Indianapolis Colts fans: Brace yourselves.
What you’re about to feel is going to sting—and probably for a good long while.
It’s going to be more than a pin prick when Peyton Manning wins his fifth league MVP honor in a few weeks. His first as a Denver Bronco and not as a Colt.
And it’s going to sting a lot more if Manning, 37, manages to guide Denver to the Super Bowl, much less wins it.
Oh sure, there are lots of Colts fans who still adore No. 18 and hope he wins another Super Bowl no matter what uniform he’s wearing. And really, why shouldn’t Hoosiers root for Manning? He’s done an awful lot for the hometown team and this city.
Still, there are lots of Colts fans who are conflicted every time they see a Broncos game. Because doesn’t rooting for Manning feel just a little like rooting against the Colts? Don’t Manning’s failures during his comeback from a serious neck injury—and there haven’t been many—feel a bit like sweet justification for Colts owner Jim Irsay’s decision to cut the best quarterback this franchise and perhaps the NFL has ever known?
And I’m betting those same fans become a little more conflicted with each misfire of the Andrew Luck-led Colts and each victory of the 10-2 Broncos this season. Seeing the Broncos become the favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl in New York and watching the Colts slip from their lofty perch has been like a cut from a two-edged knife.
As a journalist, I try to be as impartial as I can be when it comes to the teams I cover. But I feel it a bit myself and I see it in the myriad Colts supporters whom I count among my family and friends. Many still tell me they wish Manning had retired after his 14 years with the Colts.
Let’s face it, Luck is going to be a really good quarterback. But it’s questionable that he’s going to be as great as Manning. After all, there’s only one greatest. Colts fans are loathe to admit that.
And if Luck doesn’t rise to Manning’s level and doesn’t win this team a Super Bowl, it’s only natural for fans to ask themselves if 12 or 15 years—or any amount of time—with Luck was a better choice than four more years with Manning.
By comparison, it was easy for Baltimore Colts fans to watch Johnny Unitas finish his career in San Diego. Let’s face it, Unitas wasn’t half the player for the Chargers that he was in the halcyon days for the Colts. Manning, meanwhile, still has a (maybe just slightly weakened) lightning bolt for a right arm and a lightning-fast computer for a brain.
Two years ago, the decision to send Manning packing from Indy seemed like the only logical one. That decision, though painful for Irsay and Colts fans alike, even seemed like a no-brainer earlier this year when the Colts beat the Broncos at Lucas Oil Stadium and the aging Manning seemed on the verge of a physical breakdown.
But now, Manning has a little more zip on his passes—when he’s not throwing into a headwind in New England. And once again, he has as good a touch on his passes as anyone who has ever played the game.
The ankle tweaked at Indianapolis Oct. 20 and during two subsequent games seems to have stabilized (thanks in part to a Carmel company that fashioned him an ankle brace), and more than a few NFL analysts think he’s near the top of his game.
Be honest, doesn’t it feel like just a little bit of a betrayal that, after 14 years in Indy, Manning could be playing some of his best football—for Denver?
Of course, none of this is Manning’s fault. It’s not Irsay’s fault, either.
But the football gods—if you believe in those sorts of things—appear poised to deliver a cruel stinger to the Horseshoe Kingdom.
Colts fans, brace yourselves. Whether or not you want to admit it, this could be gut-wrenching. Worse, if Manning and John Elway together hoist the Lombardi Trophy, it will be heartbreaking.
And if Manning trips up somewhere along the way, will Colts fans feel any better?
Not one bit.
The sting of quasi-betrayal will be replaced by the type of regret that comes from cheering—for no good reason—against an old friend.
And the conflict Colts fans began this sojourn with will remain unresolved.
Because—like we all knew when the Manning separation became official in early 2012—there’s no completely happy ending to this tale.•
Anthony Schoettle is IBJ’s sports-business reporter and writes The Score blog at ibj.com.