There's no question that Peyton Manning's football future is still very much up in the air, as the current Indianapolis Colts quarterback continues his rehab from several neck surgeries and the nerve impingement resulting from them. Getting his arm strength back is Job One at this point, and as much as everyone (including and especially Manning) would like to put a target date on that recovery, some things simply don't work that way. All Manning can do is work and wait, as his professional future swirls around in the wind.
But there is one hopeful voice from a former NFL quarterback who's gone through a similar process -- Chris Weinke, the ex-minor-league pitcher and Florida State starter who played for the Carolina Panthers from 2001 through 2006, and for the San Francisco 49ers in 2007. Back in 1998, when he was with the Seminoles, Weinke suffered a neck injury that required spinal fusion, and the same kind of nerve regeneration process. He came back to lead his team to a national championship in 1999, and led the nation in passing yards in 2000. In his first NFL season, he threw 540 passes.
While his NFL career didn't turn out the way he expected, Weinke knows of what he speaks in this case, both as a player who's gone through the same things and as a current quarterback guru who's helped some of the most prominent young stars (Cam Newton, Christian Ponder, Ryan Tannehill and Kirk cousins, among others) with their mechanics. And Weinke says that there's a good chance Manning can come back -- if he can fight through the process.
"It was a true test of patience," Weinke told NFL.com's Albert Breer on Monday. "What I had to learn was I had to trust the doctors, and trust the trainers. You just didn't know when your body was going to be able to recover fully. The biggest thing with nerve issues is the atrophy in your throwing arm. For me, the rehab consisted of an intense 6-7 hours per day. But then there was a lot of time spent just waiting for my body to recover."
And for a guy like Manning, who's used to having control over his environment in a way that few quarterbacks are, that can be very frustrating. However, the fact that Manning can throw a football at all at this point is a very good sign in Weinke's eyes.
"It's key. As I just mentioned, you're taking baby steps along the way. As long as he continues to progress, what I found out, was at the end of the process my arm was actually stronger than it was prior to the surgery. The reason being is that you focus on the little muscles, you rebuild yourself really from ground zero, because of the atrophy, and when I came back, fundamentally I was better, I was stronger, and actually threw the ball with more velocity after the surgery than I did prior."
Recent reports indicated that Manning has thrown the ball with limited velocity, and was actually trying to manage situations in which he could come in for red zone situations with the Colts last year. And in the end, Weinke said, he expects Manning to find a way back to the NFL on a full-time basis.
"I don't want to speak on behalf of him, and no one should speak on behalf of him. He'll make that decision. But in my heart of hearts, the old No. 18 will be back out on the field having success. He's a true competitor, one of the best that's ever played the game. He's got a burning desire, in my opinion, to come back, and prove to people he can come back from something like this. Trust it. Trust the process. Have fun with it, and believe that you'll be back on the football field."
There's one bit of good news for all those teams (including the Colts) waiting to see whether Manning will come back. If the final success equation is about hard work, Manning's recovery is about as sure a bet as you'll see these days.