“For the games when we didn’t play Denver, like last year, when we’d see Peyton Manning Denver Broncos jerseys in the stands, like, I would get pissed off.”
-- Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee on his weekly internet show.
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INDIANAPOLIS – There are a few emotions whirling around the city this week. Well, of course there are -- it’s Peyton Manning week. He’s coming back to play for the first time since the breakup. He’s coming back wearing Denver orange. Feelings bubble at the surface. Passions whirl. The atmospheric conditions are perfectly charged for a trumped-up controversy. Enter Colts owner Jim Irsay.
“You make the playoffs 11 times,” he told Jarrett Bell of USA Today, “and you’re out in the first round seven out of 11 times. You love to have the Star Wars numbers from Peyton and Marvin (Harrison) and Reggie (Wayne) … (Tom) Brady did not have consistent numbers but he has three of these.” At this point, Irsay pointed to his Super Bowl ring.
What was he saying here? Irsay would insist that he meant the team – by not building a better defense, better special teams and, at times, a better running game – had let Manning and themselves down. Of course you also could read that he was saying Manning was more about numbers than winning, that the Manning Era, while thrilling, was ultimately disappointing.
In this supercharged week, you can guess how most people read it.
“(Irsay) sounded a little ungrateful and unappreciative to me for a guy that has set a standard, won a Super Bowl, won division titles, won four MVP awards,” Denver coach John Fox said on his radio show. “I'd be thankful with that one Super Bowl ring because there's a lot of people that don't have one."
When you realize that the last quotable thing John Fox said might have been sometime in the ‘80s – that would be the 1880s for those scoring at home – you might surmise that Fox wasn’t speaking only for himself.
Others have jumped in, too. Former Colts GM Bill Polian took a chance to rip Irsay. Manning refused comment, which, of course, was a comment in itself. In Denver, the radio talk shows have savaged Irsay.
And in Indianapolis? Well, it’s complicated. All of it is complicated.
To understand what Peyton Manning means to Indianapolis, you have to go back to the beginning.
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The beginning is 1998. The Indianapolis Colts were the worst team in football. Again. They had been the worst team in football three or four times in the previous decade, so everyone in Indiana was used to it. You could call “worst team in football” their natural state.
But there was something worse than being the worst team in football. The Indianapolis Colts were not quite legitimate. They had been in Indianapolis for 14 years, but nothing about them had taken hold. They had never won 10 games in a season. They had never been memorable enough to think about. People, in casual conversations, still referred to them as the Baltimore Colts. The enduring image of the team was Mayflower trucks moving the team out of Baltimore under the cover of night in 1984. That was when the Baltimore Colts died. The Indianapolis Colts didn’t mean anything at all.
They had tried things. In 1990, they had the first pick in the draft and they took a local man with a ridiculously good arm named Jeff George. That did not work out well for anybody. Two years later, with the first pick in the draft, they took a massive defensive lineman, Steve Emtman, who many thought would redefine the position. He didn’t redefine the position. And that did not work out well either.
They traded for legendary running back Eric Dickerson in the middle of the that bizarre strike-ridden 1987 season – that briefly worked . He gained more than 1,000 yards in eight starts and the Colts made the playoffs for the first time in Indianapolis. The next year, Dickerson the league in rushing and the Colts almost made the playoffs again. Almost. Then, it was back to dreadfulness.
The Colts' signature year, if you can call it that, was 1994, when they had a good defense, a gutsy quarterback named Jim Harbaugh and whirlwind running back Marshall Faulk. They squeaked into the playoffs with nine wins. Then they went to San Diego and won a playoff game, went to Kansas City and won again thanks to a slew of missed field goals. In the AFC Championship game, then were a Hail Mary pass away from upsetting Pittsburgh. It was fun. But it wasn’t real, and everyone knew it. The next year they somehow made the playoffs again and were pulverized by the Steelers.
Then the Colts returned to their natural state as the worst team in football.
“They were just a miserable franchise,” says Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz. “They were poorly run. (Owner) Robert Irsay didn’t know what he was doing. And I mean he literally didn’t know, he was drunk most of the time.”
And so, they went into the 1998 NFL Draft with the first pick (again) and they had a choice to make. It doesn’t seem like much of a choice NOW, but in 1998, it was a contentious and disputed and mind-twisting choice.
There were two quarterbacks.
One was Peyton Manning out of the University of Tennessee.
The other was Ryan Leaf out of Washington State University.
How tough was the choice? Put it this way: The San Diego Chargers traded a lot of talent to move up one spot into the SECOND pick. They wanted whichever quarterback the Colts passed on.
“There was a reason we didn’t trade up to No. 1,” Chargers GM Bobby Beathard told reporters. “We wanted to stay where we didn’t have to make a decision.”
He was joking. But, realistically, the Chargers probably thought what everyone thought. The Colts were going to choose the wrong guy. And the right guy was going to slide into the welcoming arms of the San Diego Chargers.
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Many people don’t want to admit now that in 1998 they honestly believed Ryan Leaf was a better NFL prospect than Peyton Manning. One former NFL head coach told me before that draft, “I would take Leaf. He has that look in his eyes.” But when I reminded him of this quote a few years later, he denied saying it. “Maybe I was joking,” he said. He was not joking.
Then, he was not the only one to like Leaf or the look in his eyes. Newsday ran a poll – 14 out of the 20 general managers they spoke with preferred Leaf over Manning.
“Leaf has the stronger arm and better potential and has proven to be much more mature and polished than many people thought,” the New York Times wrote.
“Leaf’s harder to bring down than the Washington Monument,” the great Jim Murray wrote in one of his last columns for the Los Angeles Times.
“A quarterback must have an arm too,” wrote fellow Pulitzer Prize winner Dave Anderson in the New York Times. “Leaf, like (Dan) Marino, throws bullets from his right ear.”
To Leaf’s credit, his self-scouting report was the best one available: “I’d choose Peyton,” he said. “He’s the smart thing to do.”
Despite this, it was a grueling decision for Indianapolis. Most scouts seemed to think that Manning was more polished but more limited. Some questioned his arm. Some wondered if he was more of a college quarterback than a pro. Leaf was bigger and stronger, a better athlete with a better arm. Phillip B. Wilson in his book, “100 Things Colts Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die,” breaks down the Colts' decision process. Apparently, the coaches leaned toward Manning while the scouts believed more in Leaf. Then general manager, Bill Polian, and offensive coordinator, Tom Moore, went to watch Manning work out.
“We were astonished at his arm strength,” Polian told Wilson. The next day, they went to see Leaf throw … and were shocked to find that Leaf did not throw as tight a spriral or throw the ball as hard as Manning. It was a turning point in the decision. From that point on, Manning was the leader for the Colts. Still, they were unsure. Then, in the personal interview, Manning said, “If you pick me I guarantee we will win a championship … If you don’t, I’ll come back and kick you butt.”
Leaf, meanwhile, missed the interview. The Colts took Peyton Manning.
Within six months, Leaf’s life had already imploded. He was involved in a series of controversies, he threw one touchdown pass and 12 interceptions in his first six games, and it would only get worse. Much worse. Benching. Taunts. A crumbling life. Leaf is in prison now after pleading guilty to burglary and drug possession.
And, behind the brilliance of Peyton Manning, the Indianapolis Colts were about to become something.
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Here’s something kind of funny: In Peyton Manning’s first season with the Colts he led the NFL with 28 interceptions, and the Indianapolis Star editorial cartoonist, Gary Varvel, drew Manning at an eye doctor’s office looking at an eye chart that read “LEADER IN NFL IN INTERCEPTIONS.”
“You must be colorblind … you keep throwing to the wrong jerseys,” the optometrist determines.
The next year, Manning threw for more than 4,000 yards, nearly cut his interceptions in half, and the Colts went 13-3, setting what was the franchise record - including the Baltimore years. It would become pretty standard – the Colts behind Manning would win 12 or more games seven years in a row from 2003-09, an NFL record.
Yes, so much of it was the quarterbacking genius of Peyton Manning. Not too long after the eye chart cartoon, Varvel would draw a horse in a Colts jersey on Manning’s shoulders. “Giddyup Peyton! The whole season is riding on you!” the colt said. And it was like that year after year. He put up phenomenal numbers, of course, but he also was a coach on the field, and he was the team's clear-cut leader. He also was a superstar, a real superstar. Indiana had always been about basketball, of course, the state of Larry Bird and Bob Knight and Reggie Miller. But Manning was irresistible.
Manning was funny -- he hosted Saturday Night Live.
Manning was charitable – the stories of how much he quietly helped people are legion, and the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital at St. Vincent grows exponentially every year.
Manning was competitive – everyone heard about the countless hours he spent preparing for each game.
Manning was instantly recognizable – the image of Manning running up and down the line before a play, pointing madly at defenders, shouting the same words over and over again is Americana now.
“I can remember watching kids on my block,” Kravitz says, “and they were playing schoolyard football. And I saw the quarterback gesticulating madly, doing all the gestures and pointing, yelling ‘Omaha! Omaha!” and “Apple apple apple!’ Just like him. He changed an entire generation. You know Indiana – it was all about basketball. Peyton Manning changed that pretty much all by himself.”
He was theirs. Indianapolis high school football, Kravitz says, used to irrelevant; now it’s ranked as one of the best high school football cities in the state. “That’s Peyton,” Kravitz says.
It’s hard to come up with anything comparable. Of course, Green Bay loved Brett Favre, but there were a lot of great players there before him and a pretty famous coach. Denver loves John Elway still, but even before Elway, there was the famous Orange Crush defense and some history.
The Colts – it began with him. “In Indianapolis, it’s like BM and AM – Before Manning and After Manning,” Kravitz says. “He is Year One.” And so, yes, while everyone would have loved another Super Bowl victory or two, while everyone was frustrated by all the the near misses, the truth is that Manning gave Indianapolis something more than the Super Bowl ring. He gave Indianapolis a football identity.
And that’s why there will be lots and lots of Peyton Manning jerseys at the game Sunday.
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"It’s like Ringling Bros., man. Y’all turning this into a circus.”
-- Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne, to reporters this week
From an outsider’s view, the ending seemed as clean and healthy as a divorce can be. Peyton Manning was freed to go to Denver, to get healthy and play for a playoff team with a great history, a huge fan base and and a seemingly strong offensive line. Indianapolis was freed to take Andrew Luck with the first pick in the 2012 draft and have enough money under the salary cap to build a good team around him – heck they went 11-5 in Luck's first year.
That kind of win-win breakup just doesn’t happen in sports.
And the final press conference suggested that it was just as amenable and cordial and heartfelt as it seemed. There was lots of love thrown about. There were tears. Everyone wished everyone well. “I guess, in life, we all know, nothing lasts forever,” Manning said, his voice choking up, all while Jim Irsay (“My friend,” Manning said) stood next to him.
Apparently it wasn’t quite THAT amenable. Bob Kravitz found himself in the middle of the angst leading up to the press conference. “There was more bitterness than they wanted to let on,” Kravitz says. “There was a lot of politicking and posturing going on. They were both trying hard not to look like the bad guy.”
Kravitz says Irsay seemed to realize the inevitable first. Peyton Manning had neck surgery before the 2011 season and always hoped he would be ready to play. He was not. The neck injury kept him out all year. The Colts lost their first 13 games. The dominoes were stacked. Nobody knew if Manning, at 36, would be healthy enough to return to his former greatness. Everybody knew that Andrew Luck – perhaps the best quarterback prospect to come out of college in decades – was too good not to take with the first pick. And there were salary cap implications …
“Irsay, as crazy as he sounds sometimes, is a pretty good football man,” Kravitz says. “He grew up around it. And he looked at this, and it was pretty obvious to him. Even if Manning is relatively healthy, he’s only got three or four more years – that’s when Andrew Luck will be coming into his prime. He could not pass that opportunity up, and he knew it.
“There are some people who think the Colts should have kept Manning and played Luck behind him. To me, that’s ridiculous. You can’t take a quarterback with the first pick and not play him. Plus, they would have had to gut the team. Peyton would have been lucky to win eight or nine games with the team that would have been left over. And could you imagine him behind that offensive line? Andrew Luck got sacked 41 times last year. Could you imagine what Peyton Manning would have gone through? It just couldn’t have worked out keeping both of them.”
Kravitz is talking logic. But, of course, with a player like Peyton Manning, emotion can override logic. There are reports that more Peyton Manning jerseys have sold this week in Indianapolis than any week since Manning was the star quarterback. While the Colts-Broncos game itself is interesting, the fascinating thing will be to watch the crowd in what is being called the Jersey War of 1812 – 18 being Manning’s number and 12 being Andrew Luck’s.
“There will be more Manning jerseys in the crowd than Luck jerseys – it won’t be close,” one fan tells me outside Kilroy’s, the bar where McAfee hosts his weekly show. The night before, in a giant sports bar called Latitude 39, a group of sports fans and media types say the same thing.
People will argue if that’s right or wrong. On one hand, everybody knows that Manning’s gone now, and Andrew Luck is obviously a special young quarterback leading a playoff contender. When McAfee talked on his show about how angry he feels when seeing Manning jerseys at games – he sees it as disrespectful to Luck, who has been such a great player in his first year-plus – the people in the bar cheer.
On the other hand, no player will ever mean as much to Indianapolis as Peyton Manning. Even if Luck would take them to three, four, five Super Bowls, Manning was there first. Manning set the stage. Manning helped build the hospital. Manning helped build the new stadium. Manning, many believe, helped keep the team in Indianapolis. There will never be a running back that means as much to Cleveland as Jim Brown, never been a Cardinals player who means as much as Stan Musial, never be a Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher who means as much as Sandy Koufax.
“I don’t know how I’ll feel emotionally,” Manning tells reporters in Denver. Before the game, there likely will be a video tribute. Then the game will begin. And for once, people in Indianapolis will be watching EACH OTHER as much as they will be watching the field. I ask Kravitz how he thinks Indianapolis will respond.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I think it will be very awkward.”