The Indianapolis Colts cut Peyton Manning.
A year and a half later, those words are still surprising. While both parties have fared well since parting ways, the move is still shrouded in misinformation and controversy.
As Manning prepares to lead his Denver Broncos into Indianapolis next Sunday, now is the perfect time to revisit the fact and fiction of one of the most controversial cuts of all time.
There are eight myths surrounding the decision that have to be dispelled in order to fully understand how the man responsible for Lucas Oil Stadium came to suit up in the visitors' locker room. These commonly held beliefs are often furthered by the press, but all are erroneous.
The purpose of this piece is not to argue that the Colts should not have cut Manning. In fact, that's one of the myths about the decision. Instead, the only goal of this piece is to set the record straight so that when we discuss the historical importance of the move, we can do so with all the facts straight.
Myth #1. The Colts had no choice but to cut Manning for salary cap reasons.
Shortly after the Colts parted ways with Manning, they began a roster purge that saw classic Colts like Gary Brackett, Joe Addai and Dallas Clark cut from the team. The Colts were in salary cap hell, and that necessitated radical roster restructuring.
It has been stated several times, most often by Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz, that the Colts had no choice. They could not keep Manning and field any kind of squad in 2012.
This is patently false.
Manning was slated to have a 2012 cap hit of roughly $17 million. However, because he was cut with signing bonus money still outstanding, he still had a cap hit of $10.6 million even after he was cut.
By cutting Manning, the Colts saved $6.4 million in cap space in 2012.
Some may recall that they had an easy source to recoup the money necessary to cut Manning. Dwight Freeney was in the final year of his contract with a base salary of $14 million. Had the Colts parted ways with the defensive end, they could have kept Manning and actually had $7.6 million MORE in cap room than they did. By the way, in exchange for that $14 million the Colts got five sacks and 34 hurries.
Now, rolling that forward to 2013, Indy would have definitely had less cap room to work with. Manning would have cost $18 million against the cap. Of course, the Colts spent widely in the 2013 offseason, but the early returns haven't been great. Eric Walden has played poorly. LaRon Landry has missed extensive time. Donald Thomas is out for the season. Greg Toler has been abused at times.
The Colts would have had to be more frugal this past offseason (assuming Manning didn't restructure his deal), but they still would have had plenty of cap room to operate.
There's no question that Luck is more friendly to the Indy cap than Manning would have been. Whether Manning would be worth the extra money is a debate for another day. The simple fact remains that Indianapolis did not have to cut him.
They chose to.
Myth #2. Keeping Manning would have meant no Wayne or Mathis
The corollary to myth #1 is that Manning would have so crippled the Indy salary cap, that none of the other moves, including re-signing Robert Mathis and Reggie Wayne, could have taken place.
If point #1 is a lie, so is point #2. As noted, cutting Freeney instead of Manning would have resulted in MORE cap room for the Colts, not less.
So, yes, Wayne and Mathis could still have been retained. Additionally, every other player brought in by Ryan Grigson could have been signed. Theoretically, Indy could have fielded an identical roster in the "Manning-version" of 2012.
Myth #3 The Colts wouldn’t have cut Manning if they had won the last game.
Some writers like to play the "what-if" game about the Colts final game of the 2012 season.
If Indy had beaten the Jacksonville Jaguars, they would have wound up with the second overall pick. The thinking goes that they then would have kept Manning.
This is purely hypothetical, but according to Jim Irsay, he would have made the same call.
So as long as we are playing the counter-factual alternate universe game, we can scratch off a mad fourth-quarter rally by Dan Orlovsky as a way to preemptively cut the Gordian Knot of Luck v. Manning.
Myth #4. Manning wouldn’t have survived behind the Indy line.
Luck was hit more than any other quarterback in 2012, and some argued that the immobile Manning would have been torn to shreds behind the Indianapolis line.
That's total nonsense.
Indianapolis had terrible offensive lines in 2008-2010, yet Manning was perennially the least sacked passer in the game. The bulk of the responsibility for sacks comes not from the linemen but the quarterback himself. Manning's quick release allows him to avoid sacks throughout his career even as the quality of his linemen waxed and waned.
Sacks are about decision making and release. Both are areas in which Luck has room to grow. Manning would have played just fine behind the 2012 line and would likely have taken half the sacks Luck did.
Myth # 5. The Colts made a mistake in cutting Manning.
Skip Bayless would have you believe that cutting the soon-to-be five-time MVP was a horrible mistake.
The Indianapolis Colts gave up PEYTON MANNING for Andrew Luck? SERIOUSLY?— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) October 15, 2013
He is wrong.
While I think a sound argument can be made that the Colts would be better right now if they had Manning than they are with Luck, that's a far cry from calling the move a mistake.
In fact, as long as the Colts chose between Manning and Luck, they couldn't possibly have made a mistake. It's like being forced to choose between the greatest cheesecake ever and a larger piece of cheesecake that is almost as good (In a related story, I may or may not be on a diet right now. A younger man would have made some kind of boob reference, but I'm definitely sticking with cheesecake).
Manning is in the middle of an amazing run of play, but there was serious risk associated with him in the spring of 2012. Luck was a sure bet, and Manning was a big risk, albeit one with a bigger upside.
Manning is better than Luck now, and is likely to be better than Luck for another couple of years. That's not a stretch to say; he's probably better than any quarterback has ever been. Saying Manning's upside is bigger is not a slight to Luck. No one in history has ever played to the level he's playing right now. Luck could become the best player in the NFL and never play as well as Manning is currently.
Anyone who has watched Luck at all knows that his ceiling is virtually unlimited, and he has a real shot at being an Aaron Rodgers-type force in the NFL. Even so, Manning is one of the five best players ever, possibly the greatest. That's a high standard to meet.
The Colts made the right move by cutting Manning. Of course, if they had kept him, it would also have been the right move.
Myth #6. Manning and Luck could have co-existed.
The only possible mistake the Colts could have made would have been trying to keep both Luck and Manning. This was evident from early on.
Luck was clearly ready to play, and asking Manning to give up practice and game snaps would have been a recipe for disaster. Neither player would have done well standing around watching the other.
Trading the rights to the top pick would have brought Indy a massive haul of picks. Be it Cleveland's whole draft or a Redskins-style offer of three first round picks, there's no question that the Colts would have had a major influx of talent thanks to the Luck pick.
Obviously, cutting Manning has worked out well for Indianapolis too.
Dealing with the cap restrictions of Manning without getting the picks for Luck would have only delayed the decision. They would have had to trade one or the other after the 2012 season, and given the way Manning played in 2012, the choice would have been Luck.
They would likely have received much less value for Luck after 2012 than before the draft. The reason is that teams would want a discount for the loss of one year of his rights.
Keeping Manning required a full commitment to Manning. That is not something the Colts were prepared to do in March 2012.
Myth #7. The Colts made a move for the next 15 years.
Perhaps the most ridiculous meme out of the decision to take Luck was that the Colts were choosing 15 years of winning.
While that may happen, it's important to realize that the NFL isn't baseball or basketball. The future is always now. You can rebuild and reshape teams in a single season, two at the most. Look at the Steelers and Giants. Even with multiple rings from their future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, 10 years in and both franchise have to at least be thinking about moving on.
The choice was not two or three years of Manning versus 15 of Luck.
The choice was five years of Manning versus a decade of Luck. Manning is a football junkie who after surviving surgery to come back isn't going to walk away any time soon. He'll be with the Broncos long enough to break all of Favre's passing records, and at the pace he's playing now, Denver can count on a couple more MVP-level seasons for their trouble.
Only 22 players in history have started 160 games at quarterback in their career. Only about 12 or 13 did it with a single franchise. Move that bar to 180 games and the list drops to five.
The odds are very much against Luck playing 15 years for the Colts. Ten is a more realistic number.
The Colts gave up five years of Manning for around 10 years of Luck.
Myth #8. There was ever any decision at all.
Go back and rewatch the press conferences for Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano. Grigson wouldn't even say Manning's name.
There was no hemming and hawing internally. The Colts didn't believe Manning was healthy. They were dead set on selecting Luck. Irsay had conflicted emotions, but it was evident for two months what he was going to do.
Jim Irsay made his choice early in the process, and the awkward final two months was merely the fall out. He believed Manning wasn't healthy, and he did what he thought he had to do.
Talking to Colts staff at training camp 2012, everyone spoke in hushed, worried tones about Manning's health. People were genuinely worried about whether he'd survive the season without a significant and life-threatening injury. It seemed no one working for the Colts truly believed he was healthy and would be able to play. There was nothing but affectionate concern for Manning.
From the Colts' perspective, Manning wasn't a sure-enough bet to even consider keeping him. The team had a new regime and was going in a new direction. They wanted to reshape the look and feel of the franchise into their own image, and Manning wasn't going to fit those plans.
This was a slam-dunk for them, not a choice.
There will still be a few more years before we can fully judge the Colts' decision to cut arguably the best quarterback in NFL history. If Manning plays at the level he's at now or close to it for several more seasons, it will be difficult for Luck to ever add that kind of value. If Manning retires after another season or two or suffers a decline in play, Luck could surpass his value before his rookie deal is up. It's just too soon to know.
One thing is clear, however: the Colts made the right choice.
Had they kept Manning and dealt the rights to Luck, that would have turned out to be a right choice too.
Sometimes, events are so stacked in your favor that you can't possibly screw it up.
When choosing between Luck and Manning, you almost can't go wrong.
I really don't see where you and I have any real substantive disagreement, Nate! If you want to believe that there was nothing that Peyton could have done to remain a colt ,then that's your prerogative. I simply don't buy it! And I live in the real world where loyalty goes both ways. In order for it to happen, Peyton needed to adjust his salary demands. I remain absolutely steadfast in my belief that he simply did not care enough about staying there to do that.
Now, does that make him a villain? Of course not! He had every right to go wherever he wanted to go. But I do not buy into any scenario where he comes out as the "victim" of this situation. He could have very literally forced Irshay to keep him by simply making some concessions on the money end.
And while I don't necessarily agree that keeping them both would have been "insane", it's ovious that it has probably worked out for the best.
And lastly, when I referred to Luck as a generational talent I did not mean to infer that there is only one such talent each generation. I was really talking about the reality that most teams do not have that kind of player but once in a generation, if then. Occasionally you will have a Young follow a Montana, or a Rogers follow a Brett, that is extremely rare.
So, considering the fact of the importence of the QB position, and considering the fact that Peyton was coming off of a very serious neck injury that had kept him out for the entire year, and that his absence had created the disastrous circumstances that led to the colts being in the position to draft the best QB prospect in the draft, Peyton needed to not allow the "poisen pill" scenario to develop with regards to the salary cap in order for him to stay there.
But he did, and that ball was in his court. Period!
Skip Bayless' argument is "Seriously?"
Is he a sports journalist or a reporter for Tiger Beat? (Don't answer that.)
The big mistake that irshay keeps making is that he keeps trying to justify what he doesn't have to justify!!! He made the decision that is oviously in the best long term interest of the team. Period! The Payton cultist have a very selective memory about the events leadng up to his departure. No one seemingly remembers that Payton did not play an entire year due to a neck injury. And that he got paid for that year and was completely unwilling to make any kind of concessions on that gigantic bonus that he would have had to have been paid if he was kept on the roster.
For all of his immense talent and charm, Payton is a bit of an self absorbed ass who gets a pass from the adoring sports media who paint him as the so-called victim in this scenario when he was anything but. If Payton had really cared more about ending his career as a colt than having his cake and eating it to, he would still be a colt. He literally forced the owners hand. He actually forced the owner to make the only decision that was actually plausible at the time.
To pass on a generational talent like luck to appease the Manning cultists and to massage the ego of your HOF QB who (at that time) was not even a sure thing to even be able to make it thru another season, would have been tragically stupid. Period!!
I also think the article was a good piece. I believe that both the Colts and Peyton made the right decision. They both got a good result with the choices they made. The Colts have a very talented young quarterback that they have a future with and Peyton is with a class organization that is committed to him being their future as well. That's coming from a Texan fan to boot. I enjoy watching both of them (Luck & Peyton) when they play on Sundays.
Pointing out Freeney's production in the 3-4, which they might not have switched to if they kept Manning, seems kind of unfair, but that hardly makes a dent in the overall argument, especially since it's possible Freeney would have accepted a significant pay cut in return for a new contract (since he would likely have been cut otherwise and would probably have to accept less from another team anyway).
Trading the greatest boob ever for a bigger boob that is almost as good? I can't tell if you didn't think that through or if you definitely thought that through. :)
To my mind The Colts had to step forward into the Luck-Era. I'm amazed that a team like the Dallas Cowboys with as much A-1 talent that still can't find a way to win, no-matter how many changes they make ,to assistants and Head-Coaches didn't make sure they got Mr Manning and a shot the next 2-3 Super Bowls...)
It has been a while since I read a Nate Dunlevy article, and it reminds me what I have been missing. Excellent analysis.
I can never forget that MNF game when Colts defeated Bucs, down 21 points with <5min remaining in the game (or something like that). Lots of memories.
I wish Colts management had kept Manning, traded away the #1 pick and got loads of draft picks and free agents (surely Luck would have commanded more than what Redskins gave for RGIII). Oh well, ifs and buts!!
Finally, I can't believe how stupid some of the commentators can be on TV. One dude, in the post MNF game show this week, was talking about how Luck would feel if people in the stadium on Sunday would cheer for Manning. Get real buddy, if this incident proved anything, no teams belong to a QB, owner calls the shots. Is that so hard to understand.
I will always be on the side of Manning. he turned me from a basketball junky to a football junky. However, I agree that neither choice was the wrong one. The wrong choices were two-fold: to leave behind the best GM in the history of the NFL, and to ignore over a decade of unprecedented success by choosing a philosophy that belongs in the deepest pits of hell.
And Jim Irsay keeps finding ways to validate my choice to follow 18 out of Indy with his rings comment today. It may have been a win/win choice for him when he chose Luck over Manning's history, but i was a Colts fan by birth, and a football fan thanks to PFM. No qualms about turning in my horseshoe when it kicked out the GOAT.
Good research, good analysis. They did what they had to do. Given that Bill Polian's son worked for Stanford, I'm sure Luck was on the radar long before the decision was made, and may have been made before Polian's exit for sure. After soo many years of futility when the Colts came to Indy, it's nice to know that we had something special in Peyton, and now Luck. Peyton renewed not only the on-field performance of the Colts, but also the front office. God I would really hate to think where we would be if they would have drafted Ryan Leaf. Anyone in San Diego want to let me know. Yeah. you beat us, but you won't make the playoffs. Not in that division.
I have trouble separating Peyton's departure from the other changes to the team. I don't know if seeing his release as a changing of the guard or the natural order of things represents a myth, but I see it instead as part of the Schism of 2012. My sympathies lie with the excommunicated. If that "stats/championships" quote is accurate, Irsay made me very angry today.
Outstanding piece, by the way.
Like many, I have totally bought in on Andrew Luck. He will be great. But I will never forget how I felt at the end of Peyton's career as a Colt. I wanted to keep Peyton and trade that pick. Like you, I don't think the Colts made a bad decision but the Colts could have kept on winning with that decision as well. A part of me will never forgive Irsay for the way he handled things and I will never forget Peyton's final press conference in front of the Colts' logo. I still can't rewatch it. I still wonder if Peyton will actually retire as a Colt.
Great piece, Nate. Unfortunately, those myths will probably live on.
@spurwhisperer "He could have very literally forced Irshay to keep him by simply making some concessions on the money end."
This is where you are 100% wrong.
Irsay asked Manning to curtail his snaps with the first string offense to accommodate Luck. He wanted to be sure Luck got extra practice and game time.
THAT (not the money) is what was the deal breaker. Your understanding of what the central issues were is just not right.
The poison pill forced the decision, but it wasn't the actual obstacle.
Keeping both quarterbacks wouldn't have made sense. Luck's high possible trade value was before the draft ever took place. For Indy to keep both would have ensured a lower return on the initial investment.
Keeping both was easily the worst possible option. It's not even close.
@spurwhisperer My God, you are just too f**king stupid to insult. A "self-absorbed ass", wow really?? I know of a man he called in Indianapolis on the TUESDAY BEFORE THE COLTS/BRONCOS to wish him well on his heart transplant surgery. Gee, you think maybe PEYTON (at least spell his name correctly, you idiot), had a lot on his mind that week?? And no, he wasn't in the hospital that bears PEYTON'S name, so it wasn't a PR move. Yeah, giving a few million to a CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL (that insisted it be named after PEYTON because of the time and money he donated to it) is a real pompous ass move, huh? I've read a lot of stupid comments about this situation, but it's painfully obvious that you know dick about the entire story. And one more time, it's PEYTON!!! Dumbass...
@spurwhisperer Yet, he did play again and played awesome, so it wouldn't have been stupid. Your assessment of the situation doesn't hold water.
You actually hit on two more myths!
1. " If Payton had really cared more about ending his career as a colt than having his cake and eating it to, he would still be a colt. He literally forced the owners hand. He actually forced the owner to make the only decision that was actually plausible at the time."
This is not true. His contract forced Irsay to make a decision. That was a good thing, not a bad thing. Had Irsay had the opportunity to keep Manning and Luck, he might have tried it. It would have been insane and the worst thing for the franchise. The 'poison pill' didn't force Irsay to cut him. It forced Irsay to choose. (see point 1).
The second myth is the "generational talent" line. No such thing.
Throughout football history, there have always been at least two to five amazing QBs at once. There's never been just "one guy". Manning had Favre and Brady. Montana had Elway and Marino. This goes all the way back to the 60s.
@Heracleitus They were switching to the 3-4 no matter what. Pagano was already hired.
They never offered Freeney a chance to take less money, and he said he would have. I still don't get any of that.
And oh, I thought that through.
@Freeneysalwaysheld Couldn't agree more and I did the same thing. Not only can Irsay have his horseshoe back, but he can have it back sideways (guess where!)...
@Blue North Yes, that was a pile of nuts.
I sort of lumped the decision to ax Polian with the decision to go with Luck over Manning in my mind, though I suppose it may very well have happened anyway (much to Brad Wells' delight). I guess I'll grant (this time) that your assumption in this scenario is somewhat less speculative than mine.
And I was fairly certain that you had, but like I was going to pass up an opportunity to make the thought explicit. :)