|Irsay and Manning during better times at Super Bowl Media Day in Feb. 2010. (Getty Images)|
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts are a long, long way from being healed.
Two days after Peyton Manning publicly complained about the dour atmosphere at team headquarters following a 2-14 season and a rash of firings, Colts owner Jim Irsay introduced his new head coach and then stunned everyone by calling his franchise player a "politician" who had decided to air dirty laundry.
"I don't think it's in the best interest to paint the horseshoe in a negative light, I really don't," Irsay told reporters, referring to the team's longtime logo. "The horseshoe always comes first, and I think one thing he's always known, because he's been around it so long, is that, you know, you keep it in the family. If you've got a problem you talk to each other, it's not about campaigning or anything like that."
The comments suggest there is a rift between Manning and Irsay, who is just six weeks from a deadline to pay the four-time league MVP a $28 million bonus or risk losing him as a free agent. And it all blew up in public on a day the team desperately wanted attention focused on Chuck Pagano, the Ravens' defensive coordinator who takes over as head coach with a host of problems to address.
|The Manning saga|
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The biggest question mark is Manning, the face of the franchise and the primary reason for its run of success over the past decade. He is clearly upset with the fallout of the Colts' dismal season in which he never played a down after Sept. 8 neck surgery -- his third such procedure in a span of 19 months.
In the past three weeks, the Colts have fired vice chairman Bill Polian and general manager Chris Polian, coach Jim Caldwell and most of Caldwell's assistants. Irsay hired 39-year-old Ryan Grigson as the new general manager and on Wednesday chose Pagano as Caldwell's replacement.
Last week, actor Rob Lowe caused a media frenzy by writing on Twitter that Manning was about to retire. The story got so much attention that even Pagano, who was preparing for the Ravens' AFC championship game against New England, apparently took notice.
"You know, I've got a text or a call out to Rob Lowe and I haven't heard back yet, so I'm going to have to get back to you on that one," Pagano said when asked if he expected to be coaching Manning next season.
But the saga has taken an even more dramatic twist in the past 48 hours.
Manning told the Indianapolis Star that his only real conversation with Grigson, a first-time GM, had come in passing and that the vast overhaul at team headquarters had everyone "walking around on eggshells." He said it wasn't healthy for his healing, and then said that he had no idea where Irsay stood on the question of whether he was going to play again for the Colts.
Many analysts believe Manning's comments indicated that he was unhappy in Indianapolis and may be looking for a way out.
Whatever the explanation, Irsay didn't like it one bit.
"I have so much affection and appreciation for Peyton. I mean we're family. We always will be and we are," Irsay said. "He's a politician. I mean look at, when it comes to being competitive, let's just say on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest, we're both 11s, OK? So there's been plenty of eggshells scattered around this building by him with his competitive desire to win."
Manning quickly began on a quest to mend fences.
Within hours of Irsay's comments, Manning told the Star he didn't intend to start a public feud.
"At this point, Mr. Irsay and I owe it to each other and to the fans of the organization to handle this appropriately and professionally, and I think we will. I've already reached out to Mr. Irsay," Manning said. "I wasn't trying to paint the Colts in a bad light, but it's tough when so many people you've known for so long are suddenly leaving. I feel very close to a lot of these guys and we've done great things together. It's hard to watch an old friend clean out his office. That's all I was trying to say.
"I just want to keep rehabbing and working hard, and when the time is right for Mr. Irsay and I to sit down, I look forward to a healthy conversation about my future. I've worked too hard and have such great respect and have so many great relationships inside the building and out, and it's incredibly important that those remain."
The drama might be just beginning.
Now that Irsay has his people in place in the front office, Pagano can focus his attention on selecting a staff. Grigson said Pagano will make those choices.
Irsay's decisions will be much more difficult.
Indy's horrendous season means the Colts landed the No. 1 overall pick, which Irsay has said they will use for their quarterback of the future -- presumably Stanford's Andrew Luck.
If so, Irsay must decide how much money he wants to invest in one position. Manning signed a five-year, $90 million contract in July and is due that bonus in March. The perennial Pro Bowl selection is said to be recovering well from his latest surgery, but he will also turn 36 on March 24 -- a little more than two weeks after the March 8 deadline to pay that bonus.
Irsay reiterated Thursday that his choice will come down to Manning's health, not money.
"I think fans already understand that," Irsay said when asked whether Manning might have played his final game in Colts' blue. "This isn't an ankle, it isn't a shoulder. Oftentimes, the NFL is criticized for putting someone out there at risk, and I'm not going to doing that. I think he and I just need to see where his health is because this isn't about money or anything else. It's about his life and his long-term health."
That's only the start of the Colts' questions.
Grigson and Irsay must figure out how to free up salary-cap space and what to do with a group of high-priced veterans such as Gary Brackett and Melvin Bullitt, and whether they want to bring back some of their key free agents such as Robert Mathis, Jeff Saturday and Reggie Wayne.
Not surprisingly, Pagano wants as many of those guys back as he can get, including Manning.
"I just came from a great organization and just spent some time with one of the greatest leaders [Ray Lewis] to ever play this game," Pagano said. "And there's one of those leaders right here [Manning] and those are the types of individuals and people that you have to surround yourself with."
But it's Irsay who must make that decision, and it's obvious that the two haven't been talking much lately -- something Irsay acknowledged will change between now and March 8.
"It's a very simple issue -- it's a health issue," Irsay said.
"It's one of those things where just when you think it's going in the right direction, things change," he said, explaining later there was no indication Manning has had a setback over the last month. "It's been very hard on everyone around here, and it's been very hard on Peyton, too."