Suppose the NFL lockout ends today, sending everything into motion: free agency, training camp, Jon Gruden's smirk, everything.
We'll start talking schedules and division races and Super Bowl favorites and which Bengals haven't been arrested. It'll be nothing but fun for most.
Yet in the midst of celebration, there will be an issue hanging over the Indianapolis Colts. What about paying Peyton?
Peyton Manning needs a new contract. Colts owner Jim Irsay promised he'd make Manning the highest-paid player in the game. Irsay tends to follow through on his promises. The Colts have placed the “franchise tag” on Manning. It looks as if that will remain in place as part of any new collective-bargaining agreement. Nevertheless, the pressure will be on the Colts to work a new deal so Manning's situation doesn't become an ongoing distraction. Eventually, the Colts must ante up.
How much is enough, and how much is too much?
Should Manning even be the highest-paid player in the game?
Manning enters this season, if and when it gets under way, approaching the downhill side of his career. He's 35. He's coming off neck surgery that kept him from even throwing at his family's quarterback camp. He has said his inability to work with Colts medical personnel during the lockout was a setback. His health is a mystery.
So do you commit five (six? seven?) years to a one-of-a-kind player at the end of his career?
If he's healthy, that Manning can still deliver the kind of quarterback play few in the game – maybe only Tom Brady – can match. He has never missed a game as he enters his 12th year in the league. He's a master at preparation and possesses a mind for the game that surely ranks among the sharpest in history.
But time waits for no one. Eventually, age catches up. Maybe it won't this year or next or even the one after that. But the end is in sight. Someday, the magic fades. Ask any great quarterback. Ask any great athlete.
Still, Manning is not likely to settle for a short-term deal. Manning's agent will push for the longest, most lucrative deal imaginable. The numbers will likely start so high they're unfathomable. That's the way it has to be done, too, given the fact that Manning's salary – like Brady's – serves to drive up everyone else's salary. As long as there is a union or trade organization or whatever the NFL Players Association chooses as a label these days, it will push its best players to push for the highest salary.
Fans like to moan and gripe and say Manning and other stars should accept less in order to help the team pursue more players within the salary cap. It doesn't work that way. The NFLPA's leadership and its members don't want Manning taking less. If he makes more, they make more. It's a trickle-down system.
So now the Colts have a dilemma. How lucrative and how long should Manning's next deal be?
I can see this turning into innovative ground as the Colts seek to secure Manning's stature beyond this season. It's important to the franchise that Manning remains a Colt for life. Maybe he ends up coaching. I could see him as an offensive coordinator down the line. Who understands what it takes better?
Perhaps the Colts can find a way to creatively plan for Manning's status down the road, be it five or seven years from now.
Somehow they need to get a deal done to take that issue off his mind. He needs to be focused on his health and his last few years as an NFL elite QB.
The window is three years. Few quarterbacks deliver peak performance after 38. It can happen, and maybe it will with Manning. Time's running out.
When the lockout ends, the Colts must settle Manning's contract situation. They need a happy camper, and a healthy one.