Every time it is shocking, yet it keeps happening, so why are we shocked?
Joe Montana didn't finish as a 49er. Joe Namath didn't finish as a Jet. Johnny Unitas didn't finish as a Colt. Bobby Layne didn't finish as a Lion. Will Peyton Manning soon add his name to the list of quarterbacks whose careers ended wearing colors that seemed to clash?
Colts owner Jim Irsay says he isn't sure, and how could anyone be? Yet, deep inside his doubts, he knows the right choice is the hard choice.
Manning turns 36 years old in March. He had three neck surgeries in 19 months. His absence this season caused the Colts to tumble from a playoff contender to a 2-14 laughingstock. The future for the Colts isn't now.
"You never know how an era ends or how they begin,'' Irsay said the day he fired the architect of his team's longtime success, Bill Polian. "You can't say exactly what constitutes an era beginning or ending. Clearly, we are in a rebuilding stage. There's no sugarcoating the fact we have areas of talent that we need. We have decisions coming up that are crucial."
The most important is the most sadly obvious. It is time for life without Peyton.
Manning has meant everything to the Colts. As much as Unitas was the Colts in Baltimore, Manning was the Colts in Indianapolis. But as it was with Unitas, so it must be with Manning. It is time to move on.
In March, Irsay has to pay Manning a $28 million option to retain his services. A month later, unless Irsay has taken leave of his senses, he will select Stanford QB Andrew Luck with the first pick in the draft. Considering how Cam Newton and Andy Dalton performed as rookie quarterbacks this season, the need to sit Luck, who has played masterfully in a pro-style collegiate offense, seems minimal.
Will Luck be Manning? Not in 2012, but Manning might not be either. The conventional thinking would be to retain Manning if doctors say he's healthy, draft Luck and let the former groom the latter for a year or two, but there is nothing conventional about the NFL these days.
Passing has swept away the concept of defense as well as the notion that a rookie quarterback can't come in and play immediately. Manning did it before defense was officially outlawed. Why shouldn't Luck be able to do so under far more liberalized passing rules?
The gamble, of course, is twofold. What if Manning leaves and continues to play as he once did in a new uniform while Luck struggles? Worse, what if Luck turns out to be the next Jeff George?
If he does, someone will get fired, but it won't be Irsay, so he doesn't have to worry about that. Really, the only thing he should be worried about is finding a team willing to mortgage its future to acquire Manning. If he can (Jets, Redskins, Dolphins, Broncos come to mind), he should demand a pile of draft picks (if Carson Palmer is worth a first and a second, what is Peyton Manning worth?) and begin what he knows is coming.
Irsay said at least three times in the first few minutes of his monologue the day he fired Polian that "it was time.''
He was right. It was time for the Polian era to end. Difficult as it is to swallow, the same is true of the Manning era. If they could do it to Johnny U., they can do it to anybody.