Understand, this isn't 20/20 hindsight. From the day Peyton Manning let Jim Irsay get away with lovingly easing him out the door in that terribly awkward news conference, I said on "First Take" the Colts owner was making an all-time big mistake.
Now, my conviction has doubled. Not only do I believe Andrew Luck is being overwhelmingly oversold as a Canton candidate -- the Best of the Young Quarterbacks, even The Next Peyton -- but Peyton Manning is playing quarterback at an Einstein/Shakespeare/Mozart level never before imagined and appears healthy and happy enough to do so for three more seasons beyond this one.
Right now, to me, "Luck or Peyton" is a laughable argument -- though it has turned into by far the most polarizing NFL debate. Peyton obviously would have given Irsay a better chance to win a Super Bowl last season and this one, and I say for the next three. This is a win-now business. A Peyton in the hand is worth five young Lucks in the bush no matter how great Luck might become after Peyton retires.
BUT … this week Irsay finally (and shockingly) made a valid point for why he dumped Peyton. Well, he made it for a day before doing lots of damage-control waffling in a tweet, then in interviews, then (as reported by NFL Network) in a call to Peyton to clarify, reportedly unreturned.
But in an interview with ESPN contributor Jarrett Bell, which Bell used in his Tuesday USA Today column, Irsay went for Peyton's jugular, taking aim at the one glaring negative on Peyton's NFL résumé.
He's 9-11 in the postseason -- and the 11 losses are the most all time. Worse, in the Super Bowl era, Peyton has by far the most first-game playoff losses -- eight. Tied for second are Joe Montana, Warren Moon, Bob Griese and Dave Krieg with four each.
You've got me here, Jim. Peyton, the Greatest Regular-Season Quarterback Ever, often hasn't cashed in on the high seeds he earned through the season's first 16 games.
(In Peyton's defense, though, he did lift Indy to two Super Bowls. The Colts managed to get to the first one -- and win Irsay his ring -- after being down 21-3 to Tom Brady & Co. at Indy in the AFC title game. Peyton did throw for 349 yards as the Colts stormed back to beat New England 38-34. And last January, Peyton did his part in Denver to try to eliminate the eventual champs, the Ravens. With 7:11 left, Peyton threw the 17-yard TD pass that gave Denver a 35-28 lead. If safety Rahim Moore hadn't misplayed Joe Flacco's desperate heave -- which resulted in a tying 70-yard TD pass with 31 seconds left -- it's very possible Peyton would've won his second Super Bowl ring, for Broncos architect John Elway.)
Still, this week Irsay said in USA Today: "You make the playoffs 11 times [when Peyton was a Colt], and you're out in the first round seven out of 11 times. You love to have the 'Star Wars' numbers from Peyton. … Mostly, you love this."
Irsay flashed his Super Bowl ring. Yet Irsay made sure to point out that in that playoff run "we ran the ball, we stopped the run. That's what won us the Super Bowl."
Much truth there, Jim. BUT … what I loved most was that Irsay finally quit hiding behind salary-cap excuses for not keeping Peyton and declared himself by declaring war.
Now, Jim, you own it: You ARE The Man Who Ran Peyton Manning Out Of Town. Good luck getting Peyton to participate in your proposed pregame ceremony honoring him before he takes it out on your team Sunday night in the house that HE built, Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Naturally, Broncos coach John Fox defended Peyton (who would never stoop to defend himself against Irsay) by calling Irsay's comment a cheap shot. And Irsay did backtrack Wednesday, basically saying he meant the Colts have changed their organizational approach post-Peyton, targeting more cap money for defense and special teams.
Not buying it.
Nor did I fall for Irsay's original spin to Colts fans that he simply couldn't afford to rebuild a 2-14 team around Peyton's enormous cap hit. Please. Peyton would've worked with Irsay just the way he worked with Elway, who somehow managed to keep adding valuable pieces around Peyton, who even restructured his deal last offseason to clear more cap room.
More important, we're talking about PEYTON MANNING. He turns spare parts into occasional stars (Blair White, Jacob Tamme). Imagine the draft-pick haul Irsay could have commanded for the Luck pick? The Redskins gave the Rams three first-round picks and a second-rounder for the No. 2 overall pick, with which Washington took Robert Griffin III. So, what then? Three firsts, two seconds and a third for the No. 1 overall?
Peyton sure would've had fun last season with all those rookie toys.
This week, former Colts coach and Irsay confidant Tony Dungy told the Denver Post he believes that if Irsay had it to do over, he would keep Peyton. Translation: Dungy believes Irsay knows he made a huge mistake.
Clearly Irsay bet against Peyton's long-term health after four neck procedures -- and lost. Remember the clashing stories during Super Bowl week in Indianapolis? "Peyton's Doctors Say He'll Be Better Than Ever." Yet: "Colts Doctors Doubtful."
During the recent Dallas game, Cowboys defensive end George Selvie grabbed Peyton's face mask and yanked his head almost 90 degrees backward. Peyton bounced right up and began orchestrating the next play. Yep, that neck must be stronger than ever.
Yet, even though I believe Irsay fears he made a monumental mistake -- dreads Peyton winning a couple more Super Bowls in Denver -- I disagree with Dungy's conclusion. I do not think Irsay would've kept Peyton if he had known then what he knows now.
Irsay's self-promotional ego might even eclipse Jerry Jones'. I get a kick out of Jim, but he is a frustrated '60s rock star who owns original guitars that belonged to Elvis, George Harrison and Jerry Garcia, to name a few. No owner tweets as actively (and controversially) as look-at-me Jim. Jerry has a Twitter account but hasn't tweeted since April.
As Irsay reached his 50s -- he's now 54 -- I believe HE wanted to become the face of his franchise and prove he could recreate the Colts without the great Peyton Manning OR the great Bill Polian, his longtime general manager. So Irsay hired a first-time head coach (Chuck Pagano), a first-time GM (Ryan Grigson) and drafted the QB just about everybody said could make Irsay look smart for 15 years. Now, back to the second half of my issue with Peyton versus Luck: Are you SURE Luck will ever even approach Peyton's greatness?
Obviously Luck is only six games into his second pro season. But since the beginning of last season, Peyton has thrown 4.5 touchdowns per interception (first in the NFL) while Luck's 1.4 TD/INT ranks 22nd. Peyton has completed 70.2 percent of his passes (first) to Luck's 55.8 (31st).
This season, Luck has thrown seven TD passes to three interceptions for his 4-2 Colts. Peyton: 22/2 for the 6-0 Broncos. Luck is averaging 224 yards passing (26th) to Peyton's 363 (first). Luck nearly lost the home opener to Terrelle Pryor's Raiders and did lose at home to Ryan Tannehill's Dolphins.
Yes, Luck was beyond-his-years poised and efficient (17-of-26, 159 yards, 0 TD passes, 0 interceptions) in a 27-7 drubbing of the 49ers in San Francisco … after the Niners had been emotionally flattened in Seattle the previous Sunday night. But against Seattle in Indy, Luck made the fourth-quarter money throws to pull out an extremely impressive 34-28 win.
Even more impressive, that was Luck's ninth fourth-quarter comeback in 22 NFL starts. Last season, he helped pull off three late rallies, at Detroit and at home against Minnesota and Green Bay … though the Colts as a team were fueled all season by the "ChuckStrong" emotion of winning for a new coach who was battling cancer.
In Luck's first playoff game, he had little chance at Baltimore in Ray Lewis' war-dancing return from triceps surgery. Luck: 28-of-54 for 288, no TDs and an interception. Ravens, 24-9.
Luck got off to a Peyton-esque postseason beginning with a first-round exit.
I made the pre-draft case RG III would turn out to be the better pro QB than Luck, and I certainly looked right last season. RG III: 20 TD passes to five interceptions (73.2 QBR) to Luck's 23/18 (65.2 QBR). Luck's 23 total turnovers ranked second in the NFL to Mark Sanchez. RG III opened his playoff debut with two straight TD drives against Seattle's defense but reinjured a knee that eventually was wrecked in the fourth quarter. Coming off major surgery, RG III hasn't yet found himself this season, but I'm not backing off my RG III-over-Luck prediction.
Are you SURE, Colts fans?
Yes, it's quite possible Peyton wouldn't have been quite as driven if Irsay had pledged undying allegiance to him. No doubt Irsay lit a bonfire under Peyton by cutting him, and now Peyton will approach this postseason with a new vengeance after Irsay ripped his playoff failures. If Denver wins this season's Super Bowl, Elway should send Irsay a ring.
But somehow I don't think Jim Irsay will mind all that much if he goes down in NFL history as The Man Who Ran Peyton Manning Out Of Town. Heck, in this column alone, this is the 31st time I've typed the name Jim Irsay.