Peyton Manning was once a Ferrari, and he might still be the quarterback’s equivalent of a sleek sports car next year, but probably not. Uncertainty will continue to linger as the days tick down to March 8, but even an older Ferrari in disrepair is still rarely available at a discounted rate.

Manning is that aging and decaying dream vehicle, but to remain in the Colts’ parking lot, team owner Jim Irsay is asking him to become a soccer mom van and take a sizable pay cut. Irsay would welcome Manning back to Indianapolis next fall, even with that uncertainty still lingering, but only if the cost–and therefore the risk assumed by the franchise–is manageable and significantly lower.

That’s the latest turn in the ongoing chess game after Irsay spoke to the Indianapolis Star, saying that the two sides can “make it work if he wants to be here.”

Irsay spoke using nice, polite, politically correct contract language, but the meaning hidden behind his words is clear. He wants Manning back, but only if he’s healthy, and only if the contract reflects the uncertainty of his health, a physical state that can’t be guaranteed or even properly forecasted. Therefore, what he’s asking is nearly impossible.

“I want him to be able to make the choice. We would love to have him back here if he can get healthy and we can look at doing a contract that reflects the uncertainty of the . . . healing process with the regeneration of the nerve.’’

The Star’s Bob Kravitz tweeted that Irsay said it’s now up to Manning if he wants to return, but he’d have to do it at a much lower cap hit in 2012. Manning and Irsay will meet within the next week for more formal discussions.

It’s impossible to address the back and forth salvos between Irsay and Manning without plotting the pawn movement during an ongoing battle to save face in the unforgiving eye of the public. There’s a cyclical and exhausting pattern to any Manning development now, and it usually starts with a report from a trusted source, and shortly after Irsay tweets a denial and some cryptic Van Halen lyrics.

So forgive us for being cynical even if this story started directly with Irsay. If we indulge Irsay’s words for a second, the outcome is the owner asking Manning to compromise significantly on salary, something the four-time MVP likely won’t be willing to do. He may come down a bit and restructure his contract, but this is a quarterback who’s been reading the scribbled writing on the wall that signals the end of his career for an entire season.

That end is nearly here, and Manning knows he needs to get paid before his existence consists solely of Mastercard commercials. By painting himself as the saint who extends a feeble olive branch to Indy’s long-time quarterback savior, Irsay is in turn slopping a can of villain paint on Manning if he cracks that branch and flees Indy.

Manning’s five-year, $90 million contract he signed last August will pay him $17 million for the 2012 season, which doesn’t include the $28 million bonus he’s due to be paid on March 8. While there’s a romantic feeling to Manning accepting less to stay, it’s difficult to believe that Irsay’s words and his offer are sincere. This is a ploy, and a weak one, because with Andrew Luck coming at the end of April, the Colts will be left to pay Manning and Luck roughly a combined $22 million.

Even a steep compromise by Manning (let’s say $4 million) means Irsay’s still dedicating $18 million against the cap to two quarterbacks, with the majority of that funneling to a 35-year-old who’s still dealing with a Derek Zoolander problem.

Romance isn’t always reality, even on Valentine’s Day.