Succeeding with Succession

With Peyton Manning out for what could very well be the rest of this season and the Colts’ struggling at 0-5 in his absence, questions have arisen as to what the organization would do if it found itself in the position to draft Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. Yahoo’s Jason Cole addressed this scenario with Colt’s owner Jim Irsay and Irsay was extraordinarily candid in his response:

“Guys like that come along so rarely,” Irsay said, referring to Manning and what many are projecting of Luck. The Stanford quarterback is already widely considered a near-lock to be the No. 1 overall pick. “Even if that means that guy sits for three or four years, you’d certainly think about taking him … you see what Green Bay did with [Brett] Favre and [Aaron] Rodgers and you’d like to be able to do the same thing.”

In all walks of life, succession plans for legendary leaders–whether they are government officials, CEOs, or head coaches–are a tricky proposition. When they take place ostensibly against the leaders’ will as in the Favre-Rodgers situation that Irsay alluded to as well as the Eagles’ drafting Kevin Kolb in the second round in 2007 as a potential successor to Donovan McNabb, they are even trickier. There is a fine line between disrespecting someone’s substantial accomplishments and making forward thinking decisions.

If the Colts draft Andrew Luck, it impacts Manning’s career in Indianapolis in two major ways: first, it would come at the opportunity cost of another player that would be able to step in and help Manning win right away. Secondly, it would put a finite window of 1-2 years on Manning’s time left with the Colts. This is to say that if the Colts draft Luck, Manning will almost assuredly play for another team.

If the Colts were in the position to draft Luck and they felt, as seems to be the consensus, that he is a can’t-miss prospect to be a franchise quarterback, they would HAVE to draft him–even if it ends up costing them a year or two that Manning is still playing at an elite level. As the Packers executed flawlessly and the Vikings learned the hard way, it is much better in the NFL to cut bait a year or two too early with a viable succession plan than a year too late with no plan for the future.

As weird as it would be to see Peyton Manning in a different uniform, this would work out for the best for him as well. If Manning were able to return anywhere close to his previous form, which, given his relentless preparation is reasonable to expect for at least another 2-3 seasons, there are several franchises for which his presence would dramatically increase Super Bowl odds. The Texans, Raiders, Broncos, and Cowboys would probably be the optimal mutually beneficial situations while the Jets, Ravens, and 49ers would also make a lot of sense. All seven of these rosters, as presently constituted, would give Manning a better chance at another title than he would have with the Colts.

If these circumstances end up playing out and the Colts draft Luck, it will be interesting to see to what extent they allow Manning to pick where he goes; much of the acrimony between Brett Favre and the Packers’ front office came from their trading his rights to the Jets as opposed to giving him his release and allowing him to sign with the Vikings immediately. Like the Packers, the Colts will be holding the cards if they want to move on at quarterback as Manning signed a five-year, $90 million extension through the 2015 season this past July. In signing this extension, Manning ensured financial security at the expense of the ability to control his own destiny should he no longer play for the Colts. While the league would certainly be more interesting if Manning went to an immediate contender should the Colts make Luck the starter, he would only have himself to blame if, in 2013, he finds himself in an unpalatable situation.

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