INDIANAPOLIS – With kickoff for the Colts-Denver game four days away, Indianapolis Owner and CEO Jim Irsay recalled today what Peyton Manning means to him and a large number of others.
"He's an historical icon and a great friend of mine," said Irsay. "(He) is the greatest Indianapolis Colt ever. That jersey (number 18) is already retired, and he's still playing. My respect for him is immense."
Irsay spoke today after comments he made earlier in the week were interpreted harshly by media members as buildup for Sunday's game escalates.
Echoing comments he made to a national wire service in July, Irsay expressed general disappointment that the Colts did not win more world championships during a wondrous run from 1999-2010, when the team played to an elite level that included eight divisional titles, two AFC crowns, the winningest regular-season decade in NFL history (115, 2000-09) and the league's longest winning streak (23 games, 2008-09).
Manning was a central figure in the success that also included an NFL-record seven straight seasons (2003-09) seasons with 12-plus wins.
Manning departed after the 2011 season, when he was unable to play while having multiple neck surgeries.
The uncertainty of his health and the club's salary cap constraints precipitated a parting of the ways.
In March, 2012, Irsay and Manning shared a plane ride back from Miami when both tried to make things work from every angle before admitting circumstances would not allow his career to continue in Indianapolis.
"We both were so pained over the fact that because of our salary cap situation, it was going to be impossible for it to work," said Irsay.
In speaking recently with a national reporter, Irsay used the term "Star Wars Offense" that some interpreted as a criticism of Manning and others for only one Super Bowl title.
Irsay stressed today his comments were not intended as such and spoke more to a financial imbalance that likely hindered team accomplishments in general.
"They were organizational comments not based on Andrew (Luck) or Peyton (Manning)," said Irsay. "In the past, we spent as much at 70 percent of the cap on the offensive side of the ball. We were 70 percent in 2003 and 2004, when we couldn't get past the Patriots.
"Really it's more talking about how you build a championship team to win multiple championships. I was very certain about how I wanted to go into the future, into a new era in terms of our balance. There was never a negative comment toward Peyton."
Irsay made the same complimentary remarks of New England's structural balance in training camp in August, drawing no reaction that they were intended as a criticism of an individual.
Reaction swirled Tuesday and Wednesday over Irsay's comments. He even reached out to Manning today but could not connect. On Tuesday, Denver Coach John Fox defended Manning and Irsay said today of Fox, "I have great respect for him. I think he's a tremendous man of integrity and an outstanding coach."
Irsay did claim there is a distinct feeling held by many people from that Colts era that more titles could have been won.
"I think every player on our team, every coach, feels that way. There's no question about it," said Irsay. "We were in the toughest conference. A lot of times, the teams we lost to (New England, Pittsburgh) won the Super Bowl. There's not a man with the franchise during those years (who doesn't feel that way), but we're extremely proud of seven seasons with 12-plus wins. I don't know if that ever will be matched.
"Winning the most games of any team in a decade in the history of the league, those records, we're extremely proud of. Everyone knows the world championship and being a champion is what it's about. I don't see that there was one negative comment made by me. You're talking about your organization philosophy of how you're building your team. That's not a comment based toward Peyton.
"What he means to me personally, the city, state, our franchise is just incredible."
Irsay said plans for honoring Manning Sunday will be "tremendous," and are just the tip of an iceberg that will be enhanced in future years.
On that flight from Miami when a consensus was reached between Irsay and Manning, the goal was to have him continue a career with a chance for more greatness, while the Colts would turn a difficult, emotional page to hopefully replicate the past.
"The great news about this week is our goal was that he could go someplace and have a chance to win another championship before he retired and that we could move forward and be successful," said Irsay. "They're a great team. No one's been able to stop them. We're going to have our hands full playing them. Sixteen-and-oh is certainly within their reach the way they're playing."
PRACTICE REPORT – Did not participate: LB-Jerrell Freeman (concussion), LB-Bjoern Werner (foot); Limited Participation: CB-Darius Butler (groin), S-Delano Howell (neck), LB-Kelvin Sheppard (hamstring); Full Participation: S-LaRon Landry (ankle).