Benner/Sports and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Colts and Opinion and Sports Business

BENNER: Colts should keep Peyton, even if he can't play

December 3, 2011

There is only one question to be answered regarding the future of the Indianapolis Colts, because the answer to that question determines the possible answers to all the rest.

Can Peyton Manning play again?

Because, if he can play, there is only one place he should play for as long as he can play.

Here. As an Indianapolis Colt.

Sure, I’m aware the National Football League is a cold-hearted, bottom-line business.

And, yes, I know the history of how franchise icons end up playing out the string somewhere else.

The Baltimore Colts’ Johnny Unitas became a San Diego Charger, the San Francisco 49ers’ Joe Montana became a Kansas City Chief, and the Green Bay Packers’ Brett Favre became a Minnesota Viking. Just to name a few.

Yet the thought of Indy’s No. 18 flinging passes for another team is unsettling. Sure, Jimmy Irsay owns the Colts. But Manning owns this town, sports-wise. He is not only The Franchise but, in many ways, The City—the personification of our national sports identity in much the same way Reggie Miller was when he played for the Indiana Pacers.

And I can’t tell you how much I always will admire Miller—and the Simons’ ownership and Donnie Walsh’s management—for making sure the Pacers’ No. 31 never launched a jump shot for another team.

Those kinds of bonds between athletes and the cities/states/teams they represent are a rare and special thing.

It’s also one of the things that separates, and favorably so, colleges from the pros.

Just a few examples: Matt Howard will always be a Butler Bulldog. Mark Herrmann will always be a Purdue Boilermaker. Calbert Cheaney will always be an Indiana Hoosier.

But the pros are different and time waits for no one. Nearing the ends of their careers, athletes—no matter their value to a franchise—become expendable. Again, it’s a business. I understand.

So if Manning can’t play, he should still be an Indianapolis Colt—and the name and face of the franchise.

As its next head coach.

Now wouldn’t that be something?

Sure, he has no coaching experience. But he has a lifetime of football experience. And all the traits that have made him one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time—work ethic, a brilliant football mind, the ability to motivate those around him, ultra-competitiveness—have the potential to make him a great coach.

As much as Peyton was born to play quarterback, I believe he also was born to coach football.

When his career is over—and, again, I hope that’s later rather than sooner— Manning needs to remain in the game.

He doesn’t need to be a TV analyst, although he would be a darned good one. He doesn’t need to be a pitchman for products, although he is a darned good one.

He needs a headset on the sideline and an opponent to defeat on the field. He needs a film room to break it down and a locker room to build a team up.

If Manning can’t play, this needs to be the time for Irsay to seize upon one of the great gambits and opportunities in pro sports history and keep Manning here. Let’s face it—Jim Caldwell, nice guy, is gone. And the fan base, at least judged by the number of empty seats at Lucas Oil Stadium as this woeful, winless season has progressed, needs to be re-energized.

Don’t you think a press conference called to announce Peyton Manning as the Colts’ new head coach would do it?

And just think of this combination: Head Coach Peyton Manning, quarterback Andrew Luck.

I have no idea what Manning wants to do beyond playing football. But as smart as he is, he has to have at least thought about it during this long rehab from his third neck surgery.

I also thought about Manning as he carried his 8-month-old twin son, Mosley, in the Colts’ locker room following the game against Carolina. That smile was unquestionably a father’s smile. There are two other major priorities in Manning’s life now, and he has to consider them with regard to his long-term health.

If the doctors tell him he can play without risk, he should play. As a Colt.

But if the doctors tell him he can’t play, then he should coach. As a Colt.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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