Chris Cullum, Cullum’s Corner

In a recent Papa John’s commercial, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning plays a referee in a spoof of the infamous botched coin flip that doomed Jerome Bettis and the Pittsburgh Steelers back in 1998. When a startled Bettis sees that Manning is the referee, Peyton simply replies, “a man’s gotta work.”

Meanwhile, Manning’s younger brother Eli and his arch-nemesis Tom Brady are set to face off in the Super Bowl next weekend in Manning’s home stadium.

The last time Manning played a football game, he had to watch Rex Ryan and the Jets advance onto the Divisional Round of the playoffs, and the last time he was on the sport’s biggest stage, he was watching the back of Tracy Porter’s jersey grow smaller and smaller as Porter sprinted away from him for a Super Bowl clinching touchdown.

It’s cruelty in its most gut-wrenching form.

Much has been made of the 2011 season in Indy, and even more has been made of the impending Manning vs. Andrew Luck decision the Colts have to make.

A recipient of three neck surgeries in the past two years, it’s entirely likely that we’ll never see Peyton Manning on a football field again.

Don’t believe me? He’ll be 36 entering next season and he’ll be (presumably) in the company of Andrew Luck and (probably) will be playing for one of the worst teams in football.

If the Colts trade the No. 1 pick in this year’s NFL Draft, they’ll still be a bad team in a conference with the New England Patriots, Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, among others. If Manning goes elsewhere, he’ll be leaving everything he’s ever known in the world of professional football.

And for what? Another year or two to chase a Super Bowl?

Any team that is in a position to contend for a championship in the near future has its quarterback, and any team willing to acquire Manning will need to secure a lot of resources (money and talent) to make it happen.

That’s a problem because the teams that have been linked to Manning’s name — the Jets and Washington Redskins among others — need more than just a quarterback, so locking up an aging signal caller with a bad neck would probably do more harm than good.

So … where does that leave him?

If he does play again, in all likelihood it will be with the Colts as a mentor for Luck. If we’re to believe everything we read about the Stanford University superstar, however, then Luck is ready to play from day one, leaving Manning wearing a backwards hat and holding a clipboard, which won’t happen.

So again, where does that leave Manning?

If he goes back to Indy, he’s either the aging starter on his way out or the mentor to the kid who will be taking his place. If he leaves the Colts, then he’s Brett Favre on the Jets, or Johnny Unitas on the San Diego Chargers, both of which ended terribly.

As much as I want to see Manning come back and try to add another Super Bowl ring to his resume, I think his best move is to walk away.

The Colts have said that they’ll draft Luck with the No. 1 pick, so the writing is on the wall in Indianapolis. Leaving will give him nothing but a few extra bucks (OK, a lot of extra bucks) and some extra stats.

One of the best quarterbacks we’ve ever seen seemingly has nowhere to go. Get a good look at him the next time you see that Papa John’s commercial, it could be the last time you see him on the gridiron.

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