- Associated Press - Friday, January 27, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - The NFL’s most watched offseason drama has turned stunningly ugly.

Two days after Peyton Manning complained about the dour atmosphere around the Colts’ complex, team owner Jim Irsay called his four-time league MVP a “politician” and said he didn’t appreciate Manning’s public campaign.

The comments upstaged the introduction of Irsay’s new coach, Chuck Pagano, and came six weeks before Irsay must decide whether to pay the still-recovering Manning a $28 million bonus. Manning missed the entire 2011 season after having his third neck surgery in September.

“I don’t think it’s in the best interest to paint the horseshoe in a negative light, I really don’t,” Irsay told reporters following Pagano’s introduction. “The horseshoe always comes first, and I think one thing he’s always known, because he’s been around it so long, is that, you know, you keep it in the family. If you’ve got a problem you talk to each other, it’s not about campaigning or anything like that.”

Apparently, Manning got the message.

Just a few hours after Irsay responded to questions from reporters, Manning tried to dial things back by telling The Indianapolis Star that he didn’t intend to create a public spat. Instead, Manning said he was speaking from the heart after watching so many of his friends lose their jobs.

“At this point, Mr. Irsay and I owe it to each other and to the fans of the organization to handle this appropriately and professionally, and I think we will. I’ve already reached out to Mr. Irsay,” Manning said. “I wasn’t trying to paint the Colts in a bad light, but it’s tough when so many people you’ve known for so long are suddenly leaving. I feel very close to a lot of these guys and we’ve done great things together. It’s hard to watch an old friend clean out his office. That’s all I was trying to say.

“I just want to keep rehabbing and working hard, and when the time is right for Mr. Irsay and I to sit down, I look forward to a healthy conversation about my future. I’ve worked too hard and have such great respect and have so many great relationships inside the building and out, and it’s incredibly important that those remain.”

Clearly, Irsay wants the same kind of relationship.

But over the past month, the Colts have been as dysfunctional as a Hollywood marriage.

Irsay, the team owner, has fired vice chairman Bill Polian, general manager Chris Polian, coach Jim Caldwell and most of his staff over the last three weeks. Social media has suddenly become the platform of choice to update fans on pending decisions, to shoot down rumors or fan the speculation.

Last week, actor Rob Lowe caused a media frenzy by tweeting that Manning was about to retire. The story got so much attention even Pagano, who was busy preparing for the Ravens’ AFC title game against New England, noticed.

“You know, I’ve got a text or a call out to Rob Lowe and I haven’t heard back yet, so I’m going to have get back to you on that one,” Pagano said when asked if he expected to be coaching Manning next season.

The newest twist could be the most damaging.

On Tuesday, Manning told The Star that his only really conversation with the first-time general manager Ryan Grigson had come in passing and the flurry of moves had those around the team complex walking on “eggshells.”

Many believe Manning’s comments indicated how unhappy he was in Indianapolis, prompting speculation he was looking for a way out.

Irsay didn’t like it that Manning went public with his frustrations.

“I have so much affection and appreciation for Peyton. I mean we’re family. We always will be and we are,” Irsay said. “He’s a politician. I mean look at, when it comes to being competitive, let’s just say on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest, we’re both 11s, OK? So there’s been plenty of egg shells scattered around this building by him with his competitive desire to win.”

The drama may only be beginning.

With Irsay’s men in place in the front office and on the coaching staff, Pagano can focus his attention on selecting a staff. Grigson said Pagano will make those choices.

Irsay’s decisions will become much more difficult.

Indy’s horrendous 2-14 season has given it the No. 1 overall pick, which Irsay has said they will use for their quarterback of the future _ presumably Stanford’s Andrew Luck.

If so, Irsay must decide how much money he wants to invest in one position. Manning signed a five-year, $90 million contract in July and is due the bonus in March. Soon to be 36, the perennial Pro Bowler is also coming off his third neck surgery in less than two years.

Irsay reiterated Thursday that his choice will come down to Manning’s health, not money.

“I think fans already understand that,” Irsay said when asked whether Manning may have played his final game in Colts’ blue. “This isn’t an ankle, it isn’t a shoulder. Often times the NFL is criticized for putting someone out there at risk, and I’m not going to doing that. I think he and I just need to see where his health is because this isn’t about money or anything else. It’s about his life and his long-term health.”

Those answers still may not be determined by the March 8 deadline.

That’s only the start of the Colts’ questions.

Grigson and Irsay must figure out how to free up salary cap space and what to do with a group of high-priced veterans such as Gary Brackett and Melvin Bullitt, and whether they want to bring back some of their key free agents such as Robert Mathis, Jeff Saturday and Reggie Wayne.

Not surprisingly, Pagano wants as many of those guys back as he can get, including Manning.

“I just came from a great organization and just spent some time with one of the greatest leaders (Ray Lewis) to ever play this game,” Pagano said. “And there’s one of those leaders right here (Manning) and those are the types of individuals and people that you have to surround yourself with.”

But it’s Irsay who must make that decision, and it’s obvious that the two haven’t been talking much lately _ something Irsay acknowledged will change between now and March 8.

“It’s a very simple issue, it’s a health issue,” the owner said.

“It’s one of those things where just when you think it’s going in the right direction, things change,” he said, explaining later there was no indication Manning had had a setback over the last month. “It’s been very hard on everyone around here, and it’s been very hard on Peyton, too.”