Peyton Manning(notes) stood in front of his locker Thursday and did nothing to silence growing concerns about his ailing neck, his future with Indianapolis or the debate about whether he should be released/traded if the Colts secure the No. 1 draft pick and thus the rights to Stanford's Andrew Luck.
"Nothing earth-shattering, just two months today since my surgery," Manning told reporters. "Still waiting for the fusion to take place. That takes place, they thought, between two and three months. Still going slow with that."
"I still have some of the same issues I had before the fusion as far as the nerves and the regeneration," the sidelined Colts quarterback said. "Still dealing with that, the idea being that this surgery gave me the most stability for the nerves to regenerate. That's still a process there."
So here comes the most agonizing of months for the Colts. Manning said he wasn't scheduled for a checkup until Dec. 1. Between then and now it'll be some light rehab and some heavy worrying.
As the calendar spins, however, the likelihood of his return drops.
If a process that was supposed to take "between two and three months" hasn't revealed anything at all, hasn't shown he's on the verge of progress (no checkup for four more weeks?), hasn't changed the "issues" he had before fusion surgery, then will another month do it?
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Or another after that? Or ever?
It's actually eight weeks (not two months) since the Sept. 8 anterior cervical discectomy and fusion procedure. However, the original recovery time was pegged at 8-10 weeks (not three months, which in this case would be 13 weeks). Calendar semantics aside, none of this is good.
It's the right thing for the front office to brush off trade or release talk, and speak with great optimism of their future Hall of Famer's future. It's also completely naïve to ignore the obvious.
These are the critical moments for Manning's recovery and the once-unthinkable concept of the Colts moving on from the four-time MVP who literally made the franchise matter after its 1984 move from Baltimore.
There is no understating his importance on not just the franchise, but the city and state. The Colts averaged just 6.3 victories during the 14 pre-Manning seasons in Indy. They had some magical moments behind quarterback Jim Harbaugh, but it wasn't until Manning showed up that everything changed.
The one-time basketball state became football mad. Manning became the city's celebrity, just as a massive gentrification of Indy's once sleepy downtown was complete. He then helped get a new stadium built. Subsequently, the Super Bowl is coming in February.
The bigger moment for the Colts will come later that month. The Indianapolis Star reports the team must decide by then whether to pick up Manning's option. If so, it will owe the quarterback $28 million. Manning said that provision in the contract he signed just last offseason, was his idea.
"It's a one-year deal with a four-year extension, if you will," he said. "That was my recommendation. I wasn't healthy when I signed the contract. If I'm not healthy in February I think it's fair for the Colts to be able to make their decision there."
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By then the Colts will know if they've won the "Suck for Luck" race. The prize is Andrew Luck, expected to be the league's next franchise signal caller. The Colts aren't just 0-8, they are a terrible 0-8, non-competitive in many of those defeats. They may have the inside track on the league's other winless franchise, the Miami Dolphins.
The options then are multiple. If Manning isn't healthy, trade him and move on with the rebuilding. If he is, they could keep him, let him return to form and finish out his iconic career while mentoring his understudy. Or they could get on with the rebuilding and trade him for parts and picks. There's also an outright release that opens up plenty of salary cap.
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Manning wouldn't touch that subject.
"That's a lot of speculation and I don't think that's fair to the players that are playing, to speculate on what draft choice the Colts will have," said the top overall pick in 1998. "We might win eight in a row starting Sunday and I certainly hope that we do. … We've never talked about what draft pick we were going to have before during the past 13 years, so I don't think it's fair to do [that] now."
What Manning is worth on the trading block depends on his recovery. Yes the Cincinnati Bengals got a first- and a second-round pick for the all-but retired Carson Palmer(notes), who has never been Manning's equal.
Palmer is 31 though. Manning turns 36 in March. Besides, you can't count on another franchise willing to hand over as much as the desperate Oakland Raiders.
Either way, Manning's either damaged goods or a risky proposition. It'd be one thing to look good in practice, but he's still an aging player who has had three neck surgeries over a 19-month period.
Right now, all anyone knows is that the first eight weeks (the front end of an expected recovery) have yielded little progress. It isn't over since absolutely no one knows for sure, but there is no simple way to spin this into a blue skies scenario. This is one contest Manning can't run a two-minute offense on and pull victory in the face of defeat.
"I just can't give a prediction of where I'm going to be," Manning said. "I don't think anybody really can because as I've said all along, this injury is one that is a little bit unpredictable."
Here comes the big month for Indianapolis and its Colts; the once-unimaginable end of the Peyton Manning era growing just a little more likely by the day.