Luck and Manning Will Not Co-exist

Nate Dunlevy reviews the short- and long-term implications of the Colts loss in Jacksonville and rebukes suggestions that Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck could co-exist on the same team.

Happy New Year.

The Colts 19-13 loss yesterday secured the top overall pick in the 2012 draft, and extracted at least one dram of redemption from the carcass of 2011. Colts fans should be very careful about what they’ve wished for, however. The #1 pick though valuable has the potential to upend the franchise permanently.

The first clues about the future of the Colts could be revealed today as we await word of the fate of Jim Caldwell and his staff. Any kind of clean sweep of the coaching staff, especially one that extends into the front office almost assuredly means the end of Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and the close on one of the most successful runs in NFL history.

By now the Grinch should be happily digesting his roast beast, but today I’m going to play his part in the New Year. There is no “happy happy rainbow fun-time fairyland” scenario for the Colts surrounding this #1 pick. Fans should prepare themselves for it now. One way or another, things are going to get ugly in the coming weeks and months.

The following things are not going happen all at once:

  • The Colts fire Jim Caldwell and hire a big name coach (Cowher! Fisher! Vince Lombard!)
  • Peyton Manning cheerfully renegotiates his deal so the Colts don’t owe him a $28 million bonus.
  • Dwight Freeney signs a below market value extension allowing the Colts to bring back Robert Mathis.
  • Reggie Wayne signs a reasonable deal, playing for the $2-4 million a year that the Colts can afford for a 34 year old wideout
  • Andrew Luck happily consents to come to Indianapolis to ride the bench for 2-5 years.
  • Manning and Luck become best buds, cheerfully pushing one another as Peyton mentors him, graciously giving up practice reps, and a few drives a game so the young man can become the next great quarterback.

I’ve been accused of being homer who shoots rainbows out his butt, but there will be no ass rainbows today. No matter what the Colts do, it’s going to be messy. I’ve been saying since September that the Colts absolutely cannot play Luck and Manning on the same roster, and nothing has happened to change my mind.

Consider: Peyton Manning is a fanatical practice player who doesn’t like to give snaps to other QBs. He never wants to leave games. He already gave the team a health related escape clause after this season. Now fans expect him to happily renegotiate his deal so that the Colts can draft another quarterback. It’s not going to happen. Manning and Luck are expected to share an agent (Tom Condon). Condon’s goal is to get as much money as possible for both his clients. He’s never going to agree to a situation that allows them both to be on the same roster. It’s a fantasy. Peyton Manning, injured or not, is going to be able to extract more money as a free agent that the Colts would have to pay him under his existing deal. The Colts have to sink or swim with Peyton on the deal they have with him now. There is no way Peyton renegotiates unless there are iron-clad assurances the team is not taking Andrew Luck.

Consider: Andrew Luck would be a fool to come to Indianapolis if Peyton Manning is on the roster. How long does anyone think that arrangement would last? One year? Two years tops? First of all, if Luck is the kind of guy to happily accept sitting on the bench the Colts don’t want him. Who wants a franchise quarterback so docile that he just accepts his fate? If Andrew Luck doesn’t sit down with the Colts and say, “If you don’t dump Manning, I won’t play for you. You have to trade me”, then he’s not the right guy for the job. No one as competitive and driven as a franchise QB in the NFL is going to be ok with riding the pine for years. This isn’t Eli Manning and Kurt Warner. Peyton isn’t keeping the seat warm for Luck. Peyton Manning will never willingly pass the reins over to Luck. You’ll have to pry the football out of his cold dead laser-rocket hands.

Forget roster maximization for a moment. There’s no way a Luck/Manning roster works from a locker room standpoint. This notion that professional athletes should be magnanimous and cheerfully do what’s in the best interests of the organization is just not reality. For a moment, stop considering what you think things should be like. Maybe Luck and Manning should hold hands and skip around the complex as a show of friendship, love, and loyalty to the fans and future of the team. Even if you think that’s how they should behave, please be mature enough to realize that’s not going to happen.

The Colts aren’t keeping Manning without paying him the $28 million bonus (unless perhaps they assure him they won’t take Luck). If they do pay him that money, that’s it. There’s no going back. That’s a decision. You cannot trade or cut Manning any time in the next three years without setting off a massive salary bomb that would cripple the team. You can’t have two years of Peyton. You can have zero years or four years.  Otherwise, are going to give Andrew Luck a team with a huge pile of dead money on it. It just doesn’t make sense. Why bring Manning back at all if you aren’t trying to win right now. If you are trying to win right now, what sense does it make to spend the most valuable #1 pick in ten years on a guy who doesn’t help you win right now?

Likewise, you cannot possibly draft Andrew Luck unless you plan to play him in 2013 at the latest. This is not an Aaron Rodgers situation. Rodgers was a late first round pick. He had no leverage. He couldn’t force his way out of Green Bay. Andrew Luck has all the leverage in the world, and he’d be a fool not to use it. Colts fans drool over the prospect of the next Peyton, but consider for a moment how the first Peyton would have dealt with this situation. Do you think the guy who taunted Polian and Irsay that he’d kick their ass for a decade if they didn’t draft him would have been ok riding the pine for a few years? Luck’s dad is a successful man. The family doesn’t need the money. He can sit out the year if he has to, and he’d be nuts not to threaten it.

I can understand those who want a tabla rasa for the Colts. They want rid of the whole Manning era. While I think most of those people are in the media and are advocate that course for their own purposes and selfish interests, there’s a logic to it. If in fact you believe the Colts are irrevocably broken and the only path to glory is to start over, then it makes sense. In fact, if Peyton Manning isn’t an option, I can buy into that line of thinking quite easily.

If Peyton Manning is healthy, the Colts should deal Luck. This isn’t a choice between 4 years of Peyton Manning and 15 years of Peyton Manning Part 2. This is likely a choice between 4 years of Peyton Manning and 15 years of Drew Bledsoe, Carson Palmer, or Vinny Testaverde. Given that, I’ll take the four years of Peyton Manning, thank you very much. Luck might be a special once-in-a-generation player…but the odds are very much against it. If he’s any of those guys I mentioned, then he’d be a very good #1 pick. A nice 15 year career with a handful of Pro Bowls is a good solid haul for the top pick.

What’s that even mean, by the way, “once in a generation”? There are four of those guys playing in the NFL right now at least. Brees, Brady, Rodgers are easily in that category along with Manning. There has never actually been only one ‘once in a generation’ player at a time. There are always like four of them in the NFL. They actually come along every five years or so. That’s because five years in the NFL IS a generation. It’s an eternity. So forgive me if I’m not ready to throw dirt on the Manning era for the sake of a guy who will come back around in a different form in just a couple of years.

No matter what happens, expect it to be messy. If Jim Irsay fires Bill Polian, expect every player you love from the Colts to be gone within a month, and that very much includes Peyton Manning. If the Colts fire Jim Caldwell, know that the same thing could well happen. Even if everyone is back upstairs, I still expect an extensive roster turnover. The salary cap is not going up. Everyone cannot be signed who should be signed. Accept that now.

The next few months are not going to pretty one way or the other. Whenever jobs are on the line there will be distrust. The Colts’ best course of action is a clear, decisive one. Anything else will be chaos.