Is Staying in Indy Peyton Manning’s Best Move?

Peyton Manning looks at the scoreboard in a Colts loss to the Chargers. (Brent Smith | Reuters)

Scott Bolander, founder and lead blogger at Blue Sunday blog, wrote a story last Thursday discussing Peyton Manning’s upcoming decision to sign a final long-term contract with the Indianapolis Colts. In Scott’s opinion, there is very little chance that Manning ends up playing for a team other than the Colts but he believes that staying in Indianapolis is not in Peyton’s best interest.

As Scott sees it, the Colts offensive line is horrible and does not have players with enough talent to turn things around anytime soon. Also, Bill Polian is not getting any younger and Scott believes that while he has done a fine job making Indianapolis one of the top teams in the league since he drafted Manning in 1998, there is a chance that Bill is passing on the reins to Chris Polian sooner rather than later and that during Chris’s transition into more draft day and personnel power, the team has suffered. If Chris is no Bill, a chance Scott thinks is rather likely because Bill Polian is so rare, the Colts may have a rough road ahead.

The impact of a failing offensive line and less talented personnel manager could be a diminishing opportunity for Manning to stake his claim as the greatest quarterback of all time. In the eyes of most Colts fans, there really is no question that Manning has proven that already, but it is no secret that the mainstream football pundits will criticize him unless he can manage to win at least one more Super Bowl. Such is life in a small market for one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game.

So is staying in Indianapolis really not in Peyton Manning’s best interest? This story takes a close look at the complications Manning would face if he refused to re-sign with the Colts, what Manning would gain by moving to another team, and the state of the Colts franchise.

One thing about Peyton Manning and the Colts offense that is covered thoroughly by football experts around the league is how much control he has, and how complex his signals and pre-snap calls are at the line of scrimmage. Additionally, Manning’s increased role makes his relationship with the offensive coordinator rather unique. If Manning goes to another team there is little doubt that the franchise would have to be ready to make significant changes to their offensive scheme, that the offensive coordinator would have to be ready to assume a greatly reduced role and influence on the offense than he had prior, and that any offensive line Manning inherits would have to learn to react to Manning’s reads.

This process would not be easy. It is reasonable to expect that the changes accompanying Manning’s arrival on a new team would take two seasons to fully implement to a level rivaling the production and efficiency the offense has accomplished in Indianapolis.

Another difference for Manning on any new team would be a new set of running and receiving weapons. Some would argue that the Colts running backs are not that great and that Manning can turn almost any receiver who can run a route and catch the football into a star. The issue with these observations is that Colts running production aside, the running backs have a particular set of skills that few other teams can duplicate. Solid blockers — outstanding pass catchers, and attitudes that do not cause controversy in a pass first scheme.

Additionally, Manning would be the first to say that it takes a lot of work with a receiver to develop timing and chemistry that allow big plays to happen. He has spent years developing those things with receivers like Reggie Wayne and Anthony Gonzalez, and a lot of time in the last two years finding that timing and chemistry with young players like Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, and Blair White. If he goes to another team, he throws all of that time and work away to start over with a whole new group of receivers.

What makes this more complicated than normal is that Manning runs a timing offense that focuses intensely on a receiver’s ability to run sharp, consistent routes. Finding a team with a group of sure-handed, sharp and consistent route-runners would not be easy.

The teams who have all of the pieces Manning would need to continue his high level production with little or no drop-off, are typically those teams who already have franchise quarterbacks. A team like the Saints might be a legitimate option, as would Philadelphia, but the Saints are not going to dump Brees and Manning would probably prefer to not play in Philadelphia for the last seasons of his career.

The only teams who would legitimately be in the market for Manning would also need the cap space to afford it. While the Collective Bargaining Agreement is in a state of uncertainty this year, there is a pretty strong likelihood that the NFL Players Association and the owners will choose to re-institute a new salary cap once the issues have been worked out. Guess which teams typically have the cap space to make such a move? If you guessed it is usually those teams who are in a rebuilding mode and lack elite talent, you guessed right.

In the face of these complications, the biggest advantage Manning could gain by moving teams, after necessary time for development, is a superior offensive line. The Colts have a receiving corps that is showing the signs of legitimately going five players deep, has two pass-catching tight ends who have proven to be legitimate weapons, and two running backs who have shown this year that they are capable of running, catching, and blocking in the way that best suits a Manning-led offense.

If he stays in Indianapolis he retains the chemistry, timing, and hard work he has put into the same system for over a decade. If he stays, the only thing he would need to request, the only development he would need is new and more skilled offensive linemen. Is that trade-off really worth it?

It looks like the upsides to leaving are quite complicated and limited. The downsides to staying are limited only to an offensive line that needs to improve and has suffered in part to a couple of wrong personnel decisions in the last three or four years.

In Indianapolis, the talent at the primary offensive skill positions is high and young, leading one to believe that there is little concern for Manning that he will be without weapons if he remains with the Colts. How many other franchises in the NFL offer that? How many franchises in the NFL offer the personnel decision-makers that match the likelihood of the continued acquisition and development of offensive weapons as Manning has with the Colts? Not many.

Some may suggest that Manning could play on a number of franchises with defenses that reduce the need for such offensive talent. Maybe, but at that point it becomes a balance between a weaker offense and a stronger defense. A weaker offense likely hurts Manning’s chances to continue his pace to break nearly all of the major passing records in NFL history. The list of teams with elite defenses and elite offensive lines is also extremely short.

In short, going to another team with a better offensive line and a better defense could arguably put Manning in a better spot to win another Super Bowl in the next three years, assuming the Colts are incapable of resolving their own defensive shortcomings and weaknesses on the offensive line, but even then it would require a franchise that is willing to sell out its long-term future for the opportunity to win big in the short-term.

At the end of the day, I will have to disagree with Scott. I think it is in Peyton Manning’s best interest to remain with the Colts. I think very few teams offer the improvements Manning would seek and an even smaller group of those teams are in a financial position to afford him. I think Manning’s safest bet is to stay in Indianapolis, continue to take advantage of the fruits of his labor, and with a front office that has put together the most consistently successful team in NFL history — and built that team specifically to optimize Manning’s talents.

Peyton Manning’s best chances to succeed in the twilight of his career is in central Indiana.

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