By Nate Davis, USA TODAY
Peyton Manning is no longer an Indianapolis Colt.
After 14 years, 11 playoff appearances, 11 Pro Bowls, eight division titles, five first-team all-pro selections, a record four league MVP awards, two Super Bowl trips and one championship, the franchise officially said goodbye Wednesday to the man it drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in 1998.
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"I sure have loved playing football for the Indianapolis Colts," said Manning during an often emotional press conference. "I've been a Colt for almost all of my adult life. But I guess in life and in sports, we all know that nothing lasts forever.
"Times change, circumstances change, and that's the reality of playing in the NFL. ... Our circumstances make it best for us to take this next step. This has not been easy for (owner) Jim (Irsay), and it's certainly has not been easy for me."
Manning suppressed tears while getting through his initial thoughts and offering his deep-felt thanks to Irsay and others.
"This town and this team mean so much to me. It truly has been an honor to play in Indianapolis. I do love it here. I love the fans. And I will always enjoy having played for such a great team," he said. "I will leave the Colts with nothing but good thoughts and gratitude.
"I've been blessed to play here, I've been blessed to be here in the NFL."
Manning made a point of again thanking the city, fans, team and even media members.
"Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart," he said. "I truly have enjoyed being your quarterback."
Irsay lauded Manning's career with the team while announcing its conclusion amid a "long difficult process."
Irsay said the Colts' salary cap issues and decision to rebuild necessitated a parting of the ways while thanking Manning as "completely unselfish" in accepting the outcome.
"There will be no other Peyton Manning," said Irsay while getting emotional himself. "We've been so blessed to have him.
"He's always part of the horseshoe."
Manning said he was "confident" about resuming his NFL career
"I'm feeling closer and closer," he said of his recent physical progress after neck surgeries and nerve damage prevented him from playing in 2011. "It sure feels comfortable, feels like home being back out there (on the field). ... (But) I still have some work to do."
He has not thought about prospective teams he might play for in the future and said money had nothing to do with his release.
"I'm at peace," said Manning, thanking Irsay for being a sounding board and friend through an arduous process even though they seemed to engage in frosty exchanges this offseason, particularly during the week of Super Bowl XLVI, which was staged in Indianapolis but often took a backseat to Manning's then-hazy future.
Manning now follows front office execs Bill and Chris Polian and HC Jim Caldwell out the door following the team's 2-14 debacle of a season without its longtime field general. Irsay hired GM Ryan Grigson and HC Chuck Pagano as the club's new braintrust.
The Colts' record conferred the 2012 draft's No. 1 overall pick, which is widely expected to be used on former Stanford QB Andrew Luck.
"We're a ways away," said Irsay of an overhauled franchise that set a record for wins in a decade at the start of the century.
Manning went 150-77 (including playoffs) and never missed a start for the team until multiple neck surgeries over a 19-month span forced him from the field for the entire 2011 season. Manning has completed 64.9% of his regular-season throws; his 54,828 career passing yards and 399 TDs both rank third in NFL history but leave him within striking distance of Brett Favre's career marks.
Manning conducted his first post-surgery throwing session in a December practice in Indianapolis as he tried to fight his way back into the lineup and has been working out at Duke University in recent weeks. His next NFL employer will have to be comfortable about the rate of the nerve regeneration in the triceps of his throwing arm before signing him to a prospective deal.
But even Manning seems to know his next uniform will look odd.
"I'll always be a Colt, that will never change," he said.
It's official. Peyton Manning's career with the Indianapolis Colts is over.
Click here for special coverage on Peyton Manning from the Indianapolis Star
At a noon press conference, Colts' owner Jim Irsay said it was the conclusion of Peyton's career in Indy, saying there was just too much to overcome to continue. Irsay said they would honor the incredible memories and all the things he's done for the Colts and the city. Irsay said no other player would ever wear Peyton's #16 jersey again.
Irsay choked up a bit as he was talking about Peyton's career at Indy and the friendship they had developed. He said Peyton would always be "part of the horseshoe."
When Peyton took the mic, you could hear the emotion in his voice.
He said he's loved playing for the Colts for 14 years. He loves the team, his teammates, and the city.
He said this was a difficult decision, but one reached after a lot of conversations between him and the Colts' officials. Manning called it the reality of playing in the NFL.
Both Irsay and Peyton said this decision had nothing to do with the money.
Peyton said he leaves the Colts with nothing but good thoughts and gratitude.
He also had a special message for the fans, "Thank you very much, from the bottom of my heart, I'm truly enjoyed being your quarterback."
Peyton said he hadn't thought about where he'll go next.
By Jarrett Bell, Jim Corbett and Tom Pedulla, USA TODAY
Peyton Manning's illustrious career with the Indianapolis Colts has reached an inglorious end.
The Colts will hold a news conference Wednesday at noon ET to announce that they are releasing the NFL's only four-time MVP and the most prolific passer in franchise history, according to former Indianapolis vice chairman Bill Polian, now an ESPN analyst.
Peyton's older brother, Cooper, also confirmed that the Colts will take a new and surely controversial direction. Peyton, who turns 36 on March 24, missed all of last season after his third neck operation in 19 months. He was owed a $28 million payment by Friday if the Colts chose to retain him.
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"I don't think Peyton's done any personal diligence on what the next step is," said Cooper, reached by phone at his New Orleans home. "Until it was over, he was a Colt through and through.
"Now, he'll have to re-evaluate and see what this next chapter reads like."
Manning era ends in Indy
Drafted first overall in 1998, Peyton Manning's run transformed the Indianapolis Colts.
Cooper added, "It's hard to believe he won't be back there in Indianapolis. It's hard to imagine."
Although the Colts own the top pick in the draft and can take a promising new direction by selecting either of two highly rated passers, Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III, the rebuilding of what had been a perennial power will surely be painful for the team and its fans.
"You could argue among all the players that ever played in the NFL in terms of contributions to a franchise, Peyton's up there in the top five," Polian said.
Manning was selected by Polian at the head of the 1998 draft and took Indianapolis to the playoffs 11 times in his 13 seasons, including two Super Bowls. He was the MVP in a 29-17 triumph against the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI to close the 2006 season. The Colts fell short vs. the New Orleans Saints, 31-17, three years later.
Manning, set to become arguably the most coveted free agent in history, holds club records for passing yards (54,828), touchdowns (399), attempts (7,210), completions (4,682), completion percentage (64.9%) and passer rating (94.9).
He compiled a 141-67 record as a starter to rank fourth in history, trailing Brett Favre (186), John Elway (148) and Dan Marino (147). He ranks third in league annals in passing touchdowns, yards and completions.
"Peyton's legacy in Indianapolis is absolutely secure," Polian said. "Lucas Oil Stadium is there. The Lombardi Trophy is there. All the records are there. And, most importantly, Peyton Manning's Children's Hospital is there.
"So if he goes and plays somewhere else, all it will mean is that he's going to finish his career in another uniform. What he's done in Indianapolis will never be erased and will always be appreciated."
But after he officially cuts ties with the Colts, focus will turn to where Manning will be playing this fall. Among the possible teams are the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals and Denver Broncos, whom Polian sees as a sleeper.
"I wouldn't be shocked about any place he would end up," Polian said. "(Broncos executive vice president) John (Elway) certainly knows quarterbacks."
Now, Manning will have to show suitors his neck and the nerve damage he suffered are healed and his health will hold up under game conditions. Concern about his arm strength has fueled questions about the strength, velocity, consistency and range of his passes - and thus, his long-term prospects for a complete comeback.
Manning did not miss a start during his tenure with the Colts before the 2011 season.
Polian said of video from a throwing session Saturday from Duke University that made its way to YouTube, "I recognize that throwing motion even from a distance. He looked darn close to the original Peyton Manning. I felt great when I saw the video."
Cooper said the triceps nerve in Manning's throwing arm was recovering at such an encouraging rate that he fully expected his brother to be able to compete again in what would be one of the most scrutinized comebacks in history.
"A lot of guys who have watched him throw for a long time have been making really positive comments," the older brother said.
Now, the NFL and fans will wait to see if he can get his groove back.
Dilemma for Irsay
For weeks, the buzz has been all about Manning, with Irsay teetering on a high wire. It is evident in this case that business, health, practicality, politics and public relations don't always mix. So while undeniably recognizing the contribution Manning has made to the franchise's extended success that led to the construction of $720 million Lucas Oil Stadium, built largely with public funds, Irsay is also confronted by the reality that in the world of football, good timing doesn't last forever.
Irsay has contended - when he didn't maintain that Manning would make the call on his future in Indianapolis - that the decision would hinge on Manning's health rather than the prospect of paying two high-profile quarterbacks under a $120 million salary cap for the 2012 season.
While it's true that in the new world of a rookie salary pool the Colts could squeeze Manning and Luck or Griffin under a cap, it would not be practical.
So "P-Money," as former Colts star wide receiver Marvin Harrison has called him, won't finish what he started - a remarkable, Hall of Fame-credentialed career - with the Colts.
Last legs or renaissance?
How will Manning's final chapter play out?
Maybe it will resemble Joe Montana's trek, following his exodus from San Francisco. After guiding the 49ers to four Super Bowl crowns during the 1980s, Montana was derailed by elbow problems. When he regained his health, his job was gone.
Montana went off to play for the Kansas City Chiefs for his final two seasons. He finished his career with dignity, able to prove that he had something left.
Manning undoubtedly hopes that his career swan song won't compare to that of Johnny Unitas, the Baltimore Colts legend whose career ended in 1973 at 40, with one broken, arm-shot season with the San Diego Chargers.
The same could be said of the route taken by one of Manning's contemporary gunslingers, Brett Favre, one of the two men (along with Marino) who have passed for more career yards and touchdowns than No. 18.
For Manning, when he has been at his best, it has been an advantage not unlike the legs that elevate Michael Vick's game or the ability to extend plays by shrugging off defenders that makes Ben Roethlisberger special.
Manning will need time to adapt to a new system, receivers and environment. He will have to play catch-up, to establish his flow.
Of course, Manning might still be better than most quarterbacks. If he's healthy enough.
Contributing: Mike Chappell, The Indianapolis Star