Colts could owe Manning over $18 million
Peyton Manning stands to make more than $18 million in '04. If they had a clue, the Colts wouldn't be in such a fix.
INDIANAPOLIS -- There are more than 300 football players here for the annual predraft combine workouts, thousands of tons of meat-on-the-hoof walking the streets every night for a week, but the locals couldn't care less about all these NFL wannabes.
Just one player matters here right now. And one question supercedes all others: What will happen in the impending showdown between the Indianapolis Colts and quarterback Peyton Manning, the league co-most valuable player in 2003, and the player upon whom the viability of this city's NFL future really rests?
Tagging Manning will take up $18.3 million in salary cap space for 2004. That represents, even with the unexpected $2 million increase in the spending ceiling late last week, a debilitating 22.7 percent of the Colts' salary cap space for the coming season.
That said, the Colts have no one to blame but themselves for the pickle in which they're now in. Allowing the league's premier player to even reach the precipice of free agency, to get within sniffing distance of potential freedom, is a catastrophic blunder. Other franchises revisit contracts all the time in the NFL, rework deals years before high-profile performers are sniffing free agency, and the Colts should have done the same.
That the team has been victimized by off-field circumstances -- the smallest stadium in the NFL and pitifully insufficient revenues from the RCA Dome; a small-market base; the rehabilitation of good-guy owner Jim Irsay from an addiction to painkillers -- really is not an excuse for having shuttled Manning to the back burner. And now that it has been there two years too long, the club stands to be burned, no matter the outcome.
Irsay has said here, and reiterated to us at the Super Bowl, that he fully intends to make Manning the highest-paid player in league history. "But at what price?" Irsay said. "I mean, does being the highest paid mean he has to be the highest paid by, say, 25 percent more than everybody else? How high does the bar have to go?"
In his own way, Irsay has done a good job of controlling some of the spin, essentially backing Manning into a corner of sorts. With his public comments, Irsay has applied some pressure to Manning, subliminally set up the quarterback to look bad to the fans if he gets too greedy in negotiations. Image is key to Manning, the league's golden boy, and he certainly won't want to be portrayed as just another money-grubber. Then again, it would be difficult to imagine Manning, as good as any player gets off the field as well as on it, viewed in a selfish light.
The bottom line on what will eventually be a blockbuster deal, one for the ages, is that the Colts should never have permitted the Manning deal to reach this critical juncture. When he suggested last year that the Colts had "prepared" to carry a monumental 2003 salary cap hit of roughly $15 million for its star quarterback, Polian was viewed askew by many of his peers. Now he's being viewed as a guy who let a simmering stew sit on the stove too long.
Team officials have used the term "offensive Armageddon" to describe the adjustments the Colts will have to make to their payroll to fit in Manning's cap number if a long-term contract isn't consummated and the quarterback actually plays the 2004 season under the burdensome $18.3 million tag. There is some reasoned logic there, of course, but some of the organizational rhetoric is hyperbole as well.
Over the past several weeks, the Colts have cleared about $7 million to $8 million in cap room by restructuring the contracts of several veteran players. By releasing in the next week or two offensive lineman Adam Meadows, defensive end Chad Bratzke and backup quarterback Brock Huard, all moves the Colts planned to make anyway, the team will create an additional $15.5 million in cap space.
There are still moves the Colts must make, like tendering qualifying offers to most of their restricted free agents and perhaps attempting to sign some of their own unrestricted players like strongside linebacker Marcus Washington, but they won't be completely paralyzed if forced to apply the "franchise" tag to Manning.
Conventional wisdom is that the Colts will use the "franchise" tag to buy themselves some much-needed time in negotiations, and then reach a long-term deal by March 15. That's the true drop-dead date because, after that, negotiations with "franchise" players are basically precluded by league rule.
But regardless, the next month or so is going to be a pretty painful and anxious time for this city's fans, make no doubt about that. It all could have been avoided, though, had Indianapolis management exercised some foresight a couple of years ago.
Around the league
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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