Peyton Manning’s status in Indianapolis will likely be the story of the 2012 offseason. In fact, the Manning-Andrew Luck conundrum is so unique and fascinating that it’s already making bigger headlines than NFL playoff storylines are.

The hubbub on Wednesday: anonymous Jets players would like their team to replace Mark Sanchez with Manning.

The money quote, per Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News:

“Come on. That’s a no-brainer,” a Jets source said. “If you have a chance to get a healthy 36-year-old Peyton Manning and you don’t do it, then you’re stupid. If I could get a healthy 36-year-old Peyton Manning, then, hell yeah, I would trade Sanchez.”

The key word, of course, is “healthy.” There’s no guarantee that Manning will ever be the same quarterback he was before a trio of neck surgeries cost him the entire 2011 season. And although quarterbacks have relatively long shelf lives in NFL terms, 36 isn’t young by any measure.

Consider…

  • At 36, Brett Favre threw a career-high 29 interceptions while posting a passer rating of just 70.9. After that season, many figured Favre was done. However, he battled back to have two of the best years of his career in 2007 (age 38) and 2009 (age 40).
  • John Elway had one of the best seasons of his career at 36 and went on to win the Super Bowl at 37 and 38.
  • Rich Gannon went to the Pro Bowl after throwing for nearly 4,000 yards and posting a 27-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio at 36. The next year, he led the Raiders to the Super Bowl and was a first-team All-Pro.
  • At 36, Steve Young was a Pro Bowler with over 3,000 yards and a passer rating of 104.7.
  • Warren Moon and Kurt Warner, both of whom had late starts to their NFL careers, made a combined six Pro Bowls and posted some phenomenal numbers after the age of 35.

But…

  • Dan Marino’s numbers dropped off a cliff in his age 36 season. And they never got better until he retired two years later.
  • Injuries and poor play also got the best of Boomer Esiason, Randall Cunningham and Jim Kelly exactly at the age of 36.
  • Quarterbacks who didn’t even make it to 36: Troy Aikman, Ken Anderson, Drew Bledsoe and Joe Namath.

My favorite comparison might be to Joe Montana, who was on Manning’s level of eliteness in his 30s, earning All-Pro honors at the age of 34 in 1990. Like Manning, Montana missed his entire age 35 season (in his case, it was an elbow injury). But Montana was barely able to play at 36 too, and that ended his San Francisco career. He went to Kansas City for the final two years of his career, but was never the same again.

And that’s what must worry the fans of any team considering giving tens of millions of dollars to No. 18.

It’s almost a certainty at this point that Jim Irsay and new Colts general manager Ryan Grigson will draft Luck first overall in April. And logically, that probably means Manning’s done in Indy.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter in his mailbag today:

“There’s one issue that’s going to be difficult to overcome: Andrew Luck needs to be on the field on Day 1, just as Manning was on the field on Day 1. And then there’s the health of Manning’s neck. No one knows whether he’ll be able to play again, though Manning and his doctors are hopeful. And keep in mind, Irsay said that he never would trade Manning. So if Manning is going to play somewhere else, it’s going to be after he’s released. And if he’s released, he can pick where he wants to play. So my question is this: What would appeal to you the most if you were a quarterback: the New York Jets, Miami or Washington? There are lots of twists and turns left in this story. But it will be the most intriguing story of the offseason.”

But I’m not prepared to write Indy off. Irsay also says he wouldn’t trade Manning, which is probably not relevant in this specific scenario but still goes to show how committed the Colts are to their long-time franchise pivot. It wouldn’t shock me to see Manning back with the Colts in some capacity in 2012.

Here are my top five potential destinations for Manning:

1. Miami — Dolphins owner Stephen Ross appears to be making a true financial push to revive an organization that has been mediocre ever since Marino hung ‘em up. If he’s willing to pay for Jeff Fisher, he might go after Manning. And Manning might see that he’s the missing piece to a potential Super Bowl puzzle. With an elite quarterback, this is a Super Bowl-worthy team. Besides, it’s South Florida, where the elements aren’t a factor for the old man.

2. New York — It probably wouldn’t be Manning’s top choice, but the same front office brought in Favre three years ago. Are they prepared to give up on the highly paid Sanchez this early? The way Rex Ryan and anonymous players have been talking, it wouldn’t surprise me if they made a run at Manning.

3. Indianapolis — A lot can happen between now and the draft, and there’s a chance that the Colts and Manning agree to move back the deadline to exercise his option bonus of $28 million from early March to later in the offseason. Still, if Indy drafts Luck, I have a hard time seeing Manning in blue in 2012.

4. Arizona — This is another destination that would probably intrigue Manning if he were to hit the open market. Climate’s not a factor. Good young defense in place. Larry Fitzgerald catching passes. I doubt the Cardinals give up on Kevin Kolb this quickly, but they can get out of that contract with relative ease. An available Peyton Manning might be enough to cause them to pull the trigger.

5. Seattle — It was either Seattle or Washington here. I think the Redskins are more likely to chase Manning, but I think Manning is more likely to prefer the Seahawks, who provide a much better supporting cast.

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