The sun rises and sets in Indianapolis on the shoulders of four-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning, so this season’s Colts outlook includes an obvious proviso: If Manning recovers from a second neck surgery in as many offseasons, the perennial AFC South champions should be legitimate contenders to reach Super Bowl XLVI and play at home at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Without him, the Colts aren’t in the conversation. All indications are that his will be a quick recovery from a “minimally invasive” procedure to repair a disc/nerve issue. Manning’s other pain in the neck was resolved thanks to his willingness to accept a five-year, $90-million contract that freed up cash to re-sign running back Joseph Addai.
The most looming questions pertain to the health of others — injuries subtracted too many key players in 2010 — as well as the offense’s inability to convert in short yardage and a speed defense that was overpowered or worn down at times last year.
The Colts needed to inject youth and strength to an aging offensive line that didn’t drive defenders back and too often relied upon Manning to step away from pass-rushers. First-round pick Anthony Castonzo should be a huge addition at left tackle, the kind of talent that can handle both run- and pass-blocking. If second-round pick Ben Ijalana winds up at guard, the Colts become much bigger and stronger rather quickly.
Despite season-ending injuries to tight end Dallas Clark (wrist) and receiver Austin Collie (concussions), Manning passed for a career-high 4,700 yards. But his yards per pass attempt fell to 6.9, the lowest since his rookie year. He didn’t have as much time to let pass-catchers run routes. Clark should be back to his old self, which means he’ll terrorize nickel corners, safeties and linebackers in coverage.
The 17–16 playoff loss to the Jets started with three failures on 3rd-and-1. Bruising running back Delone Carter was taken in the fourth round because of his ability to run through his shoulder pads. The Colts still probably won’t be a strong rushing team, but Addai’s return was essential. He breaks a few runs, is elusive after the catch and is outstanding at picking up blitzes.
Wide receiver Reggie Wayne is in the final year of his contract and, at 32, says he’s in the kind of shape that makes him feel 25. But Manning only threw to him once against the Jets, which had the five-time Pro Bowl star fuming. He returns as if he has something to prove.
The wild cards are Collie, fourth-year wideout Pierre Garçon and fifth-year receiver Anthony Gonzalez. If Collie sustains another concussion — he took three game-exiting shots last year — he’s likely finished. Garçon has had monster games with incredible catches but still drops too many passes. Gonzo has talent but was hurt more than healthy the past two years. It’s a contract year for the former first-round pick, who has been a disappointment thus far.
The Colts finally moved on and let oft-injured safety Bob Sanders leave via free agency. They brought back safety Melvin Bullitt and drafted defensive tackle Drake Nevis in the third round. Pro Bowl defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are arguably the game’s best pass-rushing tandem with a combined 21 sacks last year, but the Colts let one of their most physical defenders, linebacker Clint Session, sign with rival Jacksonville. Second-year linebackers Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner can handle the outside, and free agent addition Ernie Sims is a proven tackler in the middle.
It still could come down to the stoutness of the interior. Defensive tackle Antonio Johnson was re-signed and will join third-year pro Fili Moala, free agent acquisition Tommie Harris and Nevis. The Colts play a gap-penetration defense. It works when guys are disruptive and in gaps. It breaks down when they’re not, because linemen can shove them aside.
The safety position is key, because the Colts often cheat one into the box. Bullitt grew a lot subbing for Sanders. Safety Antoine Bethea is a Pro Bowl-caliber stopper. Cornerback Kelvin Hayden cost too much and was cut. Jerraud Powers and Justin Tryon are decent cover guys. Powers has Pro Bowl potential but was hurt his first two years. Jacob Lacey gets picked on a lot but should be a suitable nickel back.
Re-signing Adam Vinatieri, the game’s greatest clutch placekicker, was important. The 38-year-old “Legend,” as punter Pat McAfee calls him, drilled a 50-yard field goal to give the Colts the lead with 53 seconds remaining against the Jets. McAfee has a strong leg and will undoubtedly boost his kickoff touchback numbers stepping into them from the 35-yard line. He’s had 37 kickoff touchbacks in two seasons. He gets decent hang time on punts — imperative given coverage struggles — to force fair catches.
The Colts can be downright embarrassing at covering and returning kicks. After Vinatieri’s field goal, they allowed a 47-yard kickoff return to set up Nick Folk’s game-winning 32-yard field goal. It was a bitter way for a season to end, especially after the Colts rallied to win their last four games to clinch a division title and make the playoffs for a ninth consecutive year. Returner Devin Moore showed promise but was lost early to a shoulder injury. Expect another trial-by-fire series of auditions if Moore is unable to keep the job.
An enduring TV image from the playoff loss showed Manning on the sideline throwing his hands up in disgust when coach Jim Caldwell called a timeout to force the Jets to run another play before the field goal. A 17-yard pass made the kick a chip shot.
Earlier at Jacksonville, when the Jaguars appeared to be settling for overtime, Caldwell called a timeout. Given time to think, the Jags threw some sideline passes and pulled the game out on Josh Scobee’s 59-yard field goal. While Caldwell has won 24 regular-season games and taken the Colts to a Super Bowl since taking over for Tony Dungy, some question his leadership and game management.
If Clark and Collie stay healthy and Manning’s new offensive line gives time and takes pressure off by earning hard yards on third downs, the Colts will score in bunches. They averaged 27.2 points a year ago. This takes heats off the defense, which plays better when ahead because it can turn loose the pass rush and blitz.
It’s a thin line between good and great. The Colts have been good for a long time, but can they be great again? Some point to Manning’s 9–10 playoff record and suggest the future Hall of Famer is overrated. But it takes a team effort and a coach making the right calls to get rings. The Colts have only one ring during these glory years, and with the Super Bowl at home this year, fans are clamoring now more than ever to see them win another.
Outside the Huddle
Asked if wanting a new contract would be an issue, Reggie Wayne said during training camp, “If it was an issue, I wouldn’t be here.”
Colts owner Jim Irsay has delighted fans since Dec. 1, 2010, with a variety of entertaining and informative posts on Twitter. In less than a year, the charismatic boss with an affinity for rock ’n’ roll has amassed more than 45,000 followers. He particularly enjoys contest giveaways, asking music trivia questions pertaining to artists, song titles and lyrics. He’s given away a car, Colts tickets, a Pro Bowl trip to Hawaii and even cash. But Irsay has also interacted with fans to provide information. He tweeted the details of Peyton Manning’s new contract before it was released, that the quarterback would be paid $23 million each of the first three years and $21 million for the last two. He also informed inquisitors the team had no interest in signing free agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha or veteran wide receiver Randy Moss.
When Irsay tweeted he could have settled the NFL lockout on a napkin at dinner with center Jeff Saturday, a player union representative, radio personality Tony Kornheiser called Irsay “a complete bozo.” Irsay fired back with the tweet, “T. Kornheiser is a mean-spirited chump! When he can win 115 games n a decade, built a top 3 stadium, win n host a Super Bowl, then he can chirp! I think he used 2 b Bill Tobin’s mailman…but that would b an insult 2 mail mean! I just droppin’ knowledge…”
Where Are They Today?
Before Manning had neck surgery, he conducted informal workouts with several players to stay sharp. But as rumors spread of his throwing sessions with wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Anthony Gonzalez, tight ends Dallas Clark and Jacob Tamme and running back Devin Moore, among others, Manning slyly started moving the meeting places. One week, it was at North Central High School. The next, it was somewhere else. One observer said Park Tudor High School. Then other schools continued to be mentioned by supposed insiders. When asked about the offseason workouts, Moore chuckled and said, “I’m not really sure I can say much about that.” The hometown fan favorite from Ritter High School backpedaled and assured, “I’ve said it time and time again, though, Peyton is pretty much a coach on the field out there. We will be ready to play when the lockout ends.”
In late March, Peyton and wife Ashley became proud parents for the first time with twins. Ever the private couple, they divulged no details about son Marshall and daughter Mosley. Because the news started leaking around April 1, many thought the rumor was an April Fool’s joke. The births came a few days after Manning’s brother, Eli, celebrated with wife Abby the birth of a daughter, Ava.
Manning’s New Deal
A few days after Irsay reiterated his intent to make Manning the NFL’s highest-paid player, the quarterback broke his silence with an unexpected phone call to a reporter with the Indianapolis Star to insist he didn’t need to be No. 1 and that he never asked for $25 million per year, as had been suggested in an Irsay tweet. Manning signed for $18 million per year for five years, just under the league’s highest-paid player, New England quarterback Tom Brady.
Front Office Switch?
Formerly known as the team president, Bill Polian has given himself a new title as vice chairman. The six-time NFL executive of the year says he has relinquished more of the day-to-day football operations to his son, Chris, vice president and general manager. Bill Polian said this was the first draft in which his son devised the strategy. Chris had been tabbed previously to be his father’s successor when the time came. But that time isn’t just yet. While Chris has done more news conferences and met with the media, Bill was still visible on the practice field during training camp and makes statements on occasion, like with Irsay during Manning’s news conference to announce the QB’s new contract.
Swimming in Fans
Punter Pat McAfee is an affable free spirit, but his late-night swim in a Broad Ripple canal got him arrested for public intoxication 10 months ago. While the Colts suspended him for one game and a repentant McAfee apologized for his transgression, it fostered a cult-hero following from younger fans, one of whom sent him a T-shirt for the “Broad Ripple Canal Swim Club.” The third-year pro’s Twitter account has 22,700 followers.