If you removed the quarterbacks from the equation, Sunday's game between Denver and Indianapolis would still have several great story lines. The Colts and Broncos are two of the best teams in the AFC, and the matchup could easily be a playoff preview. Von Miller will also make his 2013 debut, after serving a six-game suspension.
Both of those and any other storylines will be overshadowed, however, by the comparison of Andrew Luck versus Peyton Manning.
Strictly from a statistical standpoint, Luck is no comparison for Manning. As good as he's been early in his career, Luck's career numbers through 22 regular season games fall short of what Manning is on pace to do in 16 games this season. Manning is playing at a historic level while Luck has simply been very good.
That doesn't mean Indianapolis would have necessarily been better off keeping Manning and opting for a different player with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Instead, it's likely the Colts would have been much worse. The Colts were up against the salary cap with Manning and have used the savings from releasing him to overhaul the roster.
"Circumstances created this decision," Colts' owner Jim Irsay said, via USA Today. "You have to understand there's no way this occurs if he's in Indy. It's just impossible, where our salary cap was. Having him stay at the type of number that he expected and deserved to earn and all those things."
Luck signed a rookie deal worth $22 million over four years while Manning signed a five-year deal worth $96 million in Denver. Indianapolis is saving more than $12 million in salary cap space this season with Luck, money it has put to good use. The Colts were among the most active teams in free agency last year, signing LaRon Landry, Gosder Cherilus and others while also retaining a few key free agents of their own like Fili Moala. Not only would they not have had the salary cap space to improve in free agency, they likely would have been forced to let several of their own key players go to make room for Manning's contract. That may have included Robert Mathis, who's been the Colts' best defensive player this season, or Reggie Wayne, who is still among the most productive receivers in the league.
Indianapolis could have Manning, a player like Matt Kalil and a lot of holes, or it could have Luck and his current supporting cast. The current discussion of Luck vs. Manning also includes hindsight, something the Colts didn't have the benefit of when they decided to release Manning. During Manning's lost season in 2011 and after four neck surgeries, there weren't just questions of whether or not he could still play at a high level; there were some questions of whether he would ever play again at all. Manning had trouble regaining his arm strength and that trouble continued through his first season in Denver, with observers saying he saying he couldn't consistently throw a deep ball anymore. His arm strength has improved this season, more than two years after his fourth neck surgery. If the Colts had passed on Luck and Manning wasn't able to regain his previous form, it may have gone down as one of the biggest blunders in NFL history.
Despite how great Manning has been, it's not hard to argue the Colts came out ahead not only in the present, but in the future. While he's already proven to be a solid starting quarterback, the best of Luck's career is still ahead of him. He's still only 24 years old and could easily start for another decade in Indianapolis, or longer. Although he hasn't showed any signs of slowing down, Manning is 37 and in the twilight of his career. There haven't been many quarterbacks like Manning, but only four players in NFL history have thrown for 3,500 or more yards in a season at 38 or older. Even if Manning continues to play at a high level for another two or three seasons, the long-term value of Luck likely outweighs the current increased value of Manning.
It also may not take Luck long to become the more valuable player in the present, at least if his career continues on a similar path to Manning's. With more than 60,000 career passing yards and 458 touchdowns, it's easy to forget it took Peyton Manning a few years to become the Peyton Manning we know now. He didn't top 8.0 yards per attempt until his seventh NFL season. The Colts didn't win a playoff game until Manning's sixth season. When compared through their first 22 regular season starts, Luck more than holds his own against Manning.
|Yards per attempt||6.9||7.0|
*Luck has also rushed for seven touchdowns compared to Manning's one rushing touchdown.
When Manning and Luck step off the field on Sunday, Manning will likely have thrown for more yards and probably more touchdowns. The Broncos may also come away with the win, but none of that will change the fact that Indianapolis very likely made the right decision in choosing Luck over Manning.