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Peyton Manning free-agent sweepstakes begin

Quarterback PeytManning who will be released by Indianapolis Colts speaks during news conference Indianapolis Wednesday March 3 2012.. Manning 35

Quarterback Peyton Manning, who will be released by the Indianapolis Colts, speaks during a news conference in Indianapolis, Wednesday, March 3, 2012.. Manning, 35, who missed all of last season after a series of operations on his neck, has been the staring quarterback for 13 season, won a record four MVP's and the 2006 Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

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INDIANAPOLIS — Peyton Manning is getting an early glimpse into life as a free agent.

Hours after a tearful, trying farewell news conference in Indianapolis, Manning flew back to his home in Miami and was immediately peppered with questions about his next landing spot. He’d better get used to it. The scene is likely to play out at every destination he visits until he decides where to play next season.

“I haven’t thought about teams and I don’t know who is interested, I really don’t. This is all new to me,” Manning said. “I think my agent has been getting calls at 4 o’clock today since this started. I haven’t talked to him because I literally just got off the plane and am ready to start back on my training again because that’s what I need to do.”

If Manning is healthy, he’ll be the hottest commodity to hit the open market in decades: a Super Bowl-winning quarterback with Hall of Fame credentials.

After the Colts decided not to pick up Manning’s $28 million bonus, team owner Jim Irsay ended months of speculation by releasing the 14-year veteran and longtime face of the franchise. Indianapolis is likely to find Manning’s replacement in April’s draft, presumably Stanford’s Andrew Luck; the Colts have the first overall pick.

For Manning, Irsay and Colts fans, it was heart-wrenching saying goodbye.

Irsay and Manning exchanged hugs, laughs and even took turns fighting back tears during a news conference at the Colts’ team complex. The room is normally used for celebrations such as hiring coaches or general managers or retirements, and it’s decorated with banners of the Colts’ greatest players. Manning’s banner is flanked by two Hall of Famers, Eric Dickerson and John Mackey.

But this was a sad occasion, filled with emotion.

“I do love it here, I love the fans and I will always enjoy having played for such a great team. I will leave the Colts with nothing but good thoughts and gratitude to Jim, the organization, my teammates, the media and especially the fans,” Manning said, his voice cracking. “As I go, I go with just a few words left to say. A few words I want to address to Colts fans everywhere. Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart. I truly have enjoyed being your quarterback.”

At age 35, the man who won one Super Bowl, a record four MVP awards and who helped the Colts land a new stadium and the city’s first Super Bowl is starting over.

Gone will be his longtime friends and teammates and the system he perfected. Manning knew the Colts’ offense so well, he could literally point out a flaw in the defense, flap his arms, bark new play calls and signal the changes to teammates — usually before the play clock expired. Gone, too, will be the familiar No. 18 in blue and white. Irsay promised no Colts’ player would wear that number again.

Instead, Manning must learn the proper free-agent etiquette.

“I have no idea who wants me, what team wants me, how this process works. I don’t know if it’s like college recruiting where you go take visits,” he said. “I mean, this is all so new to me. The Indianapolis Colts are the only team that I’ve ever played for, the only team I ever worked out for.”

Workouts will almost certainly be part of the process as Manning attempts to prove he can perform like his old self after missing the entire 2011 season because of a damaged nerve that caused weakness in his right arm. He had the most recent of his multiple neck surgeries Sept. 8.

On Wednesday, Manning insisted he’s closer than ever to being 100 percent though he’s not completely recovered. Even Irsay acknowledged Manning is on the mend.

“I’m throwing it pretty well. I still have some progress to make, but I’ve come a long way,” Manning said. “That’s been the most fun part is being back out there on the field. I’m doing better, I continue to work hard and hope to continue making progress.”

If he does, there will be plenty of suitors lining up for Manning.

Kansas City coach Romeo Crennel has already said he’s interested. At the recent NFL scouting combine in Indy, Miami coach Joe Philbin didn’t provide a name but certainly described a player matching Manning’s profile when asked what he was looking for in a quarterback. Jets coach Rex Ryan has said his team had already looked at 10 free-agent quarterbacks, and you can bet he’ll take a peek at No. 11, too.

Other rumored destinations include Arizona, Seattle and Washington.

Manning said he does not have a favorite and isn’t even sure who has already called his agent, Tom Condon, who did not return messages left Wednesday by The Associated Press.

Seeing Manning in any logo other than Colts’ trademark horseshoe will be hard to fathom.

“It’s going to be awkward especially if he ends up in the division and we have to play him a couple of times a year. It’s not going to look right. It’s going to be like seeing Joe Montana in a Chiefs uniform,” said IndyCar driver Ed Carpenter, an Indianapolis native who has been attending Colts games since Jeff George was the starting quarterback. “Hopefully, he’ll perform better than Joe did in the Chiefs uniform.”

Irsay said Wednesday he believes Manning will return to form. So does Bill Polian, who drafted Manning with the No. 1 pick in 1998.

So why not keep Manning?

It just didn’t make sense.

The Colts are embarking on an ambitious rebuilding project following a dismal 2-14 season, Indy’s worst in two decades, and want their rookie quarterback to start immediately. Luck is considered the most NFL-ready college quarterback since Manning entered the league.

Manning, meanwhile, is entering the twilight of his career and wants to chase a second Super Bowl ring, something Irsay didn’t believe was feasible in Indy.

“I just think that as a franchise where we are right now with the salary cap and where we are rebuilding, we are definitely a few years away,” Irsay said. “I want to see him (Manning) come back and play great. There is no question about it. It is just that here, just like in 2001 when he was completely healthy and everything else, we didn’t have everything to surround him. I want that opportunity for him, as well, to succeed at the end of his career.”

Irsay and Manning both insisted money was not the issue.

And if Manning winds up in the right spot, the man with 50,000 yards passing, 399 career touchdowns, a 227-game streak of starts and 11 Pro Bowl appearances may finally get that second Super Bowl ring.

“I truly missed just playing quarterback this year,” Manning said. “I’ve done it for such a long time and I love everything about it, and I realize that I’m not going to play forever, and I think I’m going to know the time to stop playing. But right now, I still want to play. I want to get back out there and play. I don’t feel like everybody will say, ‘He has to do this’ or ‘He has to prove that.’ I don’t feel that way. I know how much I love being a quarterback and love football and I want to go play again.”



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