Earlier this week, Tom Condon, the agent for Indianapolis Colts’ All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning, informed Colts president Bill Polian that they would not resume negotiations on a new contract until the season was over. Manning, 34, is in the final year of a seven-year, $99.2 million deal, and if he does not sign a new deal, the Colts are expected to slap a franchise tag on him for $24 million.
This assumes, of course, that the franchise tag is still applicable without a collective bargaining agreement in place — especially with an ugly offseason and the real possibility of a lockout still looming large over the horizon. Manning also recently spoke out against the 18-game season that NFL owners are dead set on launching as soon as possible. While he fully backs the union in negotiations, Manning left the job of player representative to his center, Jeff Saturday.
Those reports, combined with the current atmosphere of the league, ask a question that surely nobody in Indianapolis wants to hear: Is Peyton Manning preparing to retire from the NFL? It is perhaps idle speculation to suggest such a thing. In terms of ability, Manning has no reason to walk away. He’s still at the top of his game and among the league leaders in every positive passing category. Plus, he’s never missed an NFL start in 12 1/2 seasons, and he’s managed to avoid suffering any career-debilitating injuries — largely because he plays behind a strong offensive line and knows how to avoid defenders in the pocket.
That said, if the 2011 season disappears, Manning won’t play again until he’s 36, and even if an 18-game NFL season becomes reality, Manning would need at least 5 more seasons to break Brett Favre’s record for consecutive starts. Seeing a 40-something Favre hobble around in New York and Minnesota the last few seasons is a persuasive argument against sticking around too long — even if that’s what every NFL player not named Barry Sanders seems to do.
More importantly, there is no one better prepared to walk away from a labor strife-ravaged NFL than Peyton Manning. He has his Super Bowl ring, and his credentials — 5-time All-Pro, 3-time MVP, Super Bowl XLI MVP, all-time leader in passing yards per game, laser rocket arm — make him a first-ballot lock for the Hall of Fame. He doesn’t need the money, either. Manning has averaged more than $25 million a year over the last six years in salary and endorsements combined. Not only has he become the quintessential athlete pitchman, but he’s shown he’s got great on-screen charisma.
That charisma, combined with his in-depth knowledge of the game — the man’s a total football geek, really — could get Manning any television job he wants. If he decided to leave the NFL behind and become a color commentator for college football, there isn’t a network in America that wouldn’t give him a gig, and it wouldn’t hurt his commercial endorsement prospects.
Most intriguing, however, is Manning’s financial position. Imagine for a moment if Manning became so disgusted with the NFL labor situation that he decided to switch leagues — not as a player, but as an owner. If Manning announced that he wanted to start a United Football League franchise in, say, Memphis, that league would welcome him with open arms. Starting such a franchise would cost him $30 million; Manning could write that check himself. He could also help the UFL become not only a more fan-friendly league, but a more player-friendly league. Manning knows as well as anyone the toils that football players endure, and his direction could aid the UFL in treating its players better than the NFL does, which might just make that league a viable alternative for some players in the long run.
It might be too big a stretch, though, to suggest Manning would be interested in such a thing. All in all, he seems far more likely to wait out the mess of 2011 and continue chasing a second ring for a few more years. Don’t be too surprised, though, if Manning ultimately decides that the NFL of the future is an NFL in which he no longer wants to play. He’s prepared extremely well for his post-NFL career. That’s an example more football players would do well to follow.