Manning Released After Four MVP Awards, Three Neck Surgeries

Manning Losing to Luck as ESPN Says Colts Deny $28 Million
Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts. Photographer: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Peyton Manning was cut today by the Indianapolis Colts, ending 14 years with the club that included a Super Bowl title, four Most Valuable Player awards and finally questions over his surgically repaired neck and throwing strength.

The Colts had until tomorrow to decide whether to keep Manning and pay him a $28 million bonus and a $7.4 million salary in 2012, or put their money on Stanford University quarterback Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick in next month’s draft.

Manning, 35, becomes the NFL’s premier free agent, with Nevada oddsmakers saying he’s likely headed to the Arizona Cardinals. Former NFL executives say that while he had become an uninsurable financial liability to the Colts, he might be a steal in free agency if his contract is structured right.

“I’ve been a Colt for most of my adult life, but I guess in life, and in sports, we all know that nothing lasts forever,” Manning said at a press conference. “Times change, circumstances change. And that’s the reality of playing in the NFL.”

Manning is coming off neck-fusion surgery that sidelined him for the 2011 season. Colts doctor Robert Watkins said the Sept. 9 operation was successful.

Manning said he’s been working out with former teammates.

“I’m doing better, continuing to work hard, and hopefully will continue to make progress,” he said. “I’m feeling closer. I still have some work to do.”

Luck Next

Without Manning, the Colts finished 2-14 and gained the NFL’s No. 1 draft pick, which they have said they will use to take Luck, the 22-year-old quarterback rated as the top prospect by ESPN’s Scouts Inc.

Irsay and Manning spoke of “circumstances” during the press conference as if they had no choice but to part ways. Manning said it wasn’t a money issue, without saying specifically that he’d be willing to take a reduction in pay to remain with the team.

Irsay said a primary reason was that the team is entering a rebuilding phase and doesn’t have the players to surround Manning the way it had in past years. If Manning stayed, he would be playing for a losing team, with a back-up waiting his turn while the franchise ate up payroll on two top-level passers instead of spending it on linemen to protect the quarterback and receivers who could get open.

‘Best Interest’

“I advised him in terms of what’s in his best interest,” Irsay said. “I think that as a franchise, where we are right now, with the salary cap, rebuilding, we’re definitely a few years away, and I want to see him come back and play great.”

Manning said he hasn’t given any thought to where he plays next. Both player and owner broke down several times during the televised press conference as they talked about their shared memories and many conversations about their parting.

“I’ve been blessed to play here,” Manning said, pausing to gather himself. “I’ve been blessed to play in the NFL. I go with a few words left to say.”

He spoke directly the Colts’ fans.

“Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart,” Manning said. “I truly have enjoyed being your quarterback.”

Manning has a 19 percent chance of signing with the Cardinals, according to the Cal Neva Resort’s sports book in Reno, Nevada. The Miami Dolphins are second at 16.5 percent, with the Washington Redskins third at 13 percent. A winning $100 bet on Arizona returns that stake plus $250.

No. 1 Pick

Indianapolis was 3-13 in 1997 before making Manning the league’s No. 1 draft pick out of the University of Tennessee. The Colts had the same record in Manning’s rookie year before going 13-3 in 1999. Indianapolis won the Super Bowl in February 2007.

Manning, a five-time All-Pro, was named the league’s MVP for the 2003, 2004, 2008 and 2009 campaigns, the most in NFL history.

His 54,828 yards passing, 4,682 completions and 399 touchdowns are third on the NFL career list, trailing leader Brett Favre and Dan Marino in each category. While Favre is also the NFL’s career leader with 336 interceptions and Marino ranks eighth with 252, Manning has just 198, placing him 26th.

Three Operations

Manning had at least three operations on his neck over the last two years. Sports Illustrated, citing unidentified people in the NFL, said last month that the quarterback had a fourth procedure to follow up a May operation for a bulging disk.

Former Redskins General Manager Charley Casserly, now an analyst with CBS Sports, said teams probably will want Manning to sign an incentive-laden contract with a smaller base salary and fewer guarantees. Signing bonuses are paid up front and guaranteed, unlike most base salaries in the NFL.

“You don’t mind paying if the guy plays, but you want to do it on a game-by-game basis with a minimum salary and then either a play-time or weekly roster bonus,” Casserly said in a telephone interview.

Andrew Brandt, a former Green Bay Packers executive now an NFL business analyst on ESPN, says teams will want to sign Manning. The competition might shift the risk back onto Manning’s suitors.

“He’ll have the leverage to get guarantees of millions plus incentives,” Brandt said.

Manning signed a five-year contract in July that paid a $20 million signing bonus and a base salary of $6.4 million. He sat out the 2011 NFL season while recovering from the neck injury, ending a streak of 227 consecutive starts.

$28 Million Bonus

The Colts had until 4 p.m. New York time tomorrow to exercise the option and keep Manning through 2015. They would then have owed him the $28 million bonus plus a $7.4 million salary in 2012, bringing his two-year earnings to $61.8 million, according to Brandt, president of the National Football Post, who analyzed the contract on his website.

The Colts probably would pay Luck $15 million in bonus and salary in the first year. With Manning, that would have meant a commitment to the team’s top two quarterbacks of more than $50 million next season, Brandt said. Luck guided Stanford to an 11-1 record and passed for 3,170 yards and 35 touchdowns last season.

Irsay told the Indianapolis Star on Feb. 14 that Manning would have to renegotiate his contract to stay with the team.

Uninsurable Contract

Manning probably will be uninsurable to cover his salary because of his age and injury history, Frank Zuccarello, executive vice president at Exceptional Risk Advisors LLC in Mahwah, New Jersey, said in a telephone interview.

“I can’t imagine anyone even thinking about covering him,” Zuccarello said. “I would think it would be impossible. It would have to come with exclusions for neck and shoulder.”

Zuccarello said if a policy were sold to a team, the premiums could be more than 5 percent of the insured amount, compared with 2 percent for a young, healthy player. With all the exclusions, it wouldn’t be worth it.

Jeffrey Fischgrund, an orthopedic surgeon and editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, said the bones above and below a spinal fusion usually compensate for the fused bones, allowing the neck to move normally. He said that 95 percent of people who have the surgery heal successfully and don’t experience further injuries at that site.

“Theoretically, he’s at an increased risk,” Fischgrund, who hasn’t examined Manning, said in an interview. “But not so much that you’d expect a catastrophic injury.”

The biggest issue is Manning’s arm strength. Fischgrund said the longer Manning suffers weakness, the longer it will take to make a full recovery. It usually takes a year before people know if they are going to get their full strength back, he said.

“I tell patients, ‘I can’t make you normal, but I can make you better,’” Fischgrund said. “Whether that’s enough for a professional athlete, I can’t say.”

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