INDIANAPOLIS – As far as I can tell, this is the current scoreboard for Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning's return to Indianapolis:
Jim Irsay: 0
What was expected to be at least a little bit of a heartwarming return by Manning to the city where he created his legend instead became a long-distance spitting match (family newspaper term). The spitting contestants are Irsay, Broncos coach John Fox, former Colts general manager Bill Polian, ESPN reporter Chris Mortensen, retired Colorado Rockies slugger Todd Helton and 75 percent of everyone who follows the Colts on Twitter.
Manning is the winner, which should surprise no one.
If Irsay really wanted to honor Manning, he'd keep his mouth shut. But he's unable to do so and, while I don't think he intends to disparage Manning, he says and tweets things that leave him vulnerable to that interpretation.
Irsay started the latest brouhaha with comments to USA Today about how he would have liked to have had more than one Super Bowl win during the Manning era. It's a legitimate debate: Should the Colts have won more than one Super Bowl during seven straight years of 12 or more wins? Irsay thinks so, and talked about how the team was constructed, with an emphasis on “Star Wars” offensive numbers but not so much full team balance.
His words could be interpreted as a criticism of how Polian assembled the team during the Manning era or, less so, a criticism of Manning. The interpretation that Irsay was diminishing Manning's accomplishments caused Fox to lash out at Irsay for being ungrateful and unappreciative of Manning.
Helton, a friend of Manning, called Irsay “classless” and an “idiot.” Mortensen challenged Irsay's contention that Manning had told Irsay he had to draft Luck. Polian said on ESPN he didn't know Irsay's view since he “never had an exit interview,” rattled off great defensive players he had acquired during his tenure and said Irsay's ideas about building a balanced team will be tested once Luck's rookie contract expires.
Manning, asked to address comments by Irsay or Fox, declined to do so. Asked if he can describe his relationship with Irsay, Manning said, “I can't, and I won't.” That didn't exactly sound like “We're planning an offseason fishing trip."
Irsay tried to clarify things with a news conference later Wednesday. While doing so, he took a shot at Mortensen for having the same agent as Manning, saying that's how he breaks Manning news. Irsay reemphasized how much he appreciates Manning and called him a friend.
Irsay would have been better served from the start to say simply, “Manning was a great player who accomplished great things with the Colts and we look forward to trying to beat the Broncos.” Then he could have walked away on the high road.
Manning will always win in the court of public opinion, regardless of the intent or context of Irsay's comments.
Manning is everything we want in our pro athletes. He performs at an incredibly high level. He invests in his community outside the game. He stays out of trouble. He treats people with respect. While he has an ego, he doesn't flaunt it in public.
Any comments that can even remotely be considered derogatory toward Manning will hit a nerve. Irsay has never seemed to quite grasp that.
I don't believe Irsay is trying to denigrate Manning. If anything, he's second-guessing Polian. I believe Irsay has genuine respect and admiration for Manning. How could he not? But he can't keep his mouth shut and he can't seem to find a way to consider how his words will be taken as he says them.
There was nothing wrong with Irsay's decision to let Manning go and move forward rebuilding the franchise around Luck and a new philosophy with general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano.
Manning could have remained great with the Colts for a few more years. We know that now, but only in retrospect. He had missed a season and had four neck surgeries as he approached the final stage of a long career when Irsay had to make a decision on bringing him back.
Both sides have thrived in the aftermath, with Manning playing at unprecedented levels of production and Luck leading the Colts to a playoff berth last year and a 4-2 start this year.
If Irsay could have just stopped talking after a simple acknowledgement that things have worked out well for both Manning and the Colts, there would have been no backlash.
When it comes to the last word, Manning knows how to get it without saying anything. We'll see what he “says” with his play Sunday night.