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BENNER: The rest of the Manning story will be told on the field

March 24, 2012

We all want guarantees in life. Sure things.

Peyton Manning is going to Denver to play for the Broncos. Good for him. Good for Denver. No matter the level of our devotion to the Indianapolis Colts, we should wish him the best. Without question, when the Broncos play on national television, the highest ratings outside of Denver will be in Indy.

But when training camp starts, Manning will be 36 years old and coming off four neck surgeries. He has displayed his passing abilities to those in Denver who will pay him an enormous sum in hopes he can return the franchise to the Super Bowl.

They believe he has the skills and the will to make it happen, and doctors have cleared him to play.

Then again, there is one test he hasn’t passed yet. He has not been hit in nearly two years by a blitzing opponent.

No guarantees. No sure thing.

Most likely, Andrew Luck is coming to the Colts. The experts and gurus have declared that the Stanford University quarterback has the greatest professional potential at the most demanding of positions since, well, Peyton Manning.

Then again, there is one test he hasn’t passed yet. He has not subjected those skills to the most advanced level of his sport, where opponents are bigger, faster and nastier than any he has encountered on the collegiate level.

Sometimes, phenoms phlop (see: Ryan Leaf) just as, sometimes, sixth-round draft choices turn out to be Tom Brady.

No guarantees. No sure things.

That’s why we love sports. Athletes still have to show up. They still have to perform. And they are always judged by the results.

Yet this, we do know. Time waits for no one. Skills erode. With age, bodies become more susceptible to punishment and there are few occupations where severe punishment is more part of the routine than in the NFL.

Yes, Denver is acquiring a man with a singular focus to be the best at his craft that he can be. But, did I mention, he is 36 years old and coming off four neck surgeries?

We all love him and what he did for the Colts in particular and our city in general. We wish it would have played out differently.

Still, you have to wonder. What will happen—as it inevitably will—the first time, or second time, or third time a defensive end slips around left tackle and drills Manning from his blind side right between the shoulder blades?

In Denver, they believe they have the Peyton Manning of old, not the old Peyton Manning. They believe he will, as he did all those years with the Colts, pick himself up and get right back into directing the next play, flapping those arms and shouting those crazy calls. They believe now that he’s playing for John Elway, he will provide an Elway-like encore by winning a Super Bowl (or two) in his twilight years.

If so, good for him, as long as—as I’ve written before—it doesn’t happen at the expense of the Colts.

That said, Peyton will never belong to Denver the way he belonged to Indianapolis.

The question now is whether Andrew Luck will ever achieve Manning-like status here. There’s a simple answer to that. Yes, if he wins.

It seems as if the intangibles are there, too. Luck, by all accounts, is a fine young man. Like Manning, he has a father (Oliver) who was an NFL quarterback. Like Manning, he is said to have exceptional intellect and work ethic.

Still, we don’t know him. We don’t know if someday we will have the Good Luck Foundation, or if we’ll see him passing not only footballs, but food baskets to the poor on Thanksgiving.

We especially don’t know how, or if, the Colts can acquire the weapons to complement Luck the way they did with Manning.

We do know that next year, the Colts will be a boatload of cash beneath the salary cap and that owner Jim Irsay has never been shy about spending.

The reaction in the NFL has been mostly that the acquisition of Manning is a guarantee of success in the short term.

The reaction in the NFL has been mostly that the impending acquisition of Luck is a guarantee of success over the long term.

But the only sure thing is the delicious uncertainty that lies ahead in Denver and in Indy. Only a fool would pretend to know how it will all play out.•

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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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