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Finding a franchise quarterback in the contemporary NFL landscape is not simply at the top of a general manager’s checklist, it is the list. As the league enacts more and more rules that protect the quarterback, and allow receivers to run freely down the middle with little repercussive hits that make receivers end up looking through their ear holes, this will only become a greater team need. Through the first three weeks of last season, all 32 teams passed an average of 32 times, resulting in more passing yards and passing touchdowns in the history of the league. Conversely, only 5 teams had a running back that carried the ball more than 20 times.
While the number of playoff participants in 2011 that were in the top 15 in the league in passing (7) only slightly outweighed the number of playoff teams that were in the top 15 in rushing (6), consider the disparity between the actual performances at the quarterback position amongst the league leaders. The top passing team in 2011 was the New Orleans Saints, led by Drew Brees’ record-breaking performance of 5,347 yards. If you look at the 15th best passing performer, Buffalo, they came in with 3703 yards from scrimmage, a difference of 1,644 yards. If you consider that same sampling in the running game, between Denver (2,632) and Kansas City (1,893) the result is only 739 yards. The difference between middle of the pack in passing versus running isn’t a fluke, it’s simply because the elite pigskin flingers are that much better than their counterparts who cling to mediocrity like handwarmers at Lambeau Field. The NFL prides itself on its “next man up” ethos, probably at no other position more greatly than running back. But when it comes to the guy with the golden arm, you ride his elite performances until they wash away at the steady hands of Dr. James Andrews or Dr. Robert Watkins who slice to save careers like they themselves were cutting up defenses.
The Indianapolis Colts, coming off one of their worst seasons in recent memory, have a franchise quarterback in Peyton Manning. Arguably the quarterback of his generation along with Tom Brady, Manning’s legacy is secure if measured statistically, or by a championship ring, and only just recently became the other Manning brother. Having missed the entire 2011 campaign due to various neck surgeries, the Colts have found themselves at the top of the draft board this April. There are game changers slotted in the top 10, with standout playmakers in Trent Richardson and Justin Blackmon on one side of the ball and Michael Brockers and Melvin Ingram on the other Yet, it’s unequivocally recognized that it would be unwise to select any of them with the first pick. Two out of the top three players are quarterbacks, with the other a beefy offensive tackle from USC. While the Colts could potentially select a hog to stack up front, those type of decisions never go over well with a fan base. That leaves the Colts only two possible players to select, with the wiggle room to trade the pick away out of fear of having to make decisive plans for the future of the franchise. The debate doesn’t come down to whether the Colts should draft Andrew Luck from Stanford, with his “NFL throws,” or Robert Griffin III of Baylor, fresh off his Heisman campaign. Rather, it’s when the Colts select Andrew Luck at number one as their freshly minted franchise guy, what they should do with Peyton – suddenly the other guy in both his profession and surname.
The Colts have 28 million reasons to get rid of Peyton Manning. March 8 is the vastly approaching date when a monetary bonus of the same number kicks in for the thirteen-year vet; certainly a capitalist vote of confidence that Peyton is their guy for the foreseeable future. If and when they select Andrew Luck number one, he would make at least a guaranteed $22 million USD if Cam Newton’s contract from last year is any indication of money tied up in a number one pick at the QB position. It’s ludicrous to suggest that an organization would invest 50 million dollars in a position where only one man can see the field at a time.
In different financial circumstances the Colts could handle the situation like the Green Bay Packers did with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, with the aging and first ballot Hall of Famer paving the way for the latest golden goose. But in that particular situation, Favre was only owed $24 million over that three-year stretch and Rodgers only $5.4 million USD. Financially, the Packers were paying two potential franchise quarterbacks for the price of one. While certainly no one knew that Rodgers would mature into a perennial MVP selection, the always-savy organization knew that segueing from Favre to someone else had to be addressed before the rest of the league knew they had a need for youthful exhilaration. Great organizations don’t rebuild at the cost of wins and losses, envisioning two-year-stretches where expletives reign down from fans, and die hard supporters look to a celestial body for saving and a much needed W. Instead, the machine continues to churn because of replaced parts that have been gathered for the exact moment that the crucial piece stops functioning properly. Peyton Manning is like the 1961 Ferrari 250GT California from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The lure to take it out for a spin seems like a good idea, but the person behind the wheel won’t be able to take the miles off without ruining the classic.
There are few things in athletics that have been labeled “sure things.” There’s something inherently dangerous about it because as we know, expectations don’t score touchdowns and hype doesn’t hit the backdoor slider. For every prospect scouts have preordained for greatness, and it’s actually come to fruition, dozens more have come and gone like sweeping fashion trends.
Despite this inherent knowledge, where names like Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith and Cade McNown invade the pocket-passing zeitgeist like gnats invading a ballfield previously inhabited by a food fair, Andrew Luck has been anointed a “can’t miss” quarterback. In a 24 hour news cycle, where hatred and being a contrarian is what places duckets in a media personalities pockets, he’s the guy.
The year was 1993 when something similar to this conundrum rocked the Bay Area. Joe Montana, the four-time Super Bowl champ and three-time Super Bowl MVP, was shipped off to Kansas City for a first round pick. After the younger Steve Young had proved himself, Montana was suddenly expendable. While Montana was 36 and Manning is 35, their touchdowns thrown through 13 seasons (Montana 244 Manning 399) placed them amongst the league leaders for that stretch. The Joe Montana brand was as synonymous with the 49er red and gold as Manning’s is with the horseshoe. But when you’re on the wrong side of 35, and have undergone missed seasons, father time weighs on executives decisions more than allegiance does.
In both management and on the field, it’s better to get “out” prematurely than it is fighting to make it out with nothing left in the tank. Acting presumptuously doesn’t indicate being impetuous. Rather, it means that the bigger picture remains at the forefront of a team’s plans. Unless Peyton Manning is willing to restructure his deal, there’s no future for him in Indianapolis. It’s like Benjamin Franklin said, “ diligence is the mother of good Luck.”
Every Thursday HYPEBEAST’s Keeping Score will span the world of sports, ranging from thoughts about the state of the NBA to whether or not the United States National Soccer Team will ever challenge for a World Cup. Handled with words from Senior Editor L. Ruano and North American Staff Writer Alec Banks, both life-long sports enthusiasts and dedicated writers, no sport will go unrepresented.
Alec Banks is a Los-Angeles based writer by way of Chicago which means he doesn’t put ketchup on his prose. He currently serves as the North American staff writer for HYPEBEAST and contributes regularly for the likes of Complex, Playboy and Maxim. He was a 2x Quarterfinalist for the prestigious Academy of Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship in screenwriting. You can read more of his work at alecbanks.com or @smart_alec_.