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Policy (with 49ers) had Irsay's difficult task, letting a QB legend go

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

Montana was everything to the Niners that Manning was to Colts -- and more. (US Presswire)  
Montana was everything to the Niners that Manning was to Colts -- and more. (US Presswire)  

The expected release of Peyton Manning is one more reminder of how cold and cruel business can be in the NFL. After 14 years with the Indianapolis Colts, Manning will leave the team, just as Brett Favre left Green Bay before him and Joe Montana left San Francisco before Favre.

The only difference is that Montana and Favre were traded. Manning will be cut loose, free to join the team of his choice.

I don't know if it's fair, and I don't know if it's right -- especially after all that Manning did for Indianapolis and the Colts -- but I do know it is necessary. It's what happens when professional sports organizations are forced to make difficult business decisions they know they must make sooner or later.

For Manning, it was sooner.

"If you think about it," said Carmen Policy, "pro football is a social example of Darwinism operating in its purest form. It's crueler than Hollywood. I mean, you're a gorgeous star today, but a few years from now you're too old and there's someone prettier and someone with more talent."

Policy speaks from experience. He's the former president of the 49ers who engineered the 1993 trade that sent Montana to Kansas City.

More on Peyton Manning

What Manning is to Indianapolis, Montana was to the Bay Area -- and more. Like Manning, he resurrected a franchise. Like Manning, he was a perennial All-Pro. Like Manning, he was uncommonly popular. Like Manning, he took his team to Super Bowls.

But unlike Peyton, he took his team to four. And he never lost.

So you can imagine what it was like for Policy and the 49ers to do what Jim Irsay and the Indianapolis Colts must Wednesday. He believed -- no, he knew -- that Montana's departure was the best thing for Joe and for the 49ers' organization. Still, he had difficulty convincing his owner, the fans and, yes, himself that he could and would pull the trigger on the career of one of San Francisco's most charismatic and accomplished athletes.

"Joe Montana was a living, breathing icon," Policy said, "not only to the Bay Area but to the sports world of America. Having him not be part of the 49ers just seemed unthinkable. Add to that the fact that [then owner] Eddie DeBartolo loved him like a brother and had a bond with him that was just unbelievable and, without question, unbreakable."

But, like Manning, Montana was also an aging quarterback with an injury. With Manning it's his neck; with Montana it was his elbow.

There is no assurance Manning can or will play again, but most people believe he suits up in 2012. There was more certainty that Montana could play in 1993, though the 49ers believed he probably had no more than one or two good seasons left.

That wasn't the problem. That Montana wanted to start was. The 49ers had a younger, healthier quarterback on the bench in Steve Young, and having that security blanket convinced Policy -- and Montana -- that the 49ers must make the move no one wanted to make.

"If it weren't for the salary cap," Policy said, "I honestly believe Eddie DeBartolo would've done whatever he had to do to force Joe to stay. And because Joe had a close relationship with Eddie, he probably couldn't have said 'no' to him. But it would've been a mistake for Joe and a mistake for the 49ers."

Of course, that didn't make the decision easier. In fact, there was a time shortly before the 49ers dealt Montana that DeBartolo thought he would keep his quarterback. But he was wrong, and, in the end, Montana went the way of all good things.

"I thank God we didn't have the Internet when we were in the process of making that trade," Policy said. "All I had to deal with was the fax machine and the telephone. We really didn't even have sophisticated telephones, so you can forget about texting.

"Nevertheless, it was a hail storm, even with the limited electronic communication devices that we had. In fact, there were people within our own organization who were so resentful of the fact that we were willing to let Joe go that it became somewhat divisive within the building.

"Dwight Clark refused to deal with the reality of Joe Montana leaving, and Dwight Clark was an executive."

Policy dealt with it, just as Irsay must Wednesday when he releases the quarterback who took Indianapolis to its only two Super Bowls since the franchise left Baltimore in 1984.

Letting go never is easy, and if you don't believe me rewind the videotape of Chargers' guard Kris Dielman's retirement last week in San Diego. It was so emotional that quarterback Philip Rivers struggled to keep his poise when talking about Dielman.

But this is Peyton Frickin' Manning, and I think we all know what he means to Indianapolis and the Colts. Still, there comes a time -- and Policy understands all too painfully -- when an owner, a GM, a club president must cut with the past and move to the future, and that moment is now for Irsay and the Colts.

"I don't even know if we know who the Indianapolis Colts are if it's not for Peyton Manning," Policy said. "And I don't think anyone realizes or appreciates that more than Jim Irsay, coming up [through the club ranks] the way that he did, stepping into it, getting that stadium built in Indianapolis and having a Super Bowl there.

"None of this has gone by the wayside and is non-recognizable to him. He's lived it and he's the one who's feeling it probably more than anyone. But, at some time you must start fresh.

"In some ways, it would've been worse for him if Peyton had said, 'I'll take a pay cut; I want to stay.' I mean, if you bring an auditor in -- let's forget about relationships for a moment -- but an NFL auditor would say, 'The best thing for everybody is for Peyton to leave, for everybody to do his own thing and for the Colts to continue with their clean sweep, rebuild and, in effect, almost engage in a start-up situation.' "

In essence, that's exactly what's happening.

Of course, Policy had the advantage of turning to a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback when Montana was gone, so that, at least, ameliorated some of the hardship involved with his decision. The Colts have future draft pick Andrew Luck to rely on, and there's no guarantee of anything with the poor guy. He must step in for Manning, and he must rebuild the Colts as Manning did before him.

Life is not fair. Carmen Policy found out, and now so will Jim Irsay.

"It goes without saying that some of the finest football I've seen is when Peyton Manning is playing quarterback," said Policy, "and when you say 'playing quarterback,' you're saying, 'playing quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts.' That's it. That's why this is so sad.

"In Hollywood, at least, you have the opportunity to go into the role of an aging star or an older character, even though you're no longer at the top of the cast. But there is no room for the aging athlete in the NFL."


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