Jackson, Percy Harvin, Darren Sproles, Kevin Smith, Rob Gronkowski, the 49ers’ defense and Lawrence Tynes. As I told Gottlieb on Wednesday evening, “Um, they’re way better than you.” That’s especially true given the uncertain ability of Adrian Peterson, who may miss a third consecutive game with a high ankle sprain. If so, Gottlieb will trot out the following lineup: Matt Ryan, Willis McGahee, Shonn Greene, Jimmy Graham, the Bengals’ defense, Rob Bironas, Plaxico Burress, Julio Jones and either Reggie Wayne, Santonio Holmes or Jacoby Ford. She’s leaning toward Holmes, if only because the Jets – who face a Chiefs defense that has been stingy as of late – are due for a fantasy explosion. “If by due you mean, ‘They’ve been killing me all season,’ ” Gottlieb says. “I know it’s a tough challenge, but I think we can win. We just need to get hot, and the Jets need to fulfill their promise, once and for all.” I suspect this weekend is as far as that promise takes Bringin’ It Back – and I don’t really have a lot of help to offer, other than finger-crossing – but you know the saying: On any given Sunday, your fantasy players can score meaningless touchdowns and get slop yards by the bunch, while your opponents’ players can have TDs called back and suffer untimely hamstring pulls … Or something like that.

LET’S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

Lew Bush, an intelligent, personable and skilled linebacker for the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs, who died Thursday after suffering an apparent heart attack at the age of 42. Bush was always candid and levelheaded when doing interviews; beyond that, he was a strong, secure, likeable human being to whom I would have gravitated in any context. He is the seventh member of the 1994 San Diego Chargers – a team whose unlikely Super Bowl journey was thoroughly enjoyable to cover – to die way too young, and it makes me very, very sad. Please join me in extending thoughts and prayers to his loved ones.

THIS WEEK’S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

With the news that Cal will face Texas in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 28, Golden Bears everywhere immediately felt a Harry Potter-esque surge of pain through the very fresh scars of 2004. Back then Cal, the third-ranked team in the country (and quarterbacked by a certain future NFL MVP), was kept out of the BCS by a confluence of ridiculous (and mostly obsolete) factors that included the shameless lobbying – more like whiney pleading – of Texas coach Mack Brown, whose team ended up securing the Rose Bowl slot that a) is the object of every single Cal fan’s obsession, given that the Golden Bears haven’t played in the game since 1959; and b) the Rose Bowl directors desperately wanted Cal to have. And because that hurt us very, very deeply, we still bear Brown a lot of ill will. It’s why T-shirts are already being printed and why, amid reports surfacing that Brown might be in danger of getting forced out, I got a text Sunday night from a Cal alum who is a very successful NFL player: “Let’s get him fired.” And no, I’m not talking about Aaron Rodgers, who made his feelings known as a 21-year-old college junior, declaring shortly after the Bears’ snub, “I thought it was a little classless how Coach Brown was begging for votes after the [Texas A&M] game. I think a team’s record and the way you play should speak for itself, and you shouldn’t have to complain about the BCS system. Coach [Jeff] Tedford isn’t going to, although he’s frustrated just like we are. I think we’re a bigger team, classier than that.”

As we revisit our enmity and prepare for a Mack Attack, I’d like to make some points for those who missed my tirades seven years ago: 1) I bear no ill will toward anyone associated with the Longhorns’ program, excepting Brown. I have nothing but respect for the great University of Texas and its attendees. Austin’s a terrific town, and Ricky Williams and I go way back. I rooted for Cat Osterman when she pitched. 2) Had this simply been a matter of getting into the BCS, and not a Rose Bowl-specific slight, Cal fans wouldn’t have sweated it much. The Rose Bowl is our Holy Grail, and until we go (ideally as Pac-12 champions) this won’t be made right. 3) In 2004, Cal was the third-ranked team in the country and played in the Holiday Bowl. This year, we’re not even close to ranked, and we’re playing in the Holiday Bowl. Ladies and gentlemen, college football in the 21st century! 4) Yes, I’m well aware that Cal went out and lost to Texas Tech (45-31) in that 2004 Holiday Bowl, while Texas, which had defeated the Red Raiders handily during the regular season, rallied behind Vince Young for a dramatic Rose Bowl victory over Michigan. Some would have you believe that Cal fans have no right to be upset about the Rose Bowl shaft because of this, but they are mistaken. It’s tough to get motivated for a game you know is a booby prize. We know Cal was a great team that year; our quarterback was Aaron (expletive) Rodgers. You see that greatness regularly on Sundays. Any questions? Didn’t think so. Also, USC, which barely held off Cal in a 23-17 regular-season victory, played Oklahoma, which shut out the Longhorns (12-0) in October, in the Orange Bowl, which that year decided the national championship. Final score: Trojans 55, Sooners 19. Any further questions? Didn’t think so. 5) Nothing that happens on Dec. 28 can heal the wounds of seven years ago. But if Cal plays a role in dispossessing Mack Brown of his headset, I won’t whine about it. That would be classless.

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

cowboy ice bailey

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

Ndamukong Suh is serving a two-game suspension.
(AP Photo)

Remember how daunting the future governor of California was in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” two decades ago? Ndamukong Suh is like that now, and it’s getting the Lions’ star second-year defensive tackle in a whole lot of trouble. On that note, I bring you into the inner monologue of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, channeling the Guns N’ Roses song that helped T2 rock the silver screen back in ’91 – to the tune of “You Could Be Mine.”

He’s a real game-changer
Can’t be blocked and he’ll rip that helmet off
And he’ll leave your quarterback in shreds
And he’ll push your head into the turf
And stomp on your forearm
“Lost my balance” – yeah that’s what he said

Well Suh could be fined
Cause he’s way out of line
He’s a big Cornhusker
With a big forked tongue
And he’s acting dumb
I said Suh could be fined

Now suspensions come and then they go
He took a trip back home
Went driving through the Portland streets
Peeled out his tires late at night
And crashed into a tree
Then created a phantom cab

Well Suh could be fined
Cause he’s way out of line
He’s a big Cornhusker
With a big forked tongue
And he’s acting dumb
I said Suh could be fined

Words so sketchy every time
Why don’t he give it a rest
Why
Must he find
Another reason to lie

Paid a visit to my office
Now I’m rackin’ out my brain
Doesn’t matter what I tell him
‘Cause he always acts insane
I can push the refs to flag him
Cause his act is wearin’ thin
Dude is worse than Romanowksi
Will this nightmare ever end
Hope the guy has some good lawyers
Put him on the witness stand
Cause I’m gonna cross-examine him
With the backside of my hand
While his passengers were bleeding
He did not express regret
Told the cops no one was hurt
No he hasn’t grown up yet

Well Suh could be fined
Cause he’s way out of line
He’s a big Cornhusker
With a big forked tongue
And he’s acting dumb
I said Suh could be
Suh should be
Suh will be fined
Suh could be fined …
YEAH

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Michael Silver covers the NFL for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Mogotxt, Twitter and Facebook. Also check out ridewithsilver.com. Send Michael a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Dec 9, 2011