Several different factors made the 2012 NFL draft a great deal more interesting on Thursday. Start with USC quarterback Matt Barkley's decision to stay in school, and add in what that does to the rest of the quarterback picture. Multiply that by the number of teams looking to trade up with teams like the Minnesota Vikings and St. Louis Rams for the quarterback picks those teams wouldn't likely make, and things were goofy enough before the Indianapolis Colts threw the whole thing into a tizzy by banishing the "Suck For Luck" mantra once and for all and beating the Houston Texans, 19-16 for their second straight victory of the season.
The once-winless Colts are now 2-13, and in "danger" of losing the first overall pick. Should they do so, they might still be in line for Stanford superstar quarterback Andrew Luck, but that's a story for later. Asked about the Colts' overall quarterback situation before the game started, team owner Jim Irsay had Peyton Manning on his mind. The future Hall of Famer has been out the entire season with neck issues that have required three surgeries in the last two years (injuries that have also caused nerve impingement in his throwing arm), but he's been as much a part of the team as possible.
"Peyton came up to me and said, 'You've got two minutes [left] and no timeouts, just get it to a minute,'" Colts starting quarterback Dan Orlovsky said after the win. "'And if you got yourself to a minute with some completions, you'd see what would happen.' We were able to do that, and we got some plays … we kept fighting, we kept playing hard, the guys up front were picking up some pressures in front of us, and the guy who's made a lot of unbelievable plays for us [receiver Reggie Wayne, who caught the winning touchdown pass] made another one tonight."
No surprise that Manning is acting as the team's ad hoc offensive coordinator — with all due respect to longtime confidant Tom Moore, that was his function on the field for most of his career. Still, the franchise must wrestle with that larger question — what happens if and when Manning says he's ready to come back?
"He's progressing," Colts owner Jim Irsay told Rich Eisen of the NFL Network during Thursday's pregame telecast. "It has been an odyssey that started in the spring, and it's been tough on him and tough on the franchise. He's getting better. My first and foremost concern is always his overall health, and in terms of when and if he is ready to get back on the field, he's got to be healthy. That's the key thing…But he's progressed and the arm is getting stronger."
But what if the Colts are presented with the dual option of Manning and Luck? The Colts are on the hook for a $28 million option payment to Manning at the beginning of the 2012 league year as part of the five-year, $90 million contract extension he signed in July. Even with the new rookie wage scale, the Colts could be in a position where an abnormally high percentage of their 2012 salary cap would be taken up by the quarterback position … and last time we checked, there probably wasn't a provision in the playbook for Manning and Luck to see the field at the same time.
"I don't see that being the issue; I paid him $26 million this year — he didn't play," Irsay said of Manning. "I knew it was an iffy situation going in. In terms of if he's healthy and if he's ready to play, I see him back with us. The draft will be what the draft is; there are a lot of situations that can unfold from here. If there is a great young quarterback there, we wouldn't hesitate to take him."
For Irsay, the important thing has been communication — just as Manning continues to make an impact in the team in all the ways he can, the franchise understands the responsibility it holds in keeping Manning up to speed on the draft decision. It's a delicate balance that has been mangled by more than one team in the past.
"We've had conversations obviously through this whole year, so I won't get into detail what he and I discuss when we met," Irsay said. "But we've always been on the same page. When the neck injury came up, it was he and I who really sat down and got the contract done; he wanted to get it done. He really wanted to make sure there were other players that were around him so he could have greatness on the field, and that's the kind of unselfish guy that he is. I don't see the numbers being a problem in terms of this. This is really about is he going to be able to come back and really be the old Peyton Manning, play at a very high level? That's something he and I will talk about when the season ends, but right now we both realize we have two games to play. That's where the focus is: on winning the next two games."
They've won one of those games; if the Colts lose the season finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars, they'll get the first overall pick on a no-matter-what basis.
But then, there's another question — what about the other holes on the roster? After all, the 2008 New England Patriots went 11-5 without Tom Brady for all but one quarter of football. What Manning's absence did was to make very obvious the whiffs in recent drafts committed by vice chairman Bill Polian and the Colts' front office. Just as Irsay had a key decision to make about his quarterback situation, he knows there's another one to be made about the future front office.
"Obviously I'm concerned that we came out and lost 13 games. We'll probably be $8 million cash over cap; we're up around $130 [million] in spending. It's not like we planned on a rebuilding year. When Kerry Collins was an option brought to me to bring in, I said go for it. I've always been willing to pay and pay well over the cap to win. [There are] a lot of veterans on the team, a high-paid team. Certainly we're looking to do better, but in terms of evaluating things you can just look at what you have with the Texans tonight. Their coach was under great fire, most of the fans and the media in town would have probably wanted him to be removed. [Texans owner] Bob McNair stuck with him and now he's very popular in Houston with this division championship. When the season ends, I'll evaluate everything thoughtfully and look at it."
Still, the Texans have lost their last two games, and the loss to the Colts seems to have made Houston fans particularly apoplectic. That's how quickly things can change in the NFL, and that's why so much rests on Irsay's shoulders right now. He's not just playing dice with the future of what has become a keystone franchise in the NFL; he also has to decide the professional futures of the two men who had the most to do with that designation.
Irsay seems up to the challenge, but the crown must be weighing a bit heavy these days.
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