Irsay better be right on Manning

Peyton Manning is getting cut.

Let that sink in.

One of the greatest quarterbacks of all time -- some would say the most technically sound man to ever play the position -- is getting cut. Peyton Manning. The assassin. The leader. The face of the Indianapolis Colts' franchise. A man so ruthless with the football that Bill Belichick, of all people, famously feared him.

Cut. Gone. Done. Thanks for playing. See you in Canton.

It is like the Chicago Bulls waving goodbye to Michael Jordan, or the Edmonton Oilers saying farewell to Wayne Gretzky. There are no fairy tales, not in professional sports, only reminders of how harsh a business it is.

If Peyton Manning can get cut, no one in the NFL is safe.

This has been coming for weeks, since the two sides fired up their spin machines shortly before the NFL arrived in Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI. It had to end like this because of how Manning's contract was structured.

But the news is jarring nonetheless, and it left me with this: Jim Irsay had better be right.

For Irsay's tweeting sake, Manning had better be done. He's better not be able to throw the ball more than 20 yards downfield. He'd better not be able to win or to scare defenses so badly that they never blitz for fear of leaving a receiver open for Manning to hit.

Manning's win total had better be stuck on 141, his passing touchdowns on 399, his regular-season starts at 208, his passing yards at a ridiculous 54,828, his NFL MVP honors at four, his division titles won on eight, his Super Bowl appearances at two and his Super Bowl MVP awards at one.

Manning at 36 years old -- his birthday is March 24 -- had better not be Manning at 33, still able to lead a team, to direct a franchise, to win 10 games, to win the AFC South, to reach the playoffs. He'd better not join Washington or Miami or Kansas City or Arizona or the New York Jets or whichever team opens its doors to him and, with his fierce competitiveness, turn them into a winner as he did in Indianapolis. He'd better not be out there pointing and waving and calling plays and making adjustments as he did so masterfully for 13 seasons in Indianapolis.

Irsay had better be right, or he will go down as the man who cut Peyton Manning, potentially the G.O.A.T., before it was time. In a Midwestern city that loves its quarterback's loyalty, his charity, his family and his professionalism, Irsay had better be right or he will never be forgiven. That beautiful stadium downtown very well might go dark.

Every franchise quarterback wants to be John Elway or Dan Marino, Troy Aikman or Terry Bradshaw. Joe Montana didn't want to leave San Francisco. Brett Favre didn't want to leave Green Bay. They wanted to finish what they started, to keep playing, keep grinding, keep winning.

The 49ers had Steve Young waiting. The Packers had Aaron Rodgers. Those were sound business decisions that worked out better for the teams than for the veterans.
Montana finished up in Kansas City and Favre, it seems, is finally done after stops with the Jets and Minnesota.

The Colts have the No. 1 pick in the draft. They have a clear path to Andrew Luck, a quarterback most analysts have tabbed as the real thing, a can't-miss prospect, a legitimate longtime starter. Luck is coming from a pro-style offense and played the majority of his career for Jim Harbaugh.

Had the Colts not been in position to draft Luck, maybe they would've worked harder to restructure Manning's deal. Maybe they would've pushed to keep Manning, to let his career end the way it should -- in a Colts uniform, chasing a third Super Bowl appearance, trying to become the fourth quarterback to win a Super Bowl after the age of 35.

But Luck was there. The pick was there. It all set up for this ending.

With the information he had at the moment and given the deadline to make a decision, Irsay really had no choice but to cut Manning. It would have been fiscally irresponsible to pay a $28 million bonus to a soon-to-be 36-year-old coming off four neck surgeries who didn't play a snap last season when you have a potential starter coming in at a greatly reduced price.

Irsay probably is right. It makes sense. But with so many variables, we can't be sure yet. We will have to wait and see.

Can Luck make the transition to the pros? Can he learn, and adapt, and do so quickly? Will he have enough help? Will the Colts be able to build around him as they did around Manning, and do so relatively quickly?

And what of Manning? Can he throw? Can he get his arm strength back? Which team will sign him, and will it give Manning the control he craves? Will there be the pieces in place to win in 2012?

Irsay's decision to cut Manning closes the book on Manning's Colts career, but the story is not over. There are chapters still to write.

Manning is fiercely competitive. He will want to make Irsay rue the day he cut him.

More than anything, Manning will want to prove Irsay wrong. Irsay had better hope he was right.

Ashley Fox is an NFL columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @AshleyMFox.