Sent packing by his only NFL team, one he transformed from afterthought to Super Bowl champion, Peyton Manning said goodbye to the Indianapolis Colts with a shaky voice and tear-filled eyes, then got ready to find a new place to play quarterback.
At a podium alongside owner Jim Irsay, who cut the injured star Wednesday rather than pay a whopping $28 million bonus due this week, Manning was by turns wistful, nostalgic and forward-looking.
The only four-time MVP in NFL history now figures to become as coveted a free agent as the league has ever seen, assuming he can assuage any lingering concerns about the series of neck operations that forced him to miss the 2011 season. Arizona, Miami, Seattle, Tennessee, Washington, and the New York Jets all have been rumored as possible destinations.
“Nobody loves their job more than I do. Nobody loves playing quarterback more than I do. I still want to play. But there is no other team I wanted to play for,’’ said Manning, who turns 36 this month.
Still, he acknowledged, “We all know that nothing lasts forever. Times change, circumstances change, and that’s the reality of playing in the NFL.’’
Another reality: Manning should command plenty of offers on the open market. It’s not very often that teams get a crack at a quarterback who’s thrown for more than 50,000 yards and nearly 400 touchdowns, been picked for 11 Pro Bowls, and been a Super Bowl MVP. Manning’s importance to the Colts’ success was never more apparent than last season, when their record plummeted to 2-14 without him.
“I have no idea who wants me, what team wants me, how this process works,’’ Manning told a group of reporters in South Florida, where he has a home and flew after the news conference. “I don’t know if it’s like college recruiting where you go take visits. I mean, this is all so new to me.’’
Reports of other clubs’ interest began emerging a while back, and they’ll only intensify now. Because he was released and went on the waiver wire Wednesday, Manning is allowed to negotiate and sign with any club immediately; he does not need to wait until the free agent period that begins next Tuesday, and said his agent already was taking calls.
Indianapolis needed to cut Manning this week to avoid paying him a bonus from the $90 million, five-year contract he signed in July, although both owner and player insisted the decision was not really about money. The Colts are widely expected to begin moving on by taking Stanford QB Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick in April’s draft.
Irsay repeatedly used the word “rebuilding’’ and acknowledged: “We’re definitely a few years away.’’
Manning, Irsay said, “is on the mend to try to resume his career.’’
Manning hopes to be playing in the NFL at the start of next season.
Still, he said Wednesday: “I’ll always be a Colt. I always will be. That’ll never change.’’
When the news conference ended, Manning reached over to shake hands with Irsay, who instead tried to offer a hug, and they wound up settling for pats on the shoulder before walking off together and leaving the room.
“There will be no other Peyton Manning,’’ Irsay said.