Pictures of Peyton Manning are everywhere in Indianapolis - in the mall and at the airport, in a towering portrait on the side of the Colts’ downtown stadium, and on the walls inside where the ticket holders party.
But on Wednesday, the Colts are expected to part ways with their iconic quarterback who turned the franchise from laughingstock to constant contender and who won a Super Bowl in the 2006 season.
Manning, who turns 36 this month, will now become the most prized free agent in NFL history. The Colts will hold a news conference at noon Wednesday, at which Manning is expected to speak.
ESPN, citing anonymous sources, first reported the decision. Manning and team owner Jim Irsay are expected to attend the news conference, the network said. Colts spokesman Avis Roper said he could not confirm the decision - or that a news conference would be held - to the Associated Press.
The decision is not a surprise. Manning spent his entire 14-year career in Indianapolis, but he became expendable when a neck injury forced him to miss the 2011 season and the Colts collapsed without him, finishing tied for the worst record (2-14) with the Rams. That put the Colts in position to likely select Manning’s successor, Andrew Luck, who will have as many expectations to meet as Manning did.
Luck will arrive to a franchise that is substantially different from the one Manning elevated to greatness. Since the end of the season, Irsay has cleaned house of most of the coaches and front office executives who worked with Manning.
The Colts surely would prefer that Manning choose to retire rather than continue to play. But Manning has been cleared by doctors, and his throws are said to be improved in recent weeks. Now Manning - who had hoped to play for one team in his career - will likely join other great quarterbacks like Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana in finishing his career elsewhere.
Manning and Irsay traded public barbs in the days before the Super Bowl, displaying just how fraught their emotions were over a potential parting. Manning, though, may have indicated how jarring the past few months have been for him the week before the Super Bowl was played in Indianapolis.
“It’s a strange time around here, with all the coaches getting let go,’’ Manning said in an interview. “I guess that’s somewhat normal for a lot of teams, but it hasn’t happened around here much. I’ve been in the facility every day rehabbing, and everybody in the building is walking around on eggshells because nobody knows who is going to get fired next.
“It’s not the kind of environment you like to be in,’’ he said. “It was fun to get out of town.’’
Now he is gone for good, and his availability will lead to a free agency sweepstakes like few others.
Manning’s absence from the Colts this season may have actually enhanced his value, because it laid bare just how many holes, on both offense and defense, Manning was able to cover up for so long. If he is healthy - a significant question given the seriousness of his neck condition and the long rehabilitation it has entailed - Manning remains one of the few quarterbacks so dominant he can instantly transform a franchise.
Manning has been the Colts quarterback for so long that the last quarterback to start a game before he got there was Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh is now the coach of the 49ers, who could be among the teams that try to woo Manning.
Manning could sign immediately, although that is unlikely. Manning has had four procedures on his neck and his arm strength was diminished as a result. He has been working furiously to get in shape, but his ability to play at his usual, extraordinary level remains unknown.
But if he is able to demonstrate to teams that his arm strength has returned, he is expected to be pursued by a number of teams who believe they are just a quarterback away from being Super Bowl contenders. Among the likely suitors: the Dolphins, who are desperate for a star attraction to fill seats and compete with the Miami Heat; the Cardinals, who can offer a climate-controlled stadium, a winnable division, and receiver Larry Fitzgerald; the Seahawks with a young defense and a great running game; the Redskins, who have no viable starting quarterback; and the Jets, who are reeling from a late-season meltdown that has shaken confidence in starter Mark Sanchez.