Commentary

Don't hate Colts owner Jim Irsay

Cutting ties with Peyton Manning would be different than cutting ties with Baltimore

Updated: February 10, 2012, 3:59 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

It is an emotionally charged and undeservedly mean place that Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay finds himself backed into now as the clock winds down toward an all-but-certain divorce from his iconic quarterback, Peyton Manning. Irsay has made a concerted effort during most of his 30-year NFL career to establish himself as something other than the son of a man who's reviled for moving the team out of Baltimore in the dead of night. At times he's depicted it as a personal quest and a difficult spiritual journey. But how kindly he'll be remembered hangs in the balance now.

A March 8 deadline is looming for the Colts to either pay Manning a $28 million roster bonus or cut him because there is no guarantee he'll be healthy enough to play this year. The 35-year-old Manning has said he doesn't want to leave Indy, but Andrew Luck -- the Stanford quarterback the Colts are expected to draft No. 1 overall -- ramped up the stakes during Super Bowl week by saying he could "coexist" with Peyton yet would prefer to play immediately. (The kid's got stones, if nothing else.)

[+] EnlargeBill Polian, Jim Irsay, Peyton Manning
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesBill Polian, left, is no longer the GM. Peyton Manning may soon be history, too. As owner, Jim Irsay will bear the brunt of these decisions.

Cold logic suggests Irsay's choice should be clear. But this is a sampling of what is being said among Colts fans on websites and Internet message boards:

"Jim Irsay should stay off Twitter, Shut His Trap!"

"By treating [Manning] as persona non grata, you are not only insulting Manning, but the millions of fans that have fallen in love with him."

"Irsay, the businessman, couldn't keep his mouth shut for one week, and let the Manning family enjoy this momentous [Super Bowl] occasion for Peyton's little brother Eli … Irsay [would] rather ignore the fact that were it not for Manning there would be no Lombardi trophy in Indy, no shiny new stadium and no Super Bowl for the City of Indianapolis."

Actually, Irsay doesn't forget any of that about Manning. Quite the opposite. He considers Manning a friend, and he's bent over backwards to pay homage to what he's done for the franchise and the city.

Indianapolis has had a love affair with the Colts pretty much since Manning arrived and began lifting the franchise to greatness, same as Baltimore loved the Colts when the team was quarterbacked by Johnny Unitas in the 1950s and 1960s. Jim's dad, Robert Irsay, bought the Los Angeles Rams, then swapped them for the Colts in 1972.

Bob Irsay was a Chicago-based business tycoon who made his fortune in the air conditioning and ventilation industry. He was also a hot-tempered man and argumentative drinker who liked to do things on the cheap, to boot. And he was not very good at running a football team. His new GM traded a faded Unitas.

Bob Irsay was also a big reason why John Elway did not want to play for the Colts when he came out of Stanford. Irsay quarreled with Maryland officials about the decaying condition of the Colts' Memorial Stadium, and he often got mired in combative faceoffs with reporters. He promised he wouldn't leave Baltimore even as he was negotiating to bolt to Indy or Phoenix -- then did up and move in the dead of night on March 29, 1984. Television cameras caught a fleet of Mayflower moving vans trying to spirit everything out of town in a snowstorm right after the Maryland state legislature passed a bill allowing the state to seize ownership of the stadium through eminent domain.

All of this might be ancient history that's not worth exhuming now, if not for the fact that another Irsay is bracing himself to be reviled again.

[+] EnlargeRobert Irsay
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesRobert Irsay separated a team from its fanbase. At worst, Jim Irsay will be ditching the face of the franchise for another prospective great QB.

But this time for doing the right thing.

And that's just plain wrong. It shouldn't be allowed to happen.

Painful as it is, Manning should move on. Manning has to know it. And Irsay knows it.

Keeping both Manning and Luck is possible under the salary cap -- but only if the Colts forgo beefing up the rest of their 2-14 team and forget their concerns about whether Manning will be healthy enough to play despite three neck surgeries in the past two years and lingering weakness in his throwing arm. Even if Manning can play, the team around him needs to be rebuilt.

The sweeping organizational housecleaning that Irsay undertook immediately after the season took many people by surprise -- including Manning. But Irsay has since explained his decision to blow everything up by firing vice chairman Bill Polian (who built the team starting with No. 1 pick Manning), his son general manager Chris Polian, head coach Jim Caldwell, and most of their staffs, was not abrupt or impetuous at all; it was based on months of studying how other organizations transition out of glory day eras.

Nonetheless, one side effect is that Irsay's clearing of the decks has funneled everything down to this rather dramatic mental image of Irsay and Manning as the last two men standing in some deserted corral.

And everyone is waiting for to see how it ends at high noon.

Irsay has indicated he may indeed wait into March to make the final decision on Manning, even if they plan to meet sooner to talk things over.

Clearly, Irsay is working through the emotions of the end of the Manning era as much as everyone else is. His willingness to part with Manning doesn't make him a callous or unmindful man. He's far from it, as shown by his track record and the testimony of friends in this very affecting USA Today profile of him. It's not a lack of leadership or vision that is making him overhaul everything now; if anything, the moves he's making are proof that he's willing to take charge, shake up the status quo and be the last one standing to take the heat.

But again, this is not a story where cold logic runs the narrative.

And that's fine. It just shouldn't be hijacked into some story about a son who has found himself in his father's business callously repeating his father's sins.

In most ways, Jim Irsay is nothing like his father. But this does appear to be one of those times when Jim's own colorful reputation as the NFL's last unreconstructed hippie and flower-child owner works against him as much as his last name.

Some critics have griped and wondered how you can really trust a guy to do the right thing when he not only grew up learning the business at his infamous father's knee, but also has a flaky reputation for frequently quoting song lyrics on Twitter, or refusing to sugarcoat how he used to travel in "the party lane" in the '70s doing mushrooms and acid and liquor with the likes of Hunter S. Thompson before getting sober 10 years ago. Manning supporters note Irsay famously splashes a lot of money on collecting things like the guitars of famous rockers or the original scroll manuscript of Jack Kerouac's classic Beat novel "On the Road," so why can't he just swallow hard and pay up to keep Manning as a sort of honorarium for years past? Irsay is a billionaire, and it's only money, right?

But as Irsay recently wrote on Twitter, he kinda, sorta did that already -- this past season, when he knew Manning probably wasn't going to be healthy enough to play but forked over $26 million.

This is not another story of abandonment by an Irsay.

At its heart, this is a story about the feelings sports evoke and how a community and its sports fans deal with loss.

That's the parallel between Jim and his dad. Not just that they've both played a heavy.

There are plenty of precedents in sports where other franchises and beloved stars have gone through divorces -- but no sure blueprint for how to do it successfully. Even when an heir apparent like Luck is waiting, people are inconsolable. The feelings inevitably get messy.

The Edmonton Oilers found that out when they said goodbye to Wayne Gretzky, though they still had Mark Messier. The San Francisco 49ers went through it when Joe Montana had to make way for Steve Young after giving the 49ers so many Super Bowl titles. NFL experts were predicting a year ago, even before the Colts were in position to draft Luck, that he looks like the second coming of Peyton. It hasn't entirely helped.

Irsay has talked recently about "a storm gathering" in Indy. He and Manning are unlikely to announce exactly when they're meeting. There was a news report Thursday that Irsay saw Manning throw recently and he was "pleased." But two days earlier, yet another tweet from Irsay probably told a lot about where his head is at, and the dread he's feeling. He paraphrased an old Talking Heads' lyric: "That gunfire in the distance, I'm getting used to it now..."

Wrenching as parting with Manning would be, Irsay's last name shouldn't remain an epithet for another generation.

Manning will probably go. And Irsay will likely have to make him.

There's a name for that, all right. It's called doing the reasonable thing.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.