- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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An iconic NFL quarterback, his football world turned upside down by injury, prepares for a career-defining meeting with ownership.
A successor is in place.
Long before this Manning mess, we had the Joe Montana mess. Before Irsay and his precious Horseshoe, we had San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, team president Carmen Policy and a Niners franchise that had won four Super Bowls with Montana as its quarterback.
NFL history repeats itself. The circumstances aren't exactly the same, but they're similar enough. Bottom line: Divorce proceedings between a generational player and the franchise he helped make famous are never easy.
"It was horribly difficult," Policy said the other day by phone, describing Montana's departure from the 49ers in 1993. "At that time he had won four Super Bowls. He was the quintessential comeback kid. He was so revered in the community, so loved in the locker room.
"In a strong, strong way there are similarities in terms of what Peyton Manning has done for that franchise in Indianapolis. You almost can't think of the franchise without thinking of Peyton Manning. To separate is really, really difficult and heart wrenching."
But here we are, at the brink of an official decision by Irsay regarding Manning's future with the Colts. In mid-December, Irsay told the NFL Network that if Manning is healthy, "I see him coming back and playing here."
Well, Manning's own two doctors and a Colts neurosurgeon have declared him and his surgically repaired neck healthy enough to resume his football career. So something has to give: either Irsay's December claim that Manning will remain a Colt if physically capable of playing, or Irsay's franchise reconstruction plan that has already resulted in coaching and upper management changes.
"The trick is to try to accomplish whatever it is you have to accomplish without the separation becoming akin to 'The War of the Roses,'" Policy said. "Do you remember that movie? You've got to do everything in your power to stop that from happening."
Yes, "The War of the Roses." Here's the IMDb.com description of the 1989 film: "A married couple try everything to get each other to leave the house in a vicious divorce battle."
Manning recently popped off to the Indianapolis Star about the dark mood at the Colts' team facility, saying that everybody there was "walking around on eggshells" and "I'm not in a very good place for healing."
Irsay responded by calling Manning "a politician" and adding that the quarterback should have kept his comments "in the family."
Shortly thereafter, a joint statement was issued by Irsay and Manning professing their mutual respect for one another blah, blah, blah.
"And thank God they did," Policy said. "There's so much more life ahead for the two of them, and that organization and Peyton. You don't want the memories and you don't want the future tarnished by the immediate impact of the emotions of the present."
Neck surgery cost Manning his 2011 season. An elbow injury cost Montana basically all of his 1991 season and nearly all of his 1992 season.
Manning's successor -- either Andrew Luck of Stanford or Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III of Baylor -- will be selected by the Colts with the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Montana's backup, Steve Young, became the starter in '92 and earned league MVP honors.
The Colts have salary-cap issues. The 49ers had salary-cap issues.
Manning, who turns 36 in March, says he wants to remain a Colt. Montana, who was 36 when he was traded, said he wanted to remain a 49er. His owner wanted him to remain one, too.
"Eddie DeBartolo and Joe Montana were like brothers," Policy said. "The thought of Eddie not having Joe on the team was almost like Eddie being willing to cut both arms off."
Young wasn't the heir apparent, he was the heir obvious. He had waited his turn. He had played at an MVP level in Montana's absence. It was time.
So DeBartolo and Policy gave Montana and his agent permission to pursue a trade. The Kansas City Chiefs became the favored trading partner, but at the last moment, DeBartolo offered Montana his starting position back when training camp began.
"I'll never forget it," Policy said. "[Montana] came to me and said, 'I'm flying quietly back to Youngstown [Ohio, where DeBartolo was based] and I'm going to go see Eddie and explain to him that you and I have talked and that it's best if I leave. The offer to start at camp was an accommodation for me, but that's not best for the team and it's not best for me. I'm going to tell him one on one because I think I should look him in the eye and tell him.'"
Montana and DeBartolo met. Late that night after the meeting, DeBartolo called Policy on the West Coast.
"Joe's staying," DeBartolo said.
"What?" Policy said.
"Are you sure?"
"We're flying back. We're going to have a press conference and he's going to stay. He's accepted the opportunity."
Policy persuaded the Niners owner to wait a day until calling a news conference. Then he drove to the airport to meet DeBartolo and Montana when their private plane landed.
"I look at Joe and he looks at me sheepishly," Policy said. "I gave him one of those looks, like, 'What happened?' Joe says, 'He started crying. I started crying. I couldn't say I was leaving. So when he asked me to stay, I said, OK, I'll stay.'"
Montana begged Policy to break the truth to DeBartolo: Joe Niner was going to the Chiefs. In fact, he had helped Policy facilitate the deal.
"[Montana] couldn't tell him," Policy said. "He couldn't look him in the eye and tell him. And Eddie couldn't let him go."
Irsay doesn't seem to have that problem. He already has said he'll use that No. 1 pick on Luck or RG3. He has made it clear that emotion won't play a part in his decision.
I asked Policy, who now owns a vineyard in Napa Valley, what he would do if he were Irsay.
"I would never share that with anyone unless [Irsay] asked me privately," Policy said. "But it's a time for great caution and restraint."
Fine, keep it to yourself. But if I were Irsay, I'd do what I could to keep Manning, not send him down the trash chute.
Maybe you push back the March 8 due date on Manning's $28 million option bonus. Maybe you say, "I want you to begin and end your career wearing the horseshoe, but you've got to work with me on this $28 mil. Can we restructure it?"
Maybe you tell him, "Come back, play another year, help mentor Luck or RG3 and then we'll put together an organizational golden parachute for you. And if you play like pre-neck surgery Peyton, then we'll re-up you for another year or you go somewhere as a free agent."
Professional. Reasonable. Logical.
But that zip-line harness has already left. It isn't "The War of the Roses," but it also isn't a man-crush like the one DeBartolo and Montana had.
Policy later left the 49ers himself and became the president of the Cleveland Browns.
"I miss it," said Policy of the NFL. "For me to have that kind of feeling, just imagine how many times you have to multiply it to even get close to where Peyton Manning is right now. My heart's going out to him."
But what about Irsay?
"I can sympathize with Irsay, but Irsay's going to be there," Policy said. "They're going to be through this in a year and he's still going to be the owner. And he'll be owning that team for the rest of his life.
"It's going to be a whole different story for Jim, as it is for Peyton. Peyton's coming to the end. Jim's sort of beginning anew."
Anew should have to sit in the third row of the minivan. Anew needs to take a hike.
Irsay might own the franchise, but Manning is the one who made the horseshoe relevant. Irsay needs to remember that. He needs to remember that December vow.
If healthy, Manning belongs in one place in 2012.
In Indianapolis. In Colts blue and white. The succession plan can wait.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.
Unlike Joe Montana and the 49ers, perhaps Peyton Manning and the Colts can work it out, writes Gene Wojciechowski.