Peyton Manning forever will be thought of around these parts as No. 18, the quarterback who led the Indianapolis Colts to an NFL championship.
He’ll be remembered, too, for his record four MVP awards, his 50,000 yards passing and his 200 consecutive starts. Most of all, Manning will be the guy in the horseshoe helmet who turned around a franchise and transformed a basketball-loving city into a football hotbed that hosted the Super Bowl.
Despite all of that, the Colts released the 35-year-old Manning rather than pay him a $28 million bonus. Manning and owner Jim Irsay spoke at a news conference today.
“I’ve been a Colt for almost my entire adult life. But in sports, like life, nothing lasts forever,” Manning said, his voice breaking up. “Jim and I have spoken extensively about where we are today. This has not been easy for Jim and it’s not easy for me.”
Manning, a New Orleans native and Newman graduate, went on to say how he felt about the end in Indianapolis.
“This town and this team mean so much to me,” he said. “It has been an honor to play for the Colts. I love the town and I love the fans.”
While the Colts are widely expected to begin moving on by taking Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall pick in April’s draft, Manning will become a free agent – and, if healthy, certainly will draw interest from other teams.
Arizona, Miami, Tennessee, Washington and the New York Jets all have been rumored as possible destinations; Manning’s former offensive coordinator in Indianapolis, Tom Moore, worked for the Jets as a consultant last season.
It’s still possible, however unlikely, that Manning could return to Indy at a lower price.
“The contract or the money never came into place here,” Manning said.
“Peyton always had in mind the best interest of the franchise,” Irsay said. “With the salary cap where it is, we’re rebuilding.”
Manning has said his goal was to play his entire career with the Colts, but a damaged nerve that forced him to have neck surgery kept him out of action for all of 2011, and not coincidentally, his team’s record plummeted to 2-14.
He started every meaningful game for 13 seasons in Indianapolis – 227 in a row, including the playoffs – and took the Colts from perennial also-ran to one of the NFL’s model franchises and the 2006 Super Bowl title.
In the two decades predating his arrival, the Colts won 116 games, one division title and made the playoffs three times. With Manning taking snaps, the Colts have won 150 games, eight division titles, two AFC championships and the franchise’s first league championship since moving from Baltimore in 1984.
Indianapolis broke the NFL record for most regular-season wins in a decade (115), and tied Dallas’ mark for most consecutive playoff appearances (nine).
Manning is one of four players with more than 50,000 yards passing, one of three with more than 350 TD tosses, and one of two quarterbacks with more than 200 starts in a row. He broke all of the franchise’s major career passing records, previously held by Hall of Fame quarterback John Unitas.
In 2009, Manning led the Colts to the cusp of NFL history with a 14-0 start, fueling talk of an unbeaten season.