- Associated Press - Saturday, January 28, 2012

The idea didn’t seem so outlandish at the time. Not for a city about to open a spanking new $720 million stadium, and surely not for a team with Peyton Manning under center.

Hosting a Super Bowl would put Indianapolis on the map, sure. Give residents something to do, too, like talk to those people with the funny accents from New York or ride the new zip lines downtown.

But couldn’t Colts fans dream of the day when their team became the first home team to play in the big game?

They could, and they did. It wasn’t the biggest stretch, either, because the Colts had already won a Super Bowl behind Manning and were coming off a 13-3 regular season when the game was awarded to Indianapolis in the spring of 2008.

Then Manning got hurt. And the Colts went south in less time than it takes to complete a warmup lap at the Speedway.

Now, on the eve of what was supposed to be a glorious week in Indianapolis, the home team is a dysfunctional mess.

A joint statement issued Friday by Manning and Colts owner Jim Irsay claimed otherwise, though that was to be expected. The dirty laundry aired publicly the previous few days was so distasteful that something had to be said to get the attention off the home team and back on a game that means so much to the city’s pride.

The self-styled great protector of the horseshoe himself _ that would be Irsay _ says it was all a misunderstanding. Surely not anything that a good talk between friends _ or, say, a payment of $28 million _ couldn’t resolve.

Manning got the talk. Whether he gets the check will ultimately determine just how friendly the owner and his quarterback really are.

The Colts seem ready to move on without the face of their franchise, a player so valuable that they may not have been able to build their new stadium without him. Manning transformed a woeful franchise into a perennial playoff contender, taking the Colts to two Super Bowls and winning one. The prospect of even better times ahead helped Indianapolis residents swallow the increased taxes they were forced to pony up for the new stadium, which opened in 2008.

The NFL gave the city a Super Bowl as a reward, something that seems to have boosted civic pride even if few area residents will actually get inside the Lucas Oil Stadium for the event. As an added bonus, it gave Colts fans a chance to forget about a 2-14 season that was doomed the moment the first rumors about Manning’s health began circulating during the summer.

But Irsay couldn’t stop firing people. Manning couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

And instead of happy chatter about the Super Bowl coming to town, the buzz in Indy in recent days has been a definite downer.

There’s a Manning playing in the Super Bowl, but it’s the wrong one. And the chances of Peyton Manning _ still recovering from three neck surgeries _ playing another down for the Colts seem to be about as good as the chances Indianapolis ever lands another Super Bowl.

He’s owed $28 million by March 8 if the Colts are to keep him, but that’s just part of the problem. The Colts are almost sure to use their No. 1 draft pick on Stanford’s Andrew Luck, and it doesn’t make much sense to be paying millions of dollars to two different quarterbacks _ especially if there’s no guarantee Manning will even be healthy enough to play again.

In Irsay’s defense, there’s no real template on how to handle this. Money aside, he still has to think about the future of the team, and that future likely doesn’t include an aging and suddenly fragile Manning.

Irsay already sacked much of the front office and the coaching staff, something that clearly upset Manning. He’s in the midst of rebuilding the Colts, and has to be looking at Luck as the new face of the franchise, much like Manning was when the Colts picked him No. 1 in the 1998 draft.

That it came down to the owner and the star player sniping at each other this week was perhaps inevitable. Decision time is coming, and it’s becoming increasingly clear what that decision has to be.

Odds are Manning is done playing for the Colts, perhaps even done playing football entirely. Those reading tea leaves surely noted that the joint statement Manning and Irsay issued on Friday contained no reference to Manning playing for the team again, no reassurance that he was healing and would be able to play quarterback again.

For the next week the big question in Indianapolis will be who wins the Super Bowl.

For Colts fans, though, there’s an even bigger question to be answered once the game is over.

____

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or at http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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