The Green Bay Packers have been lucky since September 20, 1992. When quarterback Don Majkowski went down with an ankle injury that same day against the Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay entered a reign of quarterback continuity and security extremely rare in the NFL.
Although the breakup was messy and many fans still remain hurt over the nature of Brett Favre’s departure, fans of Green Bay will continue to heal and forgive their former hero as his not-so-fond memory of the last three years of his career is steadily erased by another MVP-worthy quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. When is the last time a franchise can say it has enjoyed such security and dominance at the quarterback position? Maybe the San Francisco 49ers, a team that enjoyed Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young in succession.
But, as so well documented throughout Rodgers brief, yet brilliant, career, replacing a legend behind center isn’t always a destination for immediate success. How have things been going at the quarterback spot in Miami since Dan Marino left? Let’s see, Jay Fiedler, A.J. Feeley, Joey Harrington, Chad Pennington and Chad Henne. Not good.
When it comes to finding a franchise quarterback in the NFL, there are no guarantees of success. There’s no promise that a draft pick will bear fruit for a franchise, just like the free agent pool doesn’t always feature top candidates to take over a starting role. Besides a grocery boy named Kurt Warner throwing toilet paper rolls into carts at a Hy-Vee grocery store after the Packers cut him in 1994, there aren’t enough talented quarterbacks to go around.
It’s hard to argue that there has been another quarterback more consistent and dominating in recent memory than four-time MVP and Super Bowl champion Peyton Manning. But after a neck injury and an unsuccessful surgery and first recovery, Manning sat out all of the 2011 season, watching from the sidelines as the Colts spiraled to a league worst 2-14 record and the first overall selection in the 2012 draft. There might be room to argue that Peyton Manning, not Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, is the NFL MVP this season. The Colts finished 10-6 and went to the playoffs the previous year with Manning as quarterback. This year, the Manning-less Colts squad looked like they had a real chance to give the 2008 Detroit Lions a run for their money as the only team to ever record a 0-16 record.
Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky were not the answer at quarterback for a Colts team without Manning. But with Manning recovering this off-season with hopes to return to the gridiron at full strength, his security as the starting quarterback has largely been put into question by the Colts draft position. It seems abundantly clear that the Colts will draft a quarterback, likely Stanford’s Andrew Luck, with the first overall pick in the draft. The Colts also have a new GM who fired head coach Jim Caldwell and a large part of his staff, much to Manning’s dismay.
So what are the Colts’ options? A Green Bay Packer formula where Peyton Manning is the starter and Andrew Luck sits behind him for a few years, learning on the go while Peyton Manning knows he is ultimately training his successor and his replacement? That could work, if Manning wasn’t one of the most competitive athletes on the planet. Even though Peyton’s father, former Saints quarterback Archie Manning, took back his comments on the fact that he believed Luck and Manning together would never work out, we all know the truth; it’s probably how Peyton feels. How would you feel if you had been the manager of a company’s branch for 13 years and one day a younger, untested employee was assigned to study under you at an assistant manager position? Would you be willing to train him while you ran the company, knowing that at any time the company may fire you and have him take your place?
The Colts’ situation is eerily similar to Green Bay. A new GM takes over, fires the head coach (Ted Thompson fired Mike Sherman as head coach a year after replacing him as the GM) and begins to implement organizational-wide change. Thompson let Pro-Bowl guards Marco Rivera and Mark Wahle leave the Packers in 2005 as well as top safety Darren Sharper in order to free up cap space and release aging players. Thompson has and continues to pursue a vigorous policy of building through the draft but also with the signing of key free agents like Charles Woodson with the cap space he saves. On top of potentially cutting ties with Manning, All-Pro defensive end Dwight Freeney and top receiver Reggie Wayne could also be on their way out as the organization looks to free up cap space and turn a new leaf. Manning has been quite honest with the press about the situation too.
“I’m not in a very good place for healing, let’s say that,” Manning said. “It’s not a real good environment down there right now, to say the least. Everybody’s walking around on eggshells. I don’t recognize our building right now. There’s such complete and total change.”
It’s understandable the position Colts owner Jim Irsay, who will have the final call on if the team retains Manning, finds himself in at present day. Last season, the Colts paid Manning more than $20 million as he rehabbed. Now the owner must choose between the picking up the rehabbing star’s $28 million bonus by March to keep him on the team or cutting ties with the face of the franchise in order to build an entirely new team.
This is where it gets dicey. Manning has given his heart and soul into making the Colts winners; he deserves to go out on his terms. His work ethic and film breakdown in the off-season and during the season is the stuff of legend. Replacing him with an untested rookie like Luck in the NFL is extremely dangerous. Highly picked quarterbacks are often flubs, like Ryan Leaf, Tim Couch and JaMarcus Russell. But Manning is coming off one of the worst places in the body to have an injury, the neck. The Colts have no idea about what they will receive if Manning comes back to the field. Will he be the same or a shadow of his former self? With a serious enough injury that sidelined him for an entire year, nobody knows how long the quarterback will be able to stay healthy.
Do the Colts see a larger benefit in keeping Manning and hoping he can last a few more years and still be an elite quarterback, or do the Colts want to begin the future now by letting go of Manning and drafting Luck to immediately start in the NFL? Both options are high risk and high reward. Thompson and the Packers took a calculated gamble that paid off when they let go of Favre in the waning years of his career. A Super Bowl win vindicated them. The Colts are in a similar spot, but in the NFL, no two gambles yield the same result.