It has been a strange year for the 0-12 Indianapolis Colts. One of the NFL's proudest and most respected organizations, they're staring a winless season directly in the face for just the second time. Perhaps more important though, Peyton Manning saw his 227-game consecutive starting streak abruptly end with this season; he's 35 years old and enduring one of the most publicized neck injuries we've ever seen. For owner Jim Irsay and his staff, the close of this season will instantly dissolve into controversy over Manning.
He's arguably the greatest ever to play quarterback, but many pundits believe Manning's days in the NFL -- or at least his best days -- are well behind him. Manning would of course disagree, but even if he is right, it's a young man's game at the most premium of positions.
Consider Stanford's Andrew Luck, the college quarterback readiest to play in the big leagues since ... you guessed it, Manning himself. Assuming Luck does enter April's draft (he's a redshirt sophomore), Indy has three options: trade the pick for a slew of future first-rounders, draft Luck and groom him under Manning, or trade Manning. Under normal circumstances, teams are hesitant to plug in rookie quarterbacks right away. But with the success of Andy Dalton and Cam Newton this year, we're seeing a new trend in the NFL. Luck is ready to play right now, and if Manning's neck passes scrutiny, his trade value will never be as high again as this offseason.
The following three teams are the best potential suitors.
1. Seattle Seahawks
You're never going to win a Super Bowl with Tavaris Jackson at the helm; it just cannot happen. Despite its 5-7 record though, Seattle has quietly managed to stay competitive behind a feisty defense and beast running game. With the recently inked Sidney Rice as a downfield threat, Pete Carroll's bunch have enough weapons to make another deep playoff run -- if they had a surgeon out there like Manning. We've seen the drop-off this year for the Colts without their unquestioned leader; he is simply that good. Aside from the Colts record, just look at the receiving numbers; Austin Collie (concussions aside) went from really good to really bad; Reggie Wayne went from Pro Bowler to just another guy. If the Seahawks can replace Jackson with Manning -- even for a few years -- Seattle can re-establish itself in the NFC West and close the gap that San Francisco has created in Jim Harbaugh's first season as head coach, clinching the division already.
2. Washington Redskins
Rex Grossman and John Beck -- hmm, I wonder what Daniel Snyder is thinking right now. With the exception of maybe Jerry Jones, no NFL owner has shown more willingness to spend money on premium names. True, other big-name acquisitions like Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith and Adam Archuleta (yikes) didn't exactly pan out, but a healthy Manning likely would. The Skins -- who like the Seahawks have a stingy defense -- are not as far away as you might think. Although reportedly facing suspension for failing a third drug test, Fred Davis has emerged as a legitimate replacement to Chris Cooley at tight end (we know Peyton loves his tight ends), and the ageless wonder Santana Moss still has two more years left on his contract. Furthermore, now that rookie Roy Helu has assumed the primary running back role, Washington potentially has a stout ground game with a runner who excels at catching balls out of the backfield, a la the Colts' Joseph Addai.
3. New York Jets
I have been very critical of Mark Sanchez, who in his third year still looks uncomfortable in the pocket and telegraphs his throws. Rex Ryan and the Jets pride themselves on defense, but this year Ryan's crew hasn't been the dominant force of old. 'Sanchize' supporters point to his youth or blame the offensive line for his struggles, but in a 'what have you done for me lately' league, Sanchez hasn't done much. Sure, he's been a playoff dynamo and won clutch games, but he's regressed so much this season you have to wonder if that was a fluke. With Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress, Manning would have two solid receivers and a bona fide fade/back shoulder threat in the end zone. Last season's playoff upset of New England was surely impressive, but can you really expect lightning in a bottle twice? This is still a division that must go through Tom Brady and a conference that must go through elite defenses like Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Manning's presence would instantly restore hope to a dormant offense and lift up a defense that is constantly backed into a corner thanks to the litany of Sanchez mistakes.
While we are still months away from April's NFL draft and five weeks away from the conclusion of the regular season, it is time to put some serious thought into the potential Peyton Manning sweepstakes. No other player in the league, not even Brady, symbolizes his franchise more than No. 18. He has meant everything to this organization, including its first Super Bowl title since Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts beat the Cowboys in 1970. Given Manning's outspoken optimism about his injury (he still believes he can return this year), he's likely to become the most sought-after non-free agent of all time. Assuming Mr. Luck does in fact leave college, we could see cataclysmic change in Indianapolis.
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