INDIANAPOLIS — Sent packing by his only NFL team, one he transformed from afterthought to Super Bowl champion, Peyton Manning said goodbye to the Indianapolis Colts with a shaky voice and tear-filled eyes, then got ready to find a new place to play quarterback.
At a podium alongside owner Jim Irsay, who cut the injured star Wednesday rather than pay a whopping $28 million bonus due this week, Manning was by turns wistful, nostalgic – he got choked up while praising the Colts’ equipment managers – and forward-looking.
The only four-time MVP in NFL history now figures to become as coveted a free agent as the league has ever seen, assuming he can assuage any lingering concerns about the series of neck operations that forced him to miss all of 2011. Arizona, Miami, Seattle, Tennessee, Washington and the New York Jets all have been rumored as possible destinations; Manning’s former offensive coordinator in Indianapolis, Tom Moore, worked for the Jets as a consultant last season.
“Nobody loves their job more than I do. Nobody loves playing quarterback more than I do. I still want to play. But there is no other team I wanted to play for,” said Manning, who turns 36 this month.
Still, he acknowledged: “We all know that nothing lasts forever. Times change, circumstances change, and that’s the reality of playing in the NFL.”
Another reality: Manning should command plenty of offers on the open market.
It’s not very often that teams get a crack at a QB who’s thrown for more than 50,000 yards and nearly 400 touchdowns, been picked for 11 Pro Bowls, and been a Super Bowl MVP. Manning’s importance to the Colts’ success was never more apparent than last season, when their record plummeted to 2-14 without him.
Reports of other clubs’ interest began emerging a while back, and they’ll only intensify now. Because he was released and went on the waiver wire Wednesday, Manning is allowed to negotiate and sign with any club immediately; he does not need to wait until the free-agent period that begins next Tuesday.
The stark first sentence of the official team statement read: “The Indianapolis Colts today released quarterback Peyton Manning.”
Even if the news first leaked out Tuesday – and had been anticipated for weeks, if not months – it was odd to see those words written about a player so synonymous with the horseshoe helmet that Irsay said Manning’s No. 18 will never again be worn by a Colts player.
“This has not been easy for Jim,” Manning said, “and this has certainly not been easy for me.”
Each paused frequently to try to compose himself while speaking during their appearance in a room at the Colts’ complex normally reserved for celebratory news conferences.
Irsay repeatedly used the word “rebuilding” and acknowledged: “We’re definitely a few years away.”
Manning, Irsay said, “is on the mend to try to resume his career.”
Manning hopes to be playing in the NFL at the start of next season.
Still, he said Wednesday: “I’ll always be a Colt. I always will be. That’ll never change.”