Jim Irsay's big gambles


For now, Indianapolis Colts fans are safely wrapped in the feel-good glow of a new coach who is beating cancer and a new quarterback who has beaten the rookie odds and 11 opponents. Their team has risen from 2-14 to a playoff-bound 11-5. Happy New Era!
A wonderful holiday story, no doubt -- but one that won't have such a happy football ending. The cold, hard truth: Owner Jim Irsay made a monumental four-year mistake when he ceremoniously cut Peyton Manning last March. And Irsay and his new general manager, Ryan Grigson, compounded that calculated blunder last April by drafting Andrew Luck over Robert Griffin III.

This, of course, is merely one man's opinion -- mine. But this isn't some hypocritical late hit. I strongly stated these opinions on "First Take" before Irsay cut Peyton and before the Colts took Luck with the No.-1 overall pick. Peyton has proven me extremely right; RG III is proving me so.

Now a three-pronged specter looms over Luckville. What if the Colts' ChuckStrong roll -- inspired by the recovery of coach Chuck Pagano, who let us all feel his pain -- is stopped by the even stronger mojo of (potentially) Ray Lewis' Last Home Game? What if Peyton's 11-game winning streak hits 13? What if RG III sheds the brace on his miraculously healing knee and his team's seven-game winning streak somehow rises to 10?

Indy's worst nightmare: Peyton versus RG III in the Super Bowl.

I, for one, would not be shocked.


Please, let this sink in: Peyton Manning just went from being cut to being NFL MVP -- an NFL first. He should win that award as well as Comeback Player of the Year over Adrian Peterson because Peyton just went from four neck surgeries -- from being advised to retire by some doctors and being written off by many analysts -- to carrying a new team to the AFC's No. 1 seed. Peyton Manning, who had "lost too much arm strength" early in the season, finished with the NFL's No. 1 QBR at 84.1. No other QB broke 80.
Yet this man still isn't getting enough credit because now people shrug and say, "Well, what'd you expect from Peyton Manning?" Please, I got laughed at when I predicted in August he'd make the Pro Bowl. Nobody expected anything remotely close to what, under the circumstances, was the greatest season of the greatest regular-season quarterback ever.

(For the record, I'm no big Peyton fan. I've often criticized him for a 9-10 playoff record -- four home losses -- that hasn't measured up to the high seeds earned by his astonishing 11 double-digit-win seasons in Indy. His one Super Bowl win came against the Bears' Rex Grossman. But now that oddsmakers have made Peyton's new team the Super Bowl favorite, it will be harder than ever to bet against him.)

Remember, Irsay received little criticism for tearfully parting ways with Dear Old No. 18 -- in part because, classy to the end, Peyton took the high road, turned on his TV-ad charm and publicly returned Irsay's love even though he had to be seething inside.

My view: Irsay got away with convincing fans and media that Peyton's health was so risky and the salary he'd soon be owed ($28 million) and resulting cap hit ($17 million) were so high that the Colts simply couldn't afford to keep him. Yes, it seemed so dollars and sensible to say thanks but no thanks to Peyton, take the reduced $10.6 million cap hit and use the savings to rebuild around Luck.

But remember the dueling medical reports that broke during Super Bowl week in Indianapolis? Peyton's camp leaked info from personal doctors who said Peyton would soon be better than ever, prompting Irsay to tweet that Colts doctors still hadn't cleared Peyton. I bought into Peyton's vow that he would play again and his insistence he was right on track to be ready for camp, already doing light throwing. I'm guessing Irsay also feared Peyton was right.

But, my view: At age 53, Irsay, whose father acquired the Colts when Jim was 14, wanted to remake the Colts in his image. For 14 years they had been Peyton's Team, built and run by legendary GM Bill Polian. But Jim Irsay -- who walked on at SMU during its early-'80s football glory days and who idolizes '60s rock stars -- finally seized the opportunity to become a star in his own right ... the Jerry Jones of the AFC South! He fired Polian, cut Peyton, handpicked Pagano and Grigson and became a philosopher-comedian on Twitter. The Colts are now Jimmy Irsay's team. So far, so great.

But please don't try to tell me cutting Peyton was about saving just $6.4 million in cap room. Denver GM John Elway jumped at the chance to give Peyton pretty much the same contract he had in Indy. Elway even took on a slightly higher cap hit this year (about $18 mil) than Irsay faced in Indy ($17 mil). Yet Elway still managed to add two receivers Peyton wanted, Jacob Tamme (52 catches for 555 yards) and Brandon Stokley (45 for 544).

Please, this season Peyton Manning would have been a BARGAIN for the Colts at $28 million. He has been worth twice that in Denver.

Be honest, Colts fans: Heading into the playoffs, would you rather have Peyton or Luck? Peyton, obviously. Now the tougher question: After what you've seen from Peyton this season, Peyton or Luck for the next three seasons? Sorry, it's Peyton.

Obviously, he has proven he can take hits and bounce right back up. He will play the next three seasons at 37, 38 and 39. Brett Favre had his greatest season at 40, when he threw 33 touchdown passes to just seven interceptions and carried the Vikings to within an overtime in New Orleans of the Super Bowl.

Please don't try to convince me Luck sets you up for a much brighter future. In this league, the future must always be now. Four years is an NFL eternity, and Peyton Manning would've given the Colts a better chance to win the Super Bowl this season and each of the next three.

Sure, you can argue Irsay did Peyton a favor, driving him in the weight room and on the practice field to prove Irsay wrong. But when was Peyton Manning ever not driven? What player has worked harder every one of his offseasons?

This is where Peyton's comeback is getting unfairly overshadowed by Adrian Peterson's. Peterson often has been portrayed as a weight-room warrior with the most powerful handshake in sports. He ruptured his ACL and MCL a year ago Christmas Eve and, yes, it was a testament to his dedication that he rehabbed it quickly enough to be ready eight months later for the season's start. But given today's surgical breakthroughs, eight months was amazing but not miraculous. Peterson is nine years younger than Peyton. The Vikings obviously didn't consider cutting him. Peterson's comeback wasn't complicated by having to change teams and build wavelengths with new receivers.

No, Peyton should win Comeback Player and MVP.
And RG III should win Offensive Rookie of the Year over (in order) Russell Wilson and Luck.

Luck has had a terrific rookie year. But his seven game-winning drives camouflaged some troubling numbers. His 23 total turnovers (18 interceptions, five lost fumbles) are the NFL's second-worst (to Mark Sanchez) and his 54.1 completion percentage is second-worst among QBs with at least 300 attempts and worst for QBs with at least 400.

RG III's seven total turnovers (five interceptions, two lost fumbles) are the fewest in the NFL. The fewest! And RG III runs a high-risk, ride-and-decide attack in which split-second decisions must be made to let go of the ball in the running back's hands or pull it back. Griffin went from winning the Heisman at a school without a great football tradition (Baylor) to leading a consensus pick to finish last (Washington) to its first NFC East crown since 1999. He finished sixth in QBR (to Luck's 11th) and fourth in completion percentage.

Luck is very good. RG III is special. The only long-term advantage Luck might have is durability.

For now, you certainly can't argue with Luck's playoff-making rookie record. For now Irsay can gloat-tweet his heart out. But ...

As Pagano says, it was like this season was "meant to be." What if things return to ho-hum normal next season and the Colts must be fueled by perspiration instead of rare inspiration? What if the schedule gets tougher? Eight of this year's 11 wins came against Jacksonville twice, Tennessee twice, Kansas City, Miami, Cleveland and Buffalo.

Seriously, Colts fans: Peyton or Luck? You know the answer. So does your owner.