INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts invited everyone to meet their new coach, Chuck Pagano, and he was energetic, funny and earnest. Then owner Jim Irsay threw Peyton Manning under the bus, and Pagano became yesterday's news.
Let me say upfront Irsay tried his best Thursday to emphasize he still loves Manning and worries about his long-term health as much as his continued career at quarterback.
But I doubt Irsay's comments about them going forward “hand-in-hand” will come true. This could still end with hugs, but right now it's veering toward slugs.
Manning rubbed Irsay the wrong way with his widely circulated Monday comments to the Indianapolis Star that the Colts complex was “not a great place for healing” and “not a real good environment down there right now.”
Irsay said he thought Manning should have kept his thoughts in-house, and then the owner hung out the dirty laundry. He called Manning a “politician,” which is the next-worst thing in Indy to being called a New England Patriot.
“There's not any sort of bad situation around here for healing or anything like that,” Irsay said to reporters in an informal interview after Pagano's introduction. “That's not a correct perspective. Like I said, keep it in house, in our family. Talk to each other if you have problems. We'll work it through hand-in-hand and continue to talk as we get closer to the league year.”
Manning later called the Indy Star after hearing Irsay's comments and said he wants to meet with Irsay and handle things "appropriately and professionally."
This is as uncomfortable to watch as it is impossible to stop watching. Irsay and new General Manager Ryan Grigson started the process with talk of the “rebuilding” and “new eras” that came along with the 2-14 disaster of a season. They set up the farewell-to-yesterday, hello-to-No.1-draft pick tour.
There was more than a little irony in the fact that Irsay's comments criticizing Manning came minutes after Pagano talked about the importance of building relationships.
“I don't think it's in the good interest to paint the 'Horseshoe' in a negative light,” Irsay said. “I really don't. (Manning is) such a big part of that. The 'Horseshoe' always comes first. One thing he's always known, and he's been around it so long – you keep it in the family. If you've got a problem, talk to each other. It's not about campaigning or anything like that.”
Irsay responded to Manning's assertion that people were “walking on eggshells” at the Colts complex.
“There are plenty of eggshells around this building scattered by him with his competitive desire to win,” Irsay said.
Perhaps it's inevitable that this would end with bruised feelings on both sides. Manning has been the face (and body and soul) of the Colts since he entered the league. Circumstances beyond his control have conspired to turn the Colts upside down. If Manning had been healthy last season, things would be different today. I'm guessing the Polians would still be here, Jim Caldwell would still be coach and Pagano would still be in Baltimore. Or at least two out of those three.
But Manning wasn't healthy last year. Irsay seemed to intimate that he wonders if Manning will be healthy again, saying it's an issue of long-term health, too. He sounded like he wasn't willing to take further risk, even if Manning got the go-ahead.
“This isn't an ankle, this isn't a shoulder or something along those lines,” Irsay said. “Oftentimes, the NFL is criticized for putting people out there and putting them at risk. I'm not going to do that. That's not the owner. That's not the integrity. What he's done for the city, for the state, for the franchise and what he means for me and the franchise, that's not going to be the situation.”
There's no way to know if Manning will play again. I will say this: If he plays again and it's with another team, the Colts better hope they don't meet on the field in any sort of important game. Or unimportant game.
Irsay should have publicly ignored Manning's comments. Now the owner looks small and petty by criticizing Manning while he's injured and upset about longtime coaches and confidantes being fired.
After his initial criticism of Manning's comments, Irsay said he makes allowances for the “emotional toll” that the injury has taken on Manning. That allowance should have included leaving Manning's comments alone.
“When it comes to being competitive, on scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being highest,” Irsay, “we're both 11s.”
I already know who wins this battle for the hearts of Colts fans in public opinion. It's not Irsay.