INDIANAPOLIS -- Peyton Manning soon could be throwing footballs to his teammates, the best news Colts fans have heard since this miserable season began.
While the Colts and the four-time league MVP are still trying to find out what the next part of his rehabilitation program entails, lifting weights and throwing balls are apparently going to be part of it.
"Throwing will be part of the next progression," Manning said Friday before heading back to the team's weight room. "I will be doing some throwing and I have been doing some throwing. But now we're going to ramp it up a little more."
Manning called the news encouraging and said he would like to practice or even play this season if he's cleared.
Vice chairman Bill Polian said he is pleased with Manning's progress
"It's great news that the fusion has healed," Polian said after speaking at the Big Ten Football Awards Gala. "It's on schedule, so we just keep going from here."
It was welcome news in a winless season that began with Manning underdoing his neck surgery Sept. 8, his third in 19 months. He has not practiced since having a single-level spinal fusion that doctors hope will not only alleviate pressure on a damaged nerve that had caused weakness in Manning's throwing arm, but allow the 35-year-old quarterback to return to his perennial Pro Bowl status.
Indianapolis (0-11) has kept Manning on the active roster all season with the hope that he may start throwing at practice before the Jan. 1 season finale at Jacksonville. He just might.
On Thursday night, the team issued a statement from Dr. Robert Watkins, who said the fusion had healed firmly enough for Manning to increase the intensity of his workouts.
Those at the team complex are still trying to figure out what Manning can do.
"I don't know. I really don't know," coach Jim Caldwell said when asked about Manning's rehab program. "I just know they've been pretty cautious with what they've allowed him to do. I just know he's not practicing today. I know that."
The Manning story was news even on a busy day in Indianapolis, where the inaugural Big Ten football championship is being played Saturday night and basketball fans are celebrating the return of the Pacers and the resurgence of the Indiana Hoosiers (7-0).
Even before Manning walked into the room, his locker was surrounded by so many reporters that teammates started joking about the entourage. Some simply laughed. Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Mathis climbed a cameraman's unoccupied stool to get a view from above.
One player asked whether President Barack Obama was expected in the locker room, and when another asked what was going on, Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne quipped: "He's retiring."
Manning was not amused by the media horde, which had anticipated a medical update Wednesday.
"There is no schedule, there never has been. I think we have checkpoints here, and I don't know when the next one is," he said during a 12½-minute question-and-answer session. "But I hope they don't announce it, so y'all won't be here on decision day like Wednesday supposedly was."
At times, Manning was self-deprecating.
At others, he brushed off questions by acknowledging he didn't have all of the answers.
And yet he wanted to avoid adding to the speculation about the hottest topics in Indianapolis sports -- do this week's results suggest he'll get back to 100 percent? Will the Colts exercise a $28 million option to keep him? Might he ponder retirement, or would he have a problem if they drafted Stanford's Andrew Luck or some other standout quarterback with the No. 1 pick?
Indianapolis is the clear front-runner in the chase for the top pick, and many believe the Colts should take Luck as Manning's successor. Luck has attended the Manning Passing Academy as both a pupil and a counselor, and Luck's father, Oliver, and Manning's father, Archie, were teammates with the Houston Oilers in the 1980s.
Manning insists he can't answer those questions now and has called the speculation about Luck disrespectful to his teammates, who are still trying to win games.
"He (Bill Polian) and I have not had a conversation about the 2012 draft," Manning said, referring to the Colts' vice chairman. "Bill keeps the players informed on a lot of things, but I've never been informed about who we're going to draft and I think that would be inappropriate."
Polian said talk about Luck is premature, and that the topic of Luck has not come up in conversations with Manning.
"We haven't talked specifics," Polian said. "We don't know where we're headed specifically. There's a long way to go until April."
Still, Manning's slow recovery has touched off talk of the Colts' future and even his possible retirement. Polian said the plan for now is for Manning to be with the team in the future.
"We've had discussions about it," Polian said. "He knows what our plans are going forward. He understands what the situation is. We've got a lot of work to do to rebuild our team, and all of that is part and parcel of a larger plan. He's well aware of where we're going. I'm sure he's anxious to be part of it."
Now the latest results have again raised hopes of a return.
"This is a good sign," Manning said. "A lot of people have had fusions, and I know of some cases where it doesn't take, so it's comforting."
Indy's biggest problem this season has been the unsettled quarterback spot.
Manning, who had started all 227 regular-season and playoff games since being drafted No. 1 overall in 1998, hasn't played a down this season.
Kerry Collins, who was signed in August, started the first three games before a season-ending concussion. Curtis Painter got the next shot and played well initially, then threw eight interceptions and one touchdown in the past five games.
The team has benched Painter in favor of Dan Orlovsky for Sunday's game at New England (8-3).
But regardless of who is starting this week or the rest of this season, Colts fans continue to focus on No. 18.
"It's nice to have the reins cut off a little bit and do things that are a little more normal. It's nice that we've done what we were supposed to do over the last three months and that it allows you to go into that next phase," Manning said.
"But I think a lot of the questions will answer themselves in the next three months," he added. "I have to put a lot of energy and time into my rehab."