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 Life Without Manning Leads to Thoughts of Life Beyond Him

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Join date : 2010-11-12

PostSubject: Life Without Manning Leads to Thoughts of Life Beyond Him   Mon Oct 31, 2011 7:50 am

It has long been a truism in sports: there is perhaps no player more important in any team game than the quarterback.

But this year, in a way even conventional wisdom could not have predicted, that fact is playing out in a spectacular and ugly way. The Indianapolis Colts, a model of stability and success in the N.F.L. for 12 years with Peyton Manning as their quarterback, have fallen apart without him.

Their record is 0-7 after an embarrassing 62-7 loss in prime time Sunday to the New Orleans Saints, a team they played in the Super Bowl just two years ago. And their on-field futility has led to an unlikely conclusion: Manning, who has won the N.F.L.’s Most Valuable Player award an unprecedented four times but has not played this season because of a neck injury, might actually have been underrated all these years.

“I’d like to tell you no,” the Colts’ general manager, Chris Polian, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “But the record is what it is.”

The damage may be so great that the franchise could soon be faced with an existential question: is it time to end the stability that has made the Colts perennial championship contenders and prepare for the future by drafting a player who is regarded as the next Manning — Stanford’s Andrew Luck?

“He still has eligibility, so let me use that as an excuse to not answer the question,” Polian said of Luck, who is widely expected to enter the N.F.L. draft after this season.

The Colts had no urgent need to address the future before this season. They had won at least 10 games for nine consecutive years and the Super Bowl in 2007. But this season essentially ended for them before it even began when Manning had his third neck operation in less than two years to correct a disk problem. Polian said that although Manning has resumed all nonfootball activities like running, he was “a ways off” from resuming any football activity, like throwing a football, and that the team had not had many conversations about that yet. He said Manning was still waiting for the nerves in his neck to begin functioning fully, seemingly dashing any hope that he could return this year even though he has not been placed on season-ending injured reserve.

There was little question the Colts would struggle without him. They have been constructed over more than a decade to enhance what Manning does: because he had never missed a game, they paid little attention to having a capable backup quarterback; the running game was subjugated to the pass; the defense was built to play with a lead because the Colts almost always had one. Losing him on the eve of the opener only exacerbated the blow.

There was little time to adjust the roster to allow for a significant change in their style of play — an inexperienced offensive line built mostly for pass protection, for instance, is not ideal when a team wants to emphasize the running game.

“We’re still in that process of adjusting, and trying to get other people settled in,” Polian said.

Then injuries at other positions began to pile up, too; last week, the already fragile offensive line took a hit. And other holes in the roster, some the result of underachieving draft picks, were exposed. For five games, the Colts at least kept games close, until the Saints laid bare all the problems at once: the turnovers, the missed tackles, a dismantling so complete that center Jeff Saturday drew attention when he noted that not only were the Colts outplayed, they were also outcoached.

“I was pretty shocked,” said the former Colts coach Tony Dungy, who was in Indianapolis last week to interview Colts players in his role as an analyst for NBC’s “Football Night in America.” “Guys were talking about being in games, how no one was discouraged. I knew they’d have a tough time winning that game, but I didn’t foresee the turnovers, the overall collapse of the defense. It was pretty stunning. If you’re winning and you have a game like that, it’s a blip on the radar. When you’re not winning, it takes on a bigger meaning.”

Polian does not seem so sure. He admits that the hardest victory to get this season will be the first one, but he said players continued to work and play hard.

There is little question that Manning might have made a difference in most of the losses. Charley Casserly, the CBS analyst who, as general manager of the Houston Texans, helped construct a team that is now poised to topple the Colts’ dominance in their division, figures that if Manning were playing, the Colts would be in first place or very close right now.

“There’s a fine line between winning and losing in this league,” Casserly said. “You could be in a lot of fourth-quarter games and get in a stretch where you can’t win one.”

Dungy and Casserly said they still believed the Colts had enough talent remaining to win a few games — perhaps five or six of their remaining nine — and certainly to be competitive. If that happens, Sunday night’s debacle — the Saints’ 62 points equaled the most in a game by a team since the N.F.L.’s merger with the American Football League in 1970 — will be chalked up to an aberration.

That may be enough to calm the angst that has been building in Indianapolis. Coach Jim Caldwell’s job status is in question, the front office is under fire and even the quarterback the Colts signed to replace Manning — the former Giant Kerry Collins — is hurt and out for the season.

Polian said the team had largely assumed a bunker mentality, tuning out much of the chatter about what changes might come after the season. But he said that the team had a great respect for Caldwell, and that he did not get enough credit for what he accomplished last season, when the Colts made the playoffs even though they were decimated by injuries.

“We’ve always tried to be consistent and stable; that’s been a key to the success we’ve been able to have,” Polian said. “I don’t think that will change. We’ll try to look at everything from a realistic viewpoint. What a season like this does, it gives you a very stark and concrete realism, where in the past, if things are going well and you’re winning a few more games, you may be able to gloss some things over or look through rose-colored glasses. It gives you a cold, hard reality of where you’re at.”

Part of that, Polian said, is also recognizing that there are some good things happening, too. Younger players are developing. Until the recent spate of injuries, the offensive line was improving. All of that was washed away against the Saints, though.

In the aftermath of Sunday night’s loss, the Colts owner Jim Irsay took to his Twitter feed, apologizing to fans for what he called a “titanic collapse” and assuring them that solutions were coming. On his radio show Monday, the team vice chairman, Bill Polian, laid most of the blame on the inexplicable disappearance of the defense — probably not a good sign for the future of the defensive coordinator Larry Coyer.

But by Tuesday, Irsay seemed to be taking a more Zen approach, perhaps signaling that he planned no significant upheaval.

“Records in sports become records because human accomplishment is finite; 7/12 win seasons, 9 straight playoff appearances, all things must pass,” he wrote on Twitter. “7 weeks of losing is not 7 years, but the emotion of ‘the now’ 4gets the muscle memory of recent glory. The fire 2 seek greatness again burns brite. Just because you perceive problems on the horizon, and you possess solutions .. doesn’t mean they are avoidable and implementation is instant. Things are made worse when panic looks friendly.”

The Colts are in an odd situation now. Their locker room, and even their coaching staff, is populated by people who have had little recent experience with losing. Without the playoffs as a carrot, the test will be whether Caldwell can get the players to continue to work and compete as they usually do. Caldwell shows little emotion and that consistency should help him keep the Colts steady after such a rocky week, Dungy said.

Chris Polian said he expected to know more about his team — whether the loss to the Saints was indicative of players giving up — by Sunday afternoon, when the Colts face a division rival, the Tennessee Titans. They will not be favored to win, of course, but Polian is looking for more subtle signals.

“If we play well and bounce back and have good effort and compete Sunday, hopefully it’s not a sign of a larger problem,” Polian said. “We don’t anticipate that.”

But if the Colts continue to lose, Irsay and Polian will be confronted with a decision that will have even greater implications than whether they fire a few coaches. With Luck the consensus choice to be the first pick in next spring’s draft, the Colts could be forced to consider a once unthinkable option — selecting Luck and beginning to wind down Manning’s career in Indianapolis. The Colts will have plenty of competition for the first overall pick in the draft. St. Louis and Miami are winless, too, and Minnesota and Arizona have one victory each.

With Manning’s future uncertain — particularly if he is unable to test himself this season — even Dungy said the Colts must take Luck if they have the chance, with the possibility that if Manning can return, they trade Luck for what Dungy said would be a king’s ransom. Or the Colts could simply — stunningly — set Manning free in the off-season before he is due a $28 million roster bonus and make Luck their starter.

“We are hopeful of not being in that draft position,” Polian said.

The last time they were, they took Manning. It has been a long while since the Colts had to worry about such a prize and the problems that lead to it.

“An old scout who is gone now said, ‘When pride goes down, you’ve got to swallow a little harder,’ ” Polian said. “So you take a big gulp and try to get the next one.”

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