- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 3, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, clearly filled with emotion after reaching a momentous decision, steps up to the lectern and empties his heart:

“It was difficult, but it was time and it was the right decision to make,” Irsay says. “Fourteen years is a long time in this league. There are a lot of great memories, and I’ll treasure all those memories. But it was time.”

We don’t have to imagine the scene at Colts headquarters. It occurred Monday following a 2-14 season. But the subject was Bill Polian, who was fired after building the Colts into a long-running powerhouse.

Irsay might as well save those words and utter them again soon — in reference to quarterback Peyton Manning.

Parting with Manning might seem difficult to Irsay and a generation of Colts fans so accustomed to seeing No. 18 under center. They love the sight of him in the backfield, running the offense like a maestro conducting an orchestra. Manning and the Colts became synonymous with sustained excellence, to the tune of 141 regular-season wins, 11 playoff appearances, six division titles, two AFC championships and one Super Bowl title.

Yet, there comes a time when teams must move on without their beloved icon. Unless logic is thrown out the window in favor of emotion, the Colts have reached that point with Manning.

The reasoning is as clear as the numbers on Manning’s contract, birth certificate and medical charts. He’s due a $28 million roster bonus in March; he’ll be 36 next season; and he had three neck operations in 19 months.

Perhaps the biggest number that should make Manning an ex-Colt is No. 1 — as in the NFL’s first draft pick. The Colts‘ opportunity to select Stanford QB Andrew Luck should seal Manning’s fate and close his chapter in Indy.

Irsay and now-former vice chairman Polian already did Manning a couple of favors. They gave him a five-year, $90 million contract in July without knowing how he’d recover from neck surgery, and then they kept him on the active roster all year instead of putting him on season-ending injured reserve.

Those moves put millions in Manning’s pocket and cost the Colts a roster spot to boot.

The team shouldn’t pay even more just to avoid hurting his feelings.

Listen to something else Irsay said Monday after he fired Polian: “When I walk into the locker room with my team on opening Sunday, I’m expected to make sure the circle I’ve built is as strong as it can be for us to win. Sentiment and those things can’t come between that.”

You have to wonder if the same standard will apply when it comes to Manning. Some observers suspect that Irsay wants to keep Manningand draft Luck, despite the debilitating side-effects on Indy’s salary cap.

Teams that go 2-14 have multiple holes to fill, far too many to spend so much money at one position. If the Colts can’t trade their damaged-goods QB they should cut him and give Luck the keys.

The success of Cam Newton and Andy Dalton — without a full offseason, by the way — proves that rookie signal-callers no longer need apprenticeships. Luck has all the tools to step in and produce immediately, giving the Colts another long run of stability at the most important position.

Manning might never play again. If he does, he might never return to his previous level. Either way, he can find out in a different uniform, like another great Colts QB before him (Johnny Unitas) or other legends (Brett Favre and Joe Montana).

But Sports Illustrated’s Peter King reports that Irsay views Manning’s future as a “family decision” and not a “football decision.”

“It means to me that Jimmy Irsay is going to give Peyton Manning his $28 million bonus unless one of two things happen: Manning absolutely can’t play football or Manning wants out,” King said Monday on NBC SportsTalk. “So I think Irsay has essentially put the onus on himself to make that huge decision.”

That’s more like indecision.

Luck represents the future. Another two or three years from Manning won’t do anything except slow Luck’s development. The Colts should embrace this bittersweet transition, saying goodbye to their cherished legend while welcoming his heir apparent.

The decision shouldn’t be difficult at all.

“I’ve always believed it’s about timing, it’s about energy. It’s about what the time calls for,” Irsay said Monday. “… I’m excited about our new direction. It’s a new era. We’re moving into exciting times by my estimation.”

He was talking about firing Polian.

He should be talking about the quarterback, too.

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