The Herald Bulletin

October 15, 2013

George Bremer: Manning's return stirs old passions

The Herald Bulletin

---- — There's nothing wrong with cheering for Peyton Manning. His all-out assault on the passing record books is the story of the year in the NFL, and Indianapolis Colts fans have every right to feel invested in the saga.

But that fact just serves to make Sunday's nationally televised reunion at Lucas Oil Stadium all the more complicated.

Manning's Broncos are undefeated and on pace to score more points than any other NFL team in history. And his arrival this week is certain to bring back all the old questions about his departure.

The early national marketing has cast the Colts in the role of the Washington Generals to Manning and football's Harlem Globetrotters.

But the real storylines run so much deeper.

As Manning rehabbed a serious neck injury early in 2012, Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay was plotting a course for the franchise's future. The team was locked deep in salary-cap jail, and a healthy measure of change was inevitable.

Irsay fired the first shot on Jan. 2, just a day after the regular season ended, when he dismissed front office leaders Bill Polian and his son, Chris. When Ryan Grigson was hired as general manager two weeks later and head coach Jim Caldwell was let go, the cold truth is Manning was no longer a good fit with the Colts.

A 36-year-old quarterback with nerve damage is no place to begin a rebuilding effort. No matter how strenuously everyone in Indianapolis tried to avoid the "R" word, the arrivals of Grigson and first-time head coach Chuck Pagano marked a clear start to a new era.

The best move for both Manning and the Colts was to allow the quarterback to find a new home with an immediate contender while Indianapolis started from scratch. On March 7, 2012, both parties made the divorce official during a teary news conference that still resonates emotionally today.

What nobody counted on at the time was the speed with which Indianapolis' revival would come.

As awe-inspiring as Manning's recovery and subsequent return to greatness has been, the Colts have penned their own remarkable turnaround story.

Some 21 months after finishing 2-14 with a season-ending loss at Jacksonville — and 18 months after choosing Stanford's precocious Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall draft pick to become Manning's successor — Indianapolis is back in first place in the AFC South.

When Irsay drafted Luck, he repeatedly reminded the media it took the Colts six years to win their first playoff game with Manning under center. The obvious point was that it takes time to build a contender in the NFL.

Luck, however, has accelerated the process.

On Sunday, he and his teammates will get the opportunity to measure their progress against the best quarterback ever to play the game on football's grandest regular-season stage.

So, yes, it's still OK to root for Peyton Manning.

Just don't forget about the home team along the way.