Control is a powerful tool, and Jim Irsay is a man who’s quite used to being in control of everything regarding Peyton Manning and his future, a situation where it’s difficult if not impossible to be in control of anything.

Thursday afternoon Chris Mortensen’s report that Manning had been cleared by his doctors to resume his playing career was greeted with some combination of cautious optimism and conspiracy theories, depending on where your fan affiliation lies. Then as another day of hand shaking and smiling widely for Super Bowl cameras wound down and Irsay took a break from tweeting cryptic Pearl Jam lyrics, the Colts owner issued his official denial of the Manning news.

Manning’s camp included Dr. Robert Watkins, who performed the most recent surgery on his neck. Watkins said he’s optimistic about Manning playing in 2012, and the injury is no longer a safety concern that would put his long-term personal health in danger on the football field.

Irsay’s camp responded by saying that Manning hasn’t passed a physical, and therefore he hasn’t been cleared for anything.

As his agent, Tom Condon is a paid employee of Manning’s camp. So there’s bias and spin with his words too, but they’re powerful nonetheless because of his clearly close relationship with Manning. And after listening to Condon speak, it’s obvious he’s a firm believer that Manning will be on a football field next fall.

The question of which football field will be Manning’s home field still lingers.

In an NFL Network interview this morning Condon definitively said that Manning isn’t done and won’t be retiring. He also echoed Mortensen’s report, saying that Dr. Watkins has assessed Manning’s recovery, and said that his neck is structurally sound.

“He’s said that he can take a hit and play in a football game,” Condon said, although he conceded that Manning wouldn’t be very effective while playing that football game if it was being played tomorrow.

“We anticipate that he’ll play football next year.”

Rich Eisen and the NFL Network panel questioned the timing of Watkins’ report, wondering why crucial information about Manning’s health would be released just days before the Super Bowl with the eyes of the football world fixated on Indianapolis. Condon called the timing “happenstance,” but he understood as we all do that with the NFL’s spotlight focused on Indy, discussion of Manning, Irsay, and the future of the Colts is impossible to avoid this week.

The constant buzz around Manning is of little concern to Condon, whose primary focus is his client’s future as a professional football player.

“What we’re really talking about is have the best back and neck guy in the country done the surgery, and determined that he’s structurally sound? And that’s absolutely true”

Rehabbing is now Manning’s main hurdle, not recovery. It’s just a question of how long that rehab will take.

“He can certainly take a hit and he can certainly play in a football game. Now, how effective would he be? probably not as effective now as he would be a few months from now,” said Condon.

And that’s become the heart of this whole conflict of control. Condon said the word “progress” several times, noting that there’s been substantial improvement since Manning’s last surgery. The March 8 deadline for his $28 million bonus will continue to creep closer. As encouraging as the rehab process may be in its current state, it’s still difficult to envision a steep acceleration over the next month that convinces Irsay and new Colts GM Ryan Grigson to pay Manning a substantial sum, and trust him to play Brett Favre, while Andrew Luck plays Aaron Rodgers for one year or more.

That scenario has always seemed highly unlikely, and pushing the deadline for Manning’s bonus back a week or two won’t change the need for more certainty at a key offensive position that’s current clouded with risk in Indianapolis. Condon didn’t seem very interested in moving the deadline, although he said that it’s “mechanically” possible, but that both sides agreed to the March 8 deadline for “reasons.”

He wouldn’t elaborate much more beyond that, but those dots are easy to connect. Irsay knew about the long-term risk of his investment, and he gave himself an out clause.

The conflicting statements will continue to fly as both sides play innocent and affirm their positions, but the end is still looking very much like a formality. Irsay will use that out clause, and Manning will be a free agent.

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