By Sam Hyman
Loyalty is the most hypocritical word in sports. Players are made to remain loyal to their contracts but coaches feel free to switch jobs biannually. Athletes are asked to remain loyal to their teams while the fans turn on them with the slightest mistake. Heck, non-guaranteed contract is an oxymoron and yet they are the norm in the NFL.
Those who play professional sports, much like those who love to follow them, learn to take any sort of loyalty with a grain of salt. Relationships are built between athletes and coaches and fans and organizations, but on a certain level, all parties involved know how quickly the tides can turn. This is no hypothetical assertion; it is the constant reminders of just how much “professional sports is a business first” that ingrains these thoughts in the minds of many.
A prime example of the fleeting nature of loyalty is the treatment of aging players. Superstar players, who give their whole career to a franchise and help to shape the legacy of the team along with their own, are far too often thrown to the curb when they can no longer hang. Oftentimes, the replacement player ends up being highly successful, but the truth is that future success is unpredictable and expectations of a possible replacement are uncertain.
When it was first reported that Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning would likely miss the entire season following off-season neck surgery, fears of a disappointing season quickly arose. Since being taken with the first overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft, Manning has led the Colts to a 141-67 record, 11 playoff berths, two Super Bowl appearances and one Super Bowl Victory, all while receiving a record four MVP Awards. The problem was that Manning did not lead the Colts to those accomplishments, but rather he carried them there.
Without Manning taking a single snap all season, Indianapolis finished with a 2-14 record and won the rights to the first pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. The structure of the draft process is such that the teams with worse records, and thus greater needs, get the higher picks, and thus better talent. The Colts present an interesting situation, as they do not actually have the greatest needs, they just had the misfortune of being without the league’s most consistent and dominating player for an entire season.
Unlike most other aspects of life, in sports, one can certainly have too much of a good thing. Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is not only a consensus lock to be the number one pick in this year’s draft, most draft experts have touted him as the best quarterback prospect to enter the league since Peyton Manning. The question for the Colts to answer is: Luck or Manning?
Most people agree that the Colts cannot afford to draft Andrew Luck and keep Peyton Manning. To have two elite level quarterbacks on the same team would simply be a waste of resources and opportunities. For those who cite Tom Brady, Tony Romo, or Aaron Rodgers as examples of quarterbacks who sat behind veteran starters prior to becoming elite players, the simplest response is that none of those quarterbacks was a number one overall pick.
Indianapolis essentially has two options: trade the rights to Andrew Luck and acquire a greater quantity of young talent, or draft Andrew Luck and cut Peyton Manning. While the intentions behind each move would be obvious, the outcomes would carry big question marks. If the Colts were to stick with Manning, they would be taking a chance on a quarterback who will be 36 years old and coming off of major neck surgery. Even if he were to fully recover, he likely only has two or three more years as an elite player. Conversely, if they were to choose Luck, they would be entering rebuilding mode with a roster that is constructed to win now.
Everyone will inevitably have a different opinion on what the Colts should do, and, in reality, the only opinion that matters is that of Colts owner Jim Irsay. While Irsay will have the final say, the decision should be to stick with Peyton Manning and trade Luck.Trading the rights to draft Andrew Luck could reportedly net the Colts up to 3 first round picks. For a team with the amount of different needs as the Colts, the more the merrier. While it is likely that none of those picks would bring a player the quality of an Andrew Luck, the ability to fill multiple holes with first round talent may be even more appealing.
By keeping Peyton Manning at quarterback, the Colts will essentially be returning to their 2010 division-winning form. Aside from everyone being two years older, the core of the roster that won nine straight AFC South division titles has remained intact. Coupling familiarity with proven success is difficult to argue against. Additionally, by keeping Manning, the Colts maximize the value of the rest of their roster. With every other key starter over the age of 30, the Colts must take a win-now approach in order to capitalize on the remaining value that guys like Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, and Dwight Freeney have to offer. Most importantly, the Colts would be doing the right thing by showing respect to the man who made the organization relevant again.
History would likely say that Peyton Manning has taken his final snap as a Colt. For his sake, the sake of the organization, and the sakes of the fans, we should all hope that is not true.