Peyton Manning forever will be thought of around these parts as No. 18, the quarterback who led the Indianapolis Colts to an NFL championship.
He'll be remembered, too, for his record four MVP awards, his 54,000-plus yards passing and his 208 consecutive starts. Most of all, Manning will be the guy in the horseshoe helmet who turned around a franchise and transformed a basketball-loving city into a football hotbed that hosted the Super Bowl.
Despite all of that, the Colts said Wednesday they would release the 35-year-old Manning rather than pay him a $28 million bonus.
“This process has been a long, difficult process," said Colts owner Jim Irsay during a noon press conference with Manning at his side. "We always kept trying to come back to the circumstances before us. In the end, those circumstances were too difficult to overcome."
“I think Peyton has been completely unselfish in terms of looking at where the franchise is at this point. It’s never been about money or those types of things,” Irsay said as he fought back tears.
Manning missed all of last season after a series of operations on his neck.
"We all know that nothing lasts forever," Manning said Wednesday. "Times change; circumstances change. That’s the reality of the NFL.”
While the Colts are widely expected to begin moving on by taking Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall pick in April's draft, Manning will become a free agent—and, if healthy, certainly will draw interest from other teams.
“I haven’t thought yet about where I’ll play, but I’ve thought a lot about where I’ve been," Manning said, deflecting attention back to his career with the Colts. "Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart. I truly have enjoyed being your quarterback.”
Arizona, Miami, 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.
When Manning and Irsay flew to Indianapolis together late Tuesday, the player declined to address questions about his future with the team.
"We'll see y'all tomorrow," Manning said. "We're good. We'll talk tomorrow. We'll do it the right way tomorrow."
Word of the breakup—though not unexpected—still caught one of Manning's closest friends, Colts center Jeff Saturday, off guard.
"I never thought it was a foregone conclusion," Saturday said. "I was always hopeful they'd get something worked out, and that he would be back in a horseshoe, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen."
Manning has said his goal was to play his entire career with the Colts, but a damaged nerve that forced him to have neck surgery kept him out of action for all of 2011, and not coincidentally, his team's record plummeted to 2-14.
"I can't tell you what an honor it is to go start-to-finish with the same organization here in Indianapolis. That is something I have always wanted to do as a rookie coming out," Manning said in July, after signing a five-year, $90 million contract. "Of course, you never know if that is possible, but after yesterday it is official that I will be an Indianapolis Colt for my entire career. I will not play for another team. My last down of football will be with the Colts, which means a great deal to me."
But things changed since last summer. With the bonus payment due Thursday, the neck problems, and the fact that the Colts figure they can rebuild behind Luck, Irsay seems to have deemed it too risky—and too pricey—to keep the franchise quarterback.
As Manning goes, it marks the end of a remarkably successful era.
He started every meaningful game for 13 seasons in Indianapolis—227 in a row, including the playoffs—and took the Colts from perennial also-ran to one of the NFL's model franchises and the 2006 Super Bowl title.
In the two decades predating his arrival, the Colts won 116 games, one division title and made the playoffs three times. With Manning taking snaps, the Colts won 150 games, eight division titles, two AFC championships and the franchise's first league championship since moving from Baltimore in 1984.
Indianapolis broke the NFL record for most regular-season wins in a decade (115), and tied Dallas' mark for most consecutive playoff appearances (nine).
Manning is one of four players with more than 50,000 yards passing, one of three with more than 350 TD tosses, and one of two quarterbacks with more than 200 starts in a row. He broke all of the franchise's major career passing records, previously held by Hall of Fame quarterback John Unitas.
In 2009, Manning led the Colts to the cusp of NFL history with a 14-0 start, fueling talk of an unbeaten season.
But it's been mostly bad news ever since.
The Colts pulled their starters against the Jets and lost the final two games that season. Indy then wound up losing to New Orleans in the Super Bowl. During the offseason, Manning had the first of his neck operations.
Then, after making an early playoff exit in the 2010 season, Manning underwent another neck surgery to repair a damaged nerve that was causing weakness in his throwing arm.
When the nerve did not heal as quickly as expected, Manning had two vertebrae fused in September, an operation that forced him to miss a game for the first time in his NFL career. There are still questions about the strength of Manning's arm.
Still, he has insisted he intends to play football next season.
"My plan hasn't changed," Manning said during Super Bowl week in Indianapolis, where his future was the main topic of conversation. "I'm on track with what the doctors have told me to do, and I'm doing that. I'm rehabbing hard."