With Luck, Colts better off moving Manning

The Colts need to rebuild their franchise around Andrew Luck and say goodbye to Peyton Manning. ESPN.com Illustration

The disarray that comes with the sort of season the Indianapolis Colts are having is usually destructive.

But the timing of the 0-12 Colts, who could easily go winless, is excellent.

They have a two-game advantage with four games to play in what might be the second-best prize to the Lombardi Trophy this season: the No. 1 pick in the April draft and Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.

In this Ultimate Scouting report, ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay compared pre-draft evaluations of Peyton Manning, John Elway and Matt Ryan with current evaluations of Luck.

We know it’s an imperfect science. But the 2011 Luck outscored 1998 Manning in five categories: arm strength, measurables, mobility, production and toughness. They tied in the other five: short accuracy, deep accuracy, release, pocket presence and intelligence.

From the start, I’ve said the Colts have to take Luck if they can. He’s a guy forecasted to have a career that could be comparable to Manning’s, and he’s 13 years younger and 14 NFL seasons healthier.

Luck’s career stacked on top of Manning’s could conceivably give the franchise 28 years or more of no real concerns at quarterback. I can only imagine what that sounds like to fans in Cleveland, Washington or Miami, where a fruitless search for just one quarterback who can play well for a couple of consecutive years goes on and on and on.

Still, I waver on what the Colts should do when the time to make a Manning decision arrives. It's a frustrating topic for someone with typically strong opinions. I've read and agreed with great stances on both sides.

Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star: “It makes no sense, none, to mortgage the team's long-term future and retard Andrew Luck's progress while gambling on Manning's health and longevity.”


Peter Keating, ESPN Insider: “The true once-in-a-generation opportunity they're facing is the chance to rebuild a great team overnight, not to draft Luck.”


Bill Polian is now the Colts’ vice chairman, and his son, Chris, is the team’s general manager. I’m presuming they survive this embarrassing year and are in line to make the decisions going forward.

As Bill recedes and Chris takes on more responsibility, Bill has talked of a renewed focus on his draft. His career has been built largely around teams with Hall of Fame quarterbacks: Jim Kelly in Buffalo and Manning in Indianapolis.

So my strong feeling is he’ll grab Luck. And, spoken or unspoken, I think he’d pass this message to Chris:

I built a legacy with a couple of fantastic quarterbacks, the hardest thing to find in professional football, perhaps in professional sports. Here’s yours. On this rock, you’ll build your team. (Don’t blow it.) Love, Dad.

So then, the question is not about Luck. It’s about Manning.

He’s coming off major neck surgery. He will have to show he’s recovered by early March for the Colts to consider paying him the $28 million bonus he’s due. He could push back the deadline.

All season, I’ve been inclined to think it’d be fine, even healthy, for the Colts to have a recovered Manning and a rookie Luck on the 2012 roster. Let Luck be an understudy under a great for a year, then sort things out.

But my thinking has changed. Having both is probably the worst of all the options, as Kravitz of the Star and Nate Dunlevy of 18to88.com have both written.

My feeling right now -- and I reserve the right to change it over the next three or four months -- aligns with that of Kravitz. He thinks the Colts have to look to the future and wonders why Manning would even want to come back, given the circumstances.

While the two quarterbacks could coexist for a season, even as Archie Manning says Luck is too good to sit, the financial implications of trading or cutting Manning in 2013 would be drastic and handcuff the team in a way it can’t willingly agree to.

The Colts have to decide whether they want to reload and try to win with Manning now, or start a rebuild that would surround Luck with lasting talent. They can’t go forward with both strategies without compromising one or the other.

Drafting Luck means your single best chance to help Manning win will be spent on a player who won’t help Manning win.

Keeping Manning means making patchwork moves intended to maintain the best, aging pieces of the current core -- a group that will be petering out or gone by 2014 or 2015, when Luck will likely be blossoming.

So …

The Colts can commission a statue of Manning outside Lucas Oil Stadium, a football palace unlikely to have been built without him.

They’ll surely struggle with the sentimentality involved in parting ways with such an iconic figure and they will face some gigantic fan backlash. But they’ll be best off if they massage the situation and tell him they’d like to help him land in a situation of his choosing to play out his career. Maybe he beats them to it and tells Bill Polian the day after the season ends that’s his wish.

Manning could return to Indianapolis wearing the helmet of the Broncos or Dolphins or Jets and it would sting, for sure. But it would hurt too, and last longer, if Luck went to the playoffs on a regular basis as a member of Browns or some other team he could lift to long-term prominence.

It’s an incredibly complicated, uncomfortable and delicate situation.

Polian and Manning are the two men most responsible for the Colts’ run of success: nine consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins and a playoff berth, three AFC championship games, two AFC titles and the Super Bowl XLIV crown.

The end of such a successful relationship is not often tidy.

It’s rarely Elway walking away after raising a second consecutive Lombardi trophy.

It’s rarely someone like Luck arriving, ready to grab the torch, either.