Finally, the fun begins for the Indianapolis Colts. The choices they make, starting Monday, will impact the NFL like nothing since Peyton Manning came to town.
The Colts secured the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft with their 19-13 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday in Jacksonville, giving them the chance to take Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.
While that pick seems a foregone conclusion, the changes that could come with it are impossible to predict. Will the Colts pick Luck and still keep the iconic Manning, if healthy? Will Luck issue an ultimatum, direct or veiled, that he expects to play immediately? Will the Colts let Manning walk away? Will Colts owner Jim Irsay clean house, from Bill and Chris Polian to Jim Caldwell, or stay the course?
Maybe there's an even more far-fetched question: Will the Polians shake up everything by deciding to use the No. 1 pick on someone other than Luck?
This Colts season, which ended with a 2-14 record, was an exercise in futility. This offseason, in contrast, will be an exercise in intrigue.
"The season has ended and the heavy lifting begins to restore The Horseshoe to Greatness," Irsay tweeted. "It takes what it takes."
The fate of Caldwell and other front office personnel should be clear by Monday night. If Irsay wants to change coaches, he'll do so quickly. When he last spoke publicly on the NFL Network on Dec. 22, Irsay emphasized how much he values continuity, but said he will evaluate everything after the season.
This would be the perfect time, with so much upheaval and high draft picks, to retool the Colts from front office to coaches to players. Irsay could reinvent his brand. But that kind of drastic change doesn't jibe with Irsay's style. Then again, this was a drastic kind of season.
I wouldn't be surprised if Irsay's loyalty outweighs other factors and he sticks with the management he has in place, including retaining Caldwell as coach. That wouldn't be popular with fans, but Irsay and the Colts have shown they don't make decisions solely on fan reaction. This season can be written off as an aberration, if he's so inclined, due to Manning missing the year after two neck surgeries.
There are areas to second-guess where Caldwell is concerned, including game management. But his players did not quit on him. The firing of Larry Coyer as defensive coordinator stemmed the tide of losses and seemed to invigorate the defense.
Because there are so many other decisions for the Colts on key veteran free agents (Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis, Jeff Saturday, Pierre Garcon), Irsay might prefer dealing with player moves using the management team he's comfortable employing.
So much still rides on Manning and his health.
It was interesting to hear Manning say after the Jacksonville game that he can “co-exist” with anyone, but also that he hasn't thought much about the Colts owning the top pick or what they might do with it. He's apparently the only one in the NFL who hasn't thought much about it.
Manning has had a lot of input, whether directly or indirectly, in the course the Colts have pursued during his career. Last fall, when Irsay signed Manning to his latest deal – a seemingly long, long time ago – he said he wanted to make sure Manning finished his career in Indianapolis. I doubt Irsay's view has changed since then.
NFL fans and analysts may be ready to ship Manning out of Indy – Dan Marino said on CBS's pregame show that he expects Manning to be in Washington or Miami – but the only person who can make the call is Irsay. He owns the option to bring Manning back.
The only way I see Manning not in a Colts uniform next season is if he retires. Forget whether switching to Luck is the best business decision for the long haul. Irsay will not separate emotion from business where Manning is concerned.
The most likely scenario is that Manning stays, the Colts draft Luck and the dynamic of a successor-in-waiting becomes the fascinating sideshow for the next year or two.
That would end awkwardly. If the Colts draft Luck, he cannot sit forever. One year, maybe. Two years, doubtful. Certainly Luck and Manning cannot be on the same team three years from now unless Manning moves to a backup role. I don't see that happening, so it'll take a release or retirement to move on to the Luck era.
No one outside of Irsay can say what will happen next with the Colts. It's been more than a decade since this much uncertainty hovered over the offseason. Back then, the pivotal call was whether to choose Manning or Ryan Leaf.
Today, Manning's part of the equation again. But is his number really up?