Most everyone knew it was coming, but the headline shocked people across Indiana to the core: "Colts release Peyton Manning."
It was one of those punch-in-the-gut moments. The quarterback from Tennessee who had taken Indianapolis from being a mostly forgettable NFL franchise to becoming the biggest sports figure in the state’s history – Larry Bird, Bob Knight and Oscar Robertson included – suddenly was gone.
Not many blamed Colts owner Jim Ersay, a billionaire who could buy anything he wanted except a guarantee that Manning, who sat out the 2011 season with a serious neck injury, would someday return to championship form. The choice was one only the team’s owner could make -- pay Manning his $28 million bonus as stipulated in his contract or cut him.
The message to Manning was straightforward and businesslike: Find a new place to play. It wasn’t a bitter separation, just heartbreaking.
Manning’s future, assuming he had one, was uncertain. Returning to Florida where he owned a home, he told a group of reporters: “I have no idea who wants me, what team wants me, how this process works.” For one of the few times in his life, Manning seemed stumped.
Flash forward about a year and a half. Manning is now wearing a blue and orange Denver Broncos uniform. He resembles anything but a hobbling former NFL star. Last weekend, the Broncos had just decimated Philadelphia in a performance that had some wondering if the 37-year-old Manning had found the fountain of youth on the grounds of his Sunshine State retreat.
Against the Eagles, Manning completed 28 of 34 passes for 327 yards and four touchdowns. Through Denver’s first four games – all wins -- he has aired out 16 touchdown passes yet not thrown a single interception. His passer rating stood at 138.0, which is not perfect but begs the question, “Is perfection achievable?”
In his last four drives, Manning directed the Broncos to four touchdowns – totaling 305 yards – without needing a third-down play.
The performance had pundits questioning how anyone doubted whether Manning could return to – or perhaps even exceed – his old form. “Manning and the Broncos defy logic,” wrote Adam Schein on NFL.com. Woody Paige of The Denver Post summed it up this way: “Manning operates like a surgeon. He commands like a general.”
Others in Denver suggest the remaining 12 regular season games are little more than tune-ups for the post-season playoffs and an eventual run to the Super Bowl.
If there has been a blemish on Manning’s 14-year career in Indianapolis and his brief tenure in Denver, it is his post-season play. There was a Super Bowl championship in 2006 and a runner-up banner in 2009, but his overall playoff record is only 9-11 with eight one-and-done performances.
When a player has reached the highest level of NFL stardom, the only thing that counts is championship rings. That’s how the great ones are remembered – winning Super Bowls.
Manning led Denver into the playoffs last year and then lost in a most improbable, unimaginable way. The Broncos appeared to have it salted away, but the Ravens scored late on a desperation play. The Broncos ended up losing 38-35 in double overtime. One wonders how Manning will suppress memories of that demoralizing loss or confront his own sub-par record as the playoff season approaches.
Football is a team game, but Manning will forever be the target. Praise is heaped on him when he wins, the criticism is unmerciful when he loses. The pressure this time around will be immense, perhaps more so than any time since he entered the league. His early-season statistics are off the charts, but might they again create unreal expectations?
If anyone is up to the challenge, it would be Manning. He’s not short on talent or belief. Upon leaving the Colts, his former coach Tony Dungy said the biggest challenge Manning would face is “managing expectations.” There are his expectations and those of others.
Manning’s once again proven that he can play remarkable football. In weeks to come, he’ll have to show his harshest skeptics, his staunchest supporters and most importantly himself if he can lead the Broncos through a playoff maize that promises unseen twists and turns.
Whether he succeeds or fails is a headline that waits to be written.
Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for the CNHI News Service. Reach him at email@example.com.