Peyton Manning: A Story in Succession Planning

Arguably the biggest succession planning story in sports is reaching its apex at this very moment.

Peyton Manning, the longtime, sure-to-be-a-first-ballot Hall of Fame NFL quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, is parting ways with the organization. As these words stream from my fingertips to the page (or to a page on a Web browser), Colts owner Jim Irsay is addressing the media on the organization’s decision to release the legendary Manning, who was drafted by the Colts with the first overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft.

Manning’s departure from the Colts is significant, not only for the NFL and sports fans everywhere, but for talent managers searching for stories that shed light on the challenges that come with working in the profession.

Sports organizations, like any others, place a heavy emphasis on talent. Without a great deal of talent, sports teams would not be successful — talent is the engine that drives fan participation, ticket sales, etc. In essence, talent drives the business.

Before Manning was what he is today, he was a decorated college quarterback out of the University of Tennessee, drafted by a down-in-the-dumps Colts franchise that had been searching for that marquee talent to take it to the mountaintop of success in the NFL — success the organization had failed to achieve since relocating from Baltimore.

Throughout his career, Manning catapulted the franchise to become one of the league’s most successful. Its success was capped during the 2006-07 season, when the Colts won their first Super Bowl since moving to Indianapolis by defeating the Chicago Bears, 29-17.

Manning became the symbol of the Colts. He was, some might argue, to the Colts as Steve Jobs was to Apple. Manning’s superb play and incredibly affable demeanor helped build legions of Colts fans in the Hoosier state — a state better known for basketball. As someone who lived in Indiana for the better part of five years, I can say you could hardly go anywhere on a Sunday without seeing waves of bright, royal blue “Manning” jerseys.

But leading up to the 2011 regular season, Manning found himself sidelined with what some called a career-threatening neck injury. Manning had experienced some nerve damage in his neck, from no incident in particular, and was forced to miss the entire 2011 season. Without him, the Colts struggled mightily, posting a 2-14 record as Manning’s replacement, a young and inexperienced Curtis Painter, struggled to take the reins and succeed.

What the Colts’ losing record did do, however, was put the organization in a position to take the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL draft, and the chance to take another stud college quarterback — like Manning was — in Standford’s Andrew Luck.

With Manning having aged and gone through four neck surgeries in the last year, as many media outlets have reported, the Colts needed to make a decision: keep Manning and draft Luck, with the succession plan that he would take over in a few years, or let Manning go and hand the keys to Luck right away.

Today we were told the answer: Irsay is choosing to let Manning go, with the hope that Luck is able to succeed him as the franchise’s marquee name at quarterback. A bold move.

Situations like this are common in talent management. Highly regarded leaders move on — whether by retirement or otherwise — and talent managers are forced to rely on a succession plan. But what makes the Colts’ situation so interesting is the confidence Irsay is exhibiting in an inexperienced Luck by letting Manning go entirely.

The details, of course, are financial: Manning was to be due some $28 million to play for the team in 2012, whereas Luck’s maximum contract as a rookie would not be as high.

What talent managers might now be interested in is to see if Irsay’s succession plan pays off. For that, we’ll have to wait until September, when the 2012 NFL season resumes, and Manning, no longer a Colt, is somewhere else.