The nerves in Manning's arm are not healing as quickly as hoped and, worse, don't appear to be progressing at enough of a rate to indicate that he will play again, according to two sources with knowledge of Manning's rehabilitation from neck surgery. The vertebrae in his neck that were fused have healed as expected and Manning began throwing in December. But he hasn't shown improvement in velocity on his passes, and the two sources fear he likely never will again.
In addition, two league-affiliated doctors with experience in spinal fusion surgery said it could take up to a year before Manning knows if he can return. Both said the risk is too great for Manning to play again and, because of the timeline, neither would recommend the Colts pay Manning the $28 million bonus he is owed in March.
Manning couldn't be reached for comment.
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Colts owner Jim Irsay declined to talk about Manning's health on Monday before a news conference, but did say, "There are no cases of quarterbacks going through this."
Irsay may have no choice but to let go of Manning. While some people have tried to paint the situation as Irsay choosing to move on from Manning as he rebuilds the Colts after a 2-14 season, that was not Irsay's intention months ago. In October, Irsay discussed the optimal situation of having both Manning and his heir apparent on the roster simultaneously.
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"Guys like that come along so rarely," Irsay said on Oct. 10 at an NFL owners meeting in Houston, referring to Manning and perceived No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck (although Irsay has since indicated that Robert Griffin III could also be the selection). "Even if that means that guy sits for three or four years, you'd certainly think about taking him … you see what Green Bay did with [Brett] Favre and [Aaron] Rodgers and you'd like to be able to do the same thing."
At this point, that scenario is unlikely and not because Irsay doesn't want to pay the money for Manning. Rather, Manning has hit a plateau in his rehabilitation in terms of getting stronger, both sources said. While atrophy in the arm was expected, the fact that it hasn't improved recently is an ominous sign.
"If you're getting consistent improvement, then that's OK. Even if it's going from lifting 10 pounds to 15 pounds to 20 pounds over a stretch of weeks, that's fine," said a doctor who has not seen Manning but has a background in spinal surgery. "If you hit a plateau, that's a problem. … Now, I say that, but I also tell patients who have been through it that it can take up to a year to find out exactly how much strength you're going to get back.
"Right now, Peyton is at about six months. He should have a much better idea by July or August just how far he's going to get … even then, that's only a part of it. You can tell about 80 percent of how the nerves and the muscles are healing by rehab. What you really have to see is how his arm holds up when he starts to throw. Does he have the same velocity on the 15-yard out? Can he throw the 60-yard pass? Can he throw for 30 minutes before his arm gets tired? Can he throw for an hour? It's a very complicated process." It's a process Irsay may not be able to gamble on at this point.
As for Manning's side of it, he remains confident that he will return to action next season even as the progress remains slow. Last week in an extensive interview with Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star, Manning expressed frustration as to why so many people who he has worked with over the years have been let go by the team, including team president Bill Polian and coach Jim Caldwell. While Manning understands the team needing to move forward, he believes he will be able to play again.
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"Any athlete is going to remain confident," one source said. "He wants to play again. He's going to do everything he can to get out there."
Sadly, that may not be enough.
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