We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
From: Barry Petchesky
To: Stefan Fatsis, Tom Scocca
Peyton Manning isn't throwing at full strength. This is a perfectly valid piece of news on its own, and it was relayed as such by Peter King on Sunday. But because it's news-less Super Bowl week, and the event is in Indianapolis, and the insatiable NFL monster has to be fed, we're bombarded with questionable sources reaching questionable conclusions till an informative little rehab update has turned into OMG Peyton Manning to retire!
Jason Cole at Yahoo took Peter King's nugget and ran with it, speaking to "two sources with knowledge of Manning's rehabilitation" and two doctors "who [have] not seen Manning." Here is the fact: Manning hasn't shown improvement in his arm strength since he began throwing again in December. Here is the speculation: Everything besides that fact.
We're supposed to infer that Manning has hit a plateau. And if he's plateaued, there's a chance he may not improve. And if he doesn't improve, it might be because his nerves aren't healing. And if his nerves haven't healing, there's a chance they may never heal. And if they never heal, there's a chance Manning may never play again.
This is how you get headlines like "Peyton Manning Likely Will Never Play Football Again, Sources Say."
One of the doctors Cole spoke to says "it can take up to a year to find out exactly how much strength you're going to get back," which should probably be a blaring klaxon in the face of speculation. Manning's most recent neck surgery took place in early September, meaning it hasn't quite been five months. Here is an accurate headline for a story that will not be passed around the Web: "Peyton Manning Not Radically Ahead Of Schedule In Rehab Bid."
Is it troubling that Manning can't point to a radar gun as proof he'll be 100 percent for next season? Sure. It's extra troubling for Jim Irsay, who has to decide whether to wager Manning's upcoming scheduled $28 million payout on the unknowable, and has to place that bet within the next month. The expectation is that Irsay won't take the financial risk, although he's hyperaware of the bad PR that accompanies cutting a franchise player and fan favorite. Thus the Colts (sorry, "sources with knowledge of Manning's rehabilitation") are telling any reporter who'll listen how far behind Manning is on a rehab timetable that doesn't exist. Manning, for his part, told ESPN he's "just going to keep trying to get better, and so far I have."
In a sane world, it would be enough to say that you want to cut your soon-to-be 36-year-old injured quarterback because he costs too much money and you're in position to draft a can't-miss replacement. In the world we actually live in, it requires calling up Peter King and telling him Manning's velocity isn't where it ought to be, then standing back and letting the media machine do the dirty work.