Peyton Manning has been medically cleared by two doctors, including Dr. Robert Watkins, who performed the most recent surgery on the Indianapolis Colts quarterback's neck, to resume his NFL career, sources told ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen and ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.
The sources said Watkins examined Manning recently in Los Angeles and concluded the stability in his neck would have allowed the quarterback to play this Sunday if the nerves in his arm had regenerated to a satisfactory performance level.
Watson also instructed the quarterback to continue an aggressive rehabilitation path that provides an optimistic outlook for Manning to play in 2012. Watkins performed Manning's spinal fusion on Sept. 8, and on Dec. 1 declared that the fusion had achieved "firm fixation."
Watkins, according to the sources, joined Colts neurosurgeon Dr. Hank Feuer in clearing Manning to play. One source said that Feuer recently told Manning, "If you were my own son, I'd tell (you) to go play."
In addition to Manning's optimistic words expressed in an interview with ESPN on Tuesday, in which he indicated he plans to resume his playing career, the medical clearance by his two doctors, the sources said, will bolster his determination to play in 2012.
What remains in question is the timeline in which Manning's nerve regeneration to his triceps will improve to the point where he is throwing passes in the manner that helped him win four MVP awards during his 13-year career.
According to one source familiar with Manning's medical review, "It's not a safety issue; it's a performance issue." This source added that Manning is "making progress."
The source said Manning had a throwing session Tuesday with two of his Colts receivers -- Anthony Gonzalez and Blair White -- at an undisclosed location and that Manning has spent numerous recent days throwing to at least one wide receiver, aiming to regain as much strength as possible in his arm.
However, the source said Manning still cannot pinpoint a date when his performance will reach an acceptable level to him. The source alluded that it might take to the one-year anniversary of Manning's May 23rd, 2011 surgery on a bulging disk in his neck.
Manning and Colts owner Jim Irsay have both said they expect to sit down after the Super Bowl to discuss his future with the team as a March 8 deadline nears in which Manning is due a $28 million option bonus that will trigger the final four years of a five-year, $90 million contract he signed before the 2011 season. The quarterback already received $26 million as part of that deal.
Manning has expressed a desire to settle his future with the Colts "sooner than later." There is widespread belief around the league that Irsay will not exercise the $28 million bonus. Irsay was not available for comment.
Yet should the Colts opt not to exercise the option, they would be forced to release Manning, who would immediately become a free agent. And so, while the NFL's free-agent signing period is set to being with the commencement of a new league year on March 13, Manning could be a free agent as early as next week.
If Manning becomes an unrestricted free agent, several teams are expected to bid for him, including the Washington Redskins, Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals and possibly the New York Jets, among others.
Teams such as Arizona already have debated the merits of pursuing Manning behind closed doors. Some people within the Cardinals organization believe Manning could do for Arizona what Kurt Warner once did, propelling the team into an instant playoff contender.
Manning likely would be willing to sign a contract that would tie bonuses and salary to his roster status for 2012, and sources say that he will heavily factor in a team's ability to have a roster capable of competing for a playoff spot and, consequently, a Super Bowl title.
Trading Manning no longer is an option. Irsay has stated he will not trade Manning -- which means he would have to pick up the $28 million bonus to retain the quarterback's rights -- and he also will not trade the No. 1 pick in the April draft, when the Colts are expected to select Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck or possibly Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. Many NFL executives expect Luck to be the pick.
While it is well known that Manning philosophically believes a quarterback who is the first pick in the draft needs to start from day one and wants to avoid the potential controversy that could develop in that situation, the Colts also have aligned their coaching staff with Manning-friendly offensive assistants.
New Colts coach Chuck Pagano recently hired Bruce Arians as the team's offensive coordinator and retained former offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen as the quarterback coach. Arians was Manning's first quarterback coach with the Colts form 1998-2000, and Manning offered Pagano a strong endorsement on Arians last week when the new coach and quarterback met.
Despite the fact that some have wondered if Manning play again, the signs have been encouraging, even dating back to December.
In December, Watkins released a statement through the Colts that said: "X-ray and CT examination of the surgical area shows that the fusion performed in September has achieved firm fixation. Peyton now will be allowed to increase the intensity and breadth of his workouts as tolerated.
"There remains every indication that his recovery will continue. There still is no timetable for Peyton's return to practice, which is one of many steps in his expected return to game action. He is working hard on a rehabilitation program outlined in conjunction with myself, Erin Barill and Peyton. His response to this plan in the future will dictate his return date."
That is what has happened. Manning has intensified his workouts and now those close to him are more optimistic than ever that he will be playing in 2012.
Information from ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen and ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter was used in this report.