The Last Four Years Come at a Price

Nate Dunlevy remembers the choice and consequences the Reds faced in 2000 with Barry Larkin and considers what the Colts can learn from it.


Parting with an iconic athlete can be painful. Not parting with him can be costly.

Nothing tests the boundaries of fandom like an aging super-star. The Colts are faced with a Gordian knot in the form of Peyton Manning. Perhaps the greatest player in NFL history, and certainly the most important player in the history of Indianapolis football, Manning’s health and contract have put the Colts in an untenable position.  Jim Irsay is left with the kind of choice that not even Sophie could make: cut Manning and preserve the future of his team or show loyalty to one of the all time greats.

This is not the first time that one of the key heroes from one of my teams was on the verge of leaving town. In 2000, Barry Larkin was in the final deal of a long below-market-value contract, with the Cincinnati Reds. Larkin, a Cincinnati native, was 36 years old, and in the middle of what would be his final .300 season. He was looking for a contract extension with the Reds, but unlike the hometown discount he gave before, he wanted a fair-market deal. The Reds were operating under the kind of payroll restrictions that functioned like a self-imposed salary cap. There was no way they had the money to pay Larkin.

They worked out a trade to the New York Mets late in the season. Larkin blocked the trade initially, but was said to be considering it over the weekend. Fan reaction to Larkin as he batted that Sunday afternoon was overwhelming. The fans enthusiastically cheered his every at bat. Owner Carl Linder, a notorious tight-wad, was touched. He relented on his oath not to resign the hometown shortstop. At age 37, Larkin was paid $9 million a year to return to the Reds for three more seasons. Sardonic announcer Marty Brennaman charged fans at the time to remember that when Cincinnati had no money to pay for pitching in the coming years that they themselves chose Larkin’s extention over fielding a competitive team.

On the surface, the decision was catastrophic. Larkin was healthy for just one of his final three years under the deal, and the team sank in the standings, losing 87, 92, and 99 games. Larkin’s deal crippled the Reds’ ability to compete and the solid team that had been built crumbled under the weight of injuries to aging stars.

So was it a mistake to resign Larkin? The answer is not as obvious as it seems.

When Larkin made the Hall of Fame last week, it was an important and deeply meaningful moment for Reds fans. He played his entire career for just the Reds. Yes, he would have been defined as a Red either way, but because he never wore another jersey, there was something private and wonderful about the moment. Would I have traded a 2003 World Series title for it? Honestly I don’t know. It was probably not a realistic option anyway. As bad as those three years were and as much as that contract hampered the Reds, did that one deal sink them?

Now, 12 years later, would I trade a winning season or two for the right to have rooted for Larkin every single year of his career? I’m not so sure. My guy is going to Cooperstown. My once-in-a-lifetime athlete never played in another jersey, and it does make it all feel more meaningful. It’s not logical at all, I admit. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

If the Colts pay Peyton Manning $28 million to come back in 2012, it most likely will not end well on the field. Fans should accept that now. Manning isn’t healthy now, and he may never be healthy again. Even if he is healthy, the Colts are also committed to drafting Andrew Luck #1 overall. If they pay Manning his bonus, they are committed to keeping him on the roster for three years. There is no exit plan if they keep both quarterbacks. The result will likely show up on the field in the form of losing seasons (plural).

The three most important athletes of my life have been Barry Larkin, Reggie Miller, and Peyton Manning. The first two played their entire careers in one uniform. If Peyton Manning does as well, I’ll be be deeply happy and appreciative. Every game we get to watch him play in a Colts uniform is a gift. Asking me what I think the Colts should do and what will make me the happiest as a fan are two very different questions. Seeing Manning in another uniform would kill me. I think it would kill Jim Irsay too.

There may be wiser alternatives.

That doesn’t make them better. Not everything is about winning.


Notes from the playoff weekend:

  • The Super Bowl will be epic. Either the Giants or 49ers will be sentimental favorites in Indianapolis. Between Lil’ Brother Manning and Captain Comeback Harbaugh, Hoosiers will heartily embrace the NFC over the unthinkable option of the Patriots and Ravens. Three annoying fanbases are gone from the playoffs (Saints, Packers, and Steelers), and another will be eliminated next weekend. I’m just grateful Indy fans will have a dog in the fight, even if it’s not our own.
  • Both the Steelers and Packers suffered losses that mirror the Colts losses in 2005 and 2008. The Packers suffered a tragedy this past week, and I think it’s impossible to calculate how much that affected them. I’ve always considered James Dungy’s tragic death the real reason Indy lost to Pittsburgh in 2005. I think we underestimate the humanity of players and coaches. They aren’t robots.
  • The four teams left in the playoffs are have the following Pass/Run DVOA splits: NE: 3/2 Baltimore: 14/9 NYG: 4/20 SF 12/24. We think of the NFC teams as being run offenses, but they aren’t. The Giants are an elite passing team. They are at the top of the next tier down after the insane offenses of the Pats, Saints and Packers. Even the 49ers are a much much better pass team than run. The Pats have the only elite running game, and I think everyone would recognize that it’s much more a function their passing attack.
  • It remains to be seen how the ‘Colts strategy’ will fair in the playoffs. Three teams entered with Indy style offenses coupled with horrible pass defenses. The Saints lost a true heartbreaker. The Packers were demolished, and the Patriots played one of the worst playoff teams in history, hardly a test. Had the Saints won one more game in the regular season, they would likely be going to be the Super Bowl. I don’t think the 49ers could have beaten them in the Super Dome.
  • QB wins took another hit this weekend as Tebow was demolished proving that guys just win until they just lose. Eli and Brady are clearly elite quarterbacks, but no one should confuse Smith and Flacco with anything but middle of the pack guys. Still, three of the four QBs left in the playoffs were first round picks and two of them went #1 overall.
  • If Schaub hadn’t gotten hurt, I do believe the Texans would have gone to the Super Bowl.