The Colts’ 19-13 loss to the ensured that they will have the first overall pick in the N.F.L. draft and that Stanford’s Andrew Luck, perhaps the most coveted quarterback since Manning himself, will almost surely be theirs. The Jaguars, who along with the rest of the A.F.C. South have been tormented by Manning’s presence, now face at least another decade with a potentially dominant quarterback in the division.
The Colts finished the season 2-14, their worst record since they were 3-13 in 1998, when Manning was a struggling rookie. The Colts, who were implored by some fans to preserve their draft position by tanking games, were in danger of missing out on the first pick and Luck because they won two straight games last month. Had the Colts beaten the Jaguars, they would have lost the top pick to the St. Louis Rams, who lost to the San Francisco 49ers and, with only two wins, would have had the worst record in the N.F.L.
Instead, the Colts, who won the top pick on a tiebreaker, now embark on what will be an off-season of difficult decisions and delicate conversations. They must first determine if Jim Caldwell will remain as the coach. But then they must figure out how to manage Luck and Manning. There seems to be little doubt that the Colts will take Luck — he is simply too good to pass up, even if Manning, who will turn 36 in March, can play a few more years.
The trickier decision is what to do about Manning, whose return is not yet assured. The Colts owe Manning a $28 million roster bonus in early March, which will put in effect the final four years of the five-year contract he signed last summer. The Colts may not fully know by then if Manning is able to return to his pre-injury level of play.
If the Colts do not pay the bonus, Manning will be a free agent, an outcome that seems unlikely after the owner Jim Irsay told the NFL Network that Manning would return to Indianapolis if he was healthy. If the Colts pay Manning, they will almost certainly keep him and make Luck his backup even though most personnel evaluators say Luck will be good enough to start as a rookie — potentially setting up an awkward dynamic.
If the Colts keep both quarterbacks, it will probably limit their ability to spend significantly to improve other positions, needs that were underscored by the team’s collapse in Manning’s absence.