Peyton Manning - The $28m question for Indianapolis

By Haydn ParryBBC Sport in Indianapolis
Peyton Manning (left) and brother Eli Manning
Peyton Manning (left) and brother Eli are legendary quarterback Archie's sons

Visitors from around the world are gathering in Indianapolis this week ahead of Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday but the host city's team - the Colts - will be missing from the biggest party in America's sporting calendar.

But that hasn't stopped hometown favourite and Colts quarterback Peyton Manning from stealing the headlines from brother Eli - whose New York Giants take on the New England Patriots on Sunday night.

At the start of the season, the locals were dreaming of a completely different scenario - that their Indianapolis Colts would, having already set an NFL record for the most consecutive play-off appearances (10), be preparing to become the first NFL team to win a Super Bowl on home turf.

That dream quickly evaporated though, and a truly miserable campaign - in which they won only two of 16 games - saw them finish with the worst record of all the 32 teams in the National Football League.

It has led to a great deal of soul-searching in this mid-western city, and the future of the Colts as well as that of Peyton Manning - who missed the whole season following neck surgery - is up in the air.

Since his selection as Indianapolis's first pick in the 1998 draft, Peyton Manning has been the fulcrum of the Colts, leading the team through a golden period which has seen two Super Bowl appearances, including a famous victory five years agoexternal-link against the Chicago Bears.

Before this season, the concept of the Colts minus Peyton Manning would have been unthinkable. But after his streak of starting 227 consecutive games came to an end, the Colts floundered.

The cold winds of change are now blowing through the franchise and the speculation about Peyton Manning's future with the team has cranked up several notches as the organisation enters a phase of rebuilding.

One day after the final game of the season, owner Jim Irsay fired the father-and-son duo Bill and Chris Polian who were largely responsible for player acquisitions, and they were followed out of the exit door within a fortnight by head coach Jim Caldwell and most of his coaching staff.

If Peyton Manning, who turns 36 in March, does return for the Colts next season he will have a very different set-up.

They say that it's difficult to teach an old dog new tricks, and it may be easier for the Colts to simply buy a new dog than to retrain their old one.

By virtue of having the worst record this season, and thanks to the NFL's policy of maximising the competitive balance between teams, Indianapolis get the pick of the best talent coming up from the college game in the draft.

And there is a veritable "blue chip" player available in the form of Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. By common consensus the most exciting prospect available at the draft, he is so highly rated and thought to be able to make the transition to the professional game that he's deemed "NFL ready".

The combination of a fresh broom sweeping through the organisation, question marks over Peyton Manning's health and the availability of a potential long-term successor makes for a combustible mix.

Journalists here have been clamouring to uncover any sign of what they term a "disconnect" between Peyton Manning and the Colts and have already lined up Arizona, Seattle and Washington as a potential new suitors for the veteran.

Peyton Manning had kept his counsel on the changes and the speculation about his own future until last week when he spoke to the Indianapolis Star.

"I'm not in a very good place for healing, let's say that," he told the newspaper. "It's not a real good environment down there right now, to say the least. Everybody's walking around on eggshells. I don't recognise our building right now. There's such complete and total change."

But he then stressed: "I don't want to get into some kind of fan campaign with the owner, but I think it's well-documented that I want to play in the same place my whole career."

But it's not just up to him. By 8 March owner Irsay has to decide whether to stump up the $28m (£18m) to which Peyton Manning is entitled if his contract is extended.

To stick or to twist - that is the $28m question.

In the meantime the eyes of the NFL - and the world - will be on kid brother Eli as he looks for his second Super Bowl win with the Giants.