Peyton Manning's future with the Indianapolis Colts is in doubt.

Manning missed the entire 2011 NFL regular season after he underwent his third neck surgery-a cervical neck fusion-in less than a year in September for a herniated disk. Reports said that recovery from such a surgery would at least take eight to 10 weeks.

But for Manning the fusion process was slower than expected, and even Colts owner Jim Irsay knew there would be a slim chance of the four-time MVP taking a snap all year.

Manning
Manning is a risk whether he stays with the Colts or ends up elsewhere. (Reuters/Sean Gardner)

I didn't say Peyton out 4season FOR SURE,keeping him on ActiveRoster n taking it month by month/Outside chance of return n December possible, wrote Irsay on Twitter.

Score one for Irsay. Rather than calling shots on the field in December, Manning helped call shots from the sidelines and the booth.

And what were the end results when the Colts' season ended without Manning to lead the way on the field? A 1-15 record, a fired head coach, vice chairman and general manager and, most glaringly, speculation that Manning is retiring. After all, No. 18 is 35 years old, still recovering from iffy neck issues and is now part of an organization that has lost its perennial stability and clout.

Manning has denied retiring. Yet the Colts should understand that even keeping the future Hall-of-Famer around would be risky.

Whether or not Manning himself sees the light at the end of the tunnel, Irsay sure does, or seems to imply so. He has made it known to the media that Indianapolis will select a quarterback-either Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III-with the No. 1 overall pick in April's draft, no matter the status of Manning's health by that time.

With Griffin and Luck and the way it's shaping up at the top of the draft - could very likely go one and two like with Peyton and Ryan Leaf, Irsay told ESPN. It's most likely one of those quarterbacks that you really feel is the best player in the draft, and where we're at moving forward you can't pass that up. I don't think anyone would expect that.

Other teams who are in desperate need of a quarterback that can provide some stability also believe that Manning is close to finished, not for his career, but rather the Colts. The Miami Herald reported that the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals and Washington Redskins all seek to employ Manning if the Colts actually let him go and he becomes a free agent.

But how sure can those teams even be that Manning will produce at the same level he always has? Add on to the age and the injury a new system, one that may practically be incomparable to what Manning has been used to for 14 years, and what you have is a risk as well.

Irsay told NFL Network last month that if Manning can get healthy, though, he will be back with the team-that is, if the Colts decide by March 8 whether to pay Manning a $28 million roster bonus.

Whatever happens, happens, said Manning to the Indianapolis Star. I can't give you a prediction because Jim (Irsay) and I will sit down at some point and he'll get a feel for where I am and I'll get a sense of what direction he wants to go. Right now, I have no idea.

Nevertheless, Manning also told the Star that it's well-documented that he wants to remain with the Colts, noting how much he loves the fans and the city.

At the same time, the Herald reported that he would not be willing to push back the deadline to give the Colts more time to make a decision to let him go.

All there is left now is the waiting game.

The light at the end of the tunnel will imminently get brighter in that span, regardless if Manning mulls staying, going or just plain calling it quits. Unfortunately for Manning, he is at the point in his long, storied tunnel where he has finally become vulnerable, or, dare it be said, expendable.

It might just be a few more paces then before he finally steps out.