Peyton Manning released by Indianapolis Colts
With Manning by his side, Colts owner Jim Irsay officially announced on Wednesday afternoon that the team is releasing their long-time starting quarterback, who missed the entire 2011 season after undergoing multiple neck surgeries.
Amid questions of his fitness to return to the field, Manning, who turns 36 later this month, was due to receive a $28 million roster bonus later this week. Irsay said that the financial side of things had little to do with the decision to say goodbye to Manning, but it was still one of the hardest he's ever had to make.
"The good times we've shared together, the laughs ... growing together in the organization, it's been great," an emotional Irsay recalled. "When the 37-year-old owner first met the 22-year-old player coming out of Tennessee, the dreams that we had were big - and what we've done is beyond my imagination."
Manning, who said he was at peace with the decision, thanked the owner, the organization, and the Indianapolis fans, but quipped on his own fate as well.
"I sure have loved playing football for the Indianapolis Colts for 14 wonderful years. I've played with so many great teammates in this wonderful organization," he said, before adding, "I've been a Colt almost my entire adult life, but I guess we know that in sports, and in life, nothing lasts forever."
After being drafted No. 1 overall by the Colts in 1998, Manning stepped into the starting quarterback role immediately, and was under center for every single game the franchise played from 1998-2010 before sitting out last season. Including the playoffs, Manning led the Colts to a 150-77 overall record, and he was the MVP of Super Bowl XLI when the Colts defeated the Saints to earn the franchise's second Lombardi Trophy.
Now, for the first time since his name was called by then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue in 1998, he heads toward an NFL season unsure of his destination.
"I haven't thought yet about where I'll play (this year), but I have thought about where I've been, and I've been blessed to play here," Manning said when asked about his immediate future. "I don't know what the next steps are; this is the only team I've ever known, and this is uncharted territory for me, so we'll see how it all plays out."
Manning leaves Indianapolis just one touchdown pass short of 400, and while he doesn't know where he'll go, the Dolphins, Redskins, and Cardinals have all been mentioned as potential suitors for Manning's services since rumors of his impending release began circulating a couple weeks ago. Once he clears NFL waivers, he will be free to sign with any team in the league - perhaps as soon as next week.
The Jets have also been mentioned as a contender, and a move by Rex Ryan and company would not only end the Mark Sanchez era at least temporarily, but would also likely cause a media blitz by bringing the Manning brothers together in the nation's largest market.
The Colts, meanwhile, have the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft after going 2-14 without Manning last season. They are expected to select Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck as Peyton's successor, and he definitely will not be issued No. 18, which Irsay said will never be worn by another Colts player.
Wherever Manning ends up, he left Indianapolis with a message for the fans who have supported him throughout his entire NFL career so far:
"This town and this team mean so much to me. It has truly been an honor to play in Indianapolis ... I leave with a few words to Colts fans: Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart. I truly have enjoyed being your quarterback."