How sad is it that the worst thing about Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis was the presence of the Colts' owner and the team's legendary quarterback? In a week during which the city, for the most part, shone in every way, Peyton Manning passed his time teeing up his owner with the help of his agent, Tom Condon, and each time Irsay took the bait and messed the bed.
Let's start with this: If the 32 team owners are truly worried about their images and, more importantly, the image of their league, they need to pass a rule that none of their brethren is allowed to have Twitter accounts. Irsay is arguably the head canary amongst NFL owners, and every time he tweets, he sets NFL class and dignity back a millennium or so.
Irsay views himself as a renaissance man, and his problems with Twitter started months ago during the lockout and reached the height of embarrassment for his club when he started tweeting rumors about the possibility of his recruiting Brett Favre to replace the injured Manning. Sure, he was kidding and, in his mind, just connecting with his fans, but it was at that point that people started laughing at Irsay rather than with him. Fast-forward to today, where I'm sure Irsay believes he's doing his fans a favor by communicating directly with them, but, in fact, what he's doing is undercutting everyone in his organization who's trying to work for him.
As I headed to Indianapolis, it was clear there would be a spotlight on the biggest question of this offseason in the NFL: Will one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, who, until just a couple of months ago, everybody believed would play his entire career in Indy, remain a Colt? Irsay indicated that the Colts would do their best to keep the question out of the spotlight, and Manning seemed to agree.
The next thing we knew, Irsay was tweeting about needing to determine whether or not Manning would be healthy enough to play before a decision could be made. Then, suddenly on Tuesday morning, there was Manning showing up on ESPN and in an impromptu Q & A with a dozen or so reporters in the media center, including our own Eric Edholm, talking about how great he was feeling, how well his rehab was coming and that he would definitely be playing in 2012. The exclamation point came when a story surfaced, clearly leaked by Manning's agent, Condon, that the surgeon who performed the third procedure on Manning's neck last August and the Colts' team surgeon had cleared him to play again, although I don't know if that was ever actually confirmed.
As I'm sure Manning and Condon expected, Irsay couldn't even pretend to control himself and immediately tweeted that Manning had not passed the Colts' physical and had not been cleared to play for them. It made Irsay look petty, vindictive and small. I believe it also signaled the end of any possibility whatsoever that Manning will ever suit up for the Colts again.
How did what looked like a love-in a few months ago, with Irsay vowing — via Twitter, of course — that if he paid Manning $25 million last year to sit out, he would certainly pay him $28 million this year — the bonus due March 8 to keep Manning with the Colts — to play. Many believe that, as the losses mounted and Irsay decided to ax Bill and Chris Polian and head coach Jim Caldwell, Irsay also began to wonder if Manning may have known he wasn't 100 percent and accepted the $25 million bonus last year in bad faith. Only Manning knows for sure. What's clear is that, as the 2011 season wore on, Irsay became less and less enchanted with the face of his franchise.
Now both sides are going to lose. Manning will play again. That was never in doubt, but all we can do is wait and see how close he can get his throwing arm back to full strength and if he is ever himself again. Everyone knows the Redskins, Dolphins and Cardinals will all join the bidding once he becomes a free agent, and the Jets just may kick the tires, too. One of them will take the leap and guarantee him $15 million or so, but the rest will all be based on incentives. Regardless of how his career plays out, he is now officially on the Brett Favre freeway, and who ever thought we'd see Peyton there?
Irsay has himself an extremely promising young GM in Ryan Grigson and an NFL-ready head coach in Chuck Pagano. The Colts will draft Andrew Luck and pray that he eventually at least resembles Manning, and begin the painful process of completely rebuilding the roster around him on both sides of the ball. Is this the way it should be for a team coming off an NFL-record nine straight playoff appearances going into this season? No, it isn't, and it also didn't have to be this way. But at some point Irsay decided that gratifying his own ego was more important than the standard of excellence he built for the Colts, and now he's turned them into little more than a punch line.