NFL provides prime business lesson

Sentimentality has no place in maintaining success

            When Indianapolis walked off the field victorious after the AFC divisional round playoff game last Sunday, Colts owner Jim Irsay was relieved of a burden he’d carried for more than four years.

In 2011, with more uncertainties than solid information, Irsay was forced to make a decision that would affect his then-$1.057 billion business – stand pat with a proven, yet potentially damaged commodity or move forward with a uniquely talented, yet unproven prospect.

Peyton Manning, face of the NFL and one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game, appeared as if his stellar career was coming to a crashing halt. In February 2010, he had an unsuccessful surgery to repair a pinched nerve in his neck. He played through pain in 2010, leading the Colts to a 10-6 record and division crown.

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In May 2011, he had a procedure to repair the bulging disk that caused the nerve pain.

Two months later, Manning and the Colts agreed on a five-year, $90 million contract, which appeared to position the legend with the team until he decided to retire. But before the season started, something wasn’t right. Manning had three procedures in five months to repair the herniated disc. The final surgery in September fused vertebrae to stabilize his neck and he missed the entire 2011 season recovering.

The Colts went 2-14 that year and earned the top pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.

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Irsay was forced to choose a path for the future of his business – stay with Manning, the quarterback who made every start in his 14-year NFL career, never missed a game with an injury, and won four Most Valuable Player Awards and a Super Bowl, or use the top pick to select Stanford University quarterback Andrew Luck, an All-American who CBS Sports draft analyst Rob Rang called “the best prospect he has ever scouted.”

Sentimentality said to stick with Manning, who is seen as the reason for turning the team from a doormat to a perennial Super Bowl contender and helping the franchise increase in revenue from $127 million in 2002 to $252 million a decade later.

In February 2012, Manning’s doctor said the neck was firmly fixed and fully healed, and cleared him for NFL play. There was hope Manning would return unfazed at best and a top-10 NFL quarterback at worst. But concern the nerve might not fully heal and his arm strength and ability to return to his previous greatness remained. The key to his success would be to keep his core and leg muscles as strong as possible.

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Irsay was forced to weigh the value of holding on to the fading icon or using the top pick to go in a new direction. On March 6, 2012, the Colts released Manning, two days before he was to receive a $28 million roster bonus.

The next month, the Colts made Luck the No. 1 pick, and in July signed him to a four-year, $22 million contract. He’s led the Colts to the playoffs and appeared in the Pro Bowl, the NFL’s All-Star Game, every year he’s been in a pro, won division titles in 2013 and 2014 and topped the league in touchdown passes this season.

Manning landed with the Denver Broncos, where in 2012 he led the team to the playoffs on his was to earning his 12th Pro Bowl appearance and the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year Award. He had one of the best season’s an NFL player has ever enjoyed in 2013. He set the NFL records for most touchdowns (55) , passing yards (5,477) in a season, and team scoring with 606 points, becoming the first team to ever to eclipse 600 points in a season. He started the 2014 season where he left off last year, but in the second half of the season he wasn’t the same player fans are accustomed to seeing. A tear in his left thigh muscles is officially being blamed for his dip in performance, but many are wondering the lack of zip on his throws and poor accuracy in the second half of the season is due to recurring nerve pain in his neck.

When the Colts and Broncos met last week, Manning appeared as haggard as a 38-year-old, 17-year veteran possibly could. Questions abound on his playing future, especially after Denver parted ways with their head coach, John Fox, this week, and appear on the cusp of a complete rebuilding.

In October 2013, Manning told the Washington Post, “I don’t believe I throw quite the same as before I was injured. A lot of that is injury, a lot of it is being 37 years old, and a lot is playing with a new team. I’ve had a lot of change. It’s hard to know what percentage is what. I’m just trying to be the best player I can be in this new chapter.”

He said that in the middle of one of the best seasons an NFL quarterback has ever played. Another year older, and now recuperating a leg injury, we may have seen the end of an era should he retire.

Luck's Colts defeated Manning's Broncos 24-13 on Sunday, and are now a step away from the Super Bowl. Indy will face the New England Patriots on Sunday in the AFC Championship.

Irsay and the Colts, no doubt, were in a perfectly lucky position to be able to draft Luck after Manning’s injury and hand off leadership of the franchise from a legend to a legend in the making.

“I knew it was the right thing for the Colts,” Irsay said this week to the Indianapolis Star of cutting Manning. “Emotionally, it was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. In professional football, it's about winning, and you have to be able to make the decisions that are best for the franchise.”

That’s the bottom line. No matter how emotionally attached, leaders have to position their businesses for continued success or face the possibility of falling short of their ultimate goals.

Today, Forbes values the Colts at $1.4 billion, with $285 million in revenue and $61 million in operating income. If Luck can overcome Manning’s nemesis this week and go on to win a Super Bowl in his fourth year in the league, expect his and his team’s values to go deep.

 

 

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