Square in Bargaining: The Colts Wouldn’t Have Won Anyway

Many posts have been written about Colts fans going through the stages of grief as we transition from the Manning era to the (presumed) Luck era. The notion is that with any loss, people go through some period of shock, denial, bargaining, acceptance, etc., until they can finally accept the change. There’s a little denial within the cycle itself – I have been telling myself for WEEKS that I’m square in the acceptance stage, but it hit me today that I’m still in bargaining, perhaps even denial or shock.

This picture is what jolted me into reality. Even though I saw the press conference introducing Manning as a Bronco(s), updates have been relatively limited compared to January and February, so I’ve been able to ignore reality… yup, denial. But here’s my attempt to at least move into bargaining…

I get that “you don’t cut a healthy Manning,” (and as I’ve mentioned before, I think Nate is making 2 distinct statements with that comment) but – and here’s the bargaining part – I also don’t think the Colts could have fielded a championship-caliber team had they kept him.

First, too many key players had suffered recent injuries, and didn’t show promise of returning to peak performance for 2012. Joseph Addai, Gary Brackett, Melvin Bullitt, and Dallas Clark all missed a significant number of games during the last two years. Even if their contracts had been inexpensive – and they weren’t* – it may not have been worthwhile to keep them on the roster. As Dungy used to say, “The best ability is availability,” and while Addai was more available this year than last, it is telling that neither he nor any of the others listed have seemed to have generated much interest from other teams. Sadly, there are even rumors that Clark “is done.”

Second, there were too many own free agents to sign, and the Colts wouldn’t have been able to afford to “keep the gang together.” Going in to the offseason, they had 22 free agents, mostly journeymen.  But the list also included Pierre Garcon, Robert Mathis, Jacob Tamme, Jeff Saturday and Reggie Wayne. Talk was that the Colts likely would have been able to re-sign 3 of these players (I think Saturday would have given the team a hometown discount, and Tamme might have done the same), but it seemed unlikely they would re-sign 4, let alone 5. They probably could have re-signed Ryan Diem and Anthony Gonzalez had Manning returned, but Diem was slowing and Gonzalez may have preferred a fresh start with a new team. Combined with the losses / declining capabilities of Addai and Clark, this represented as many as half – the better half – of Manning’s familiar protection and weapons.

Finally, while either working with an aging offensive core or getting used to a new group, Manning would have had to score enough to overcome a defense in flux. The 2011 Colts ranked 25th in overall defense, (15th in passing, 29th in rushing), had fired the defensive coordinator after Week 12, and had over $31MM tied up in 5 defensive players, not including Brackett, Bullitt and Mathis. Brackett and Bullitt would add another $11MM. That was 35% of the 2012 cap dedicated to 13% of the roster, and included 2 injured players, and 2 players who still need to prove themselves (Hughes and Moala).  In retrospect, Mathis would have added another ~$9MM. While I don’t question the strategy to pay the top-tier players the most money, it does expose the team to the risk of injury (see: Manning, Peyton) and/or underperformance (see: Simon, Corey).

To play devil’s advocate, Manning is a transcendent player and could have overcome much of what the Colts were facing. He was accustomed to carrying the team on his shoulders – perhaps best evidenced by the 2011 season itself. But the likely losses of key players on the offense, combined with questions on the defense and the cap situation, might have resulted in a multi-year reload effort, wasting valuable time on the back end of Manning’s career. On the other hand, trying to keep everyone together might have hamstrung the team into a few one-playoff-game-and-done years, or worse, a few 8-8 years. While I will probably remain in the early stages of grief until Manning is inducted in the Hall of Fame, and I desperately wish the team could have found a way to retain him and a core group of players, I can still convince myself that the team will be able to survive his loss.

*2012 cap hits: Addai – $4.76MM; Brackett – $7.4MM; Bullitt – $3.74MM; Clark – $8.05MM