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Peyton Manning and the Colts: Where Did It All Go Wrong?


Peyton Manning and the Colts: Where Did It Go Wrong?

This article originally appeared in Athlon Sports' monthly. Available in newspapers nationwide.

Of all the jobs in this country that pay six figures, it’s hard to imagine one with less responsibility over the last decade or so than backup quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts. Best anyone could tell, there were really only two requirements for the job.

The first was some level of ability to play quarterback, though the extent of that ability never really seemed to matter. Between 1998 and 2010 — a span of 208 regular-season games — the Colts’ backup threw a total of 209 passes, with virtually none of them coming in a meaningful situation. In five of those 13 years, the Colts’ second-string quarterback never saw the field.

But the second requirement, it seemed, was far more important than the first. Forget experience, talent or even price. For the Indianapolis Colts, the most important quality in a backup quarterback was to be somebody Peyton Manning liked.

Surely the Colts, for all those years, could have done better than the likes of Brock Huard, Jim Sorgi and more recently, Curtis Painter — all of whom were essentially hand-picked by Manning to be his backup. At the time those quarterbacks played for the Colts, collecting salaries ranging from $480,000 to nearly $900,00 per year, it’s doubtful they would’ve gotten jobs as good anywhere else in the NFL. But with Manning so durable and the Colts so successful, making the playoffs 11 out of the last 12 years, no “just in case” was ever necessary.

As long as Manning was happy and healthy, the Colts didn’t have to worry about any insurance policies. Drafting a quarterback prospect to develop, like the Green Bay Packers did with Aaron Rodgers at the start of Brett Favre’s twilight, was never seriously considered for the win-now Colts. Signing a capable veteran would’ve only set up a potential clash of egos with Manning, who was used to getting complete deference and friendship, not locker room tension, from his backups.

And given Manning’s impact on the organization — he made the Colts constant contenders, he won them a Super Bowl after the 2006 season and even got them a new stadium that will host next year’s Super Bowl — perhaps that deference was completely appropriate.

Manning organized the offseason workouts, he called the plays, he OK’d the personnel moves. It’s impossible to overstate Manning’s sphere of influence with the Colts. He was, quite simply, the star around which everything and everyone orbited.

But for all the wins and all the glory that Manning brought the Colts, he has now brought them this: After starting training camp with legitimate hopes of another division title, they are now quite possibly the worst team in the NFL.

How did an organization so steeped in consistency and excellence suddenly sink to the bottom of the league? Look no further than the Colts’ undying belief and unwavering trust in No. 18.

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On July 30, in the immediate aftermath of the NFL lockout’s resolution, Manning agreed to a new five-year contract with the Colts worth $90 million. Presumably, it would be the last contract for the 35-year old Manning before riding off to the Hall of Fame, perhaps with the title of greatest quarterback ever. The Colts were not expected to win the Super Bowl this season, but an eighth AFC South title in nine years seemed a reasonable goal. With a healthy Manning, Indianapolis was talented enough to make the playoffs again, at least.

Manning’s health, however, had been something of a question mark recently. For much of last season, Manning struggled with issues in his back and neck, eventually leading to surgery in May — his second in the span of a year — to correct a bulging disc. Though the rehab would prevent Manning from doing much offseason training, a typical six-to-eight week recovery period would put him on track for training camp and, at worst, get him back on the field by preseason. When Manning signed his contract, he gave no public indication that his recovery might spill over into meaningful football time.

Then training camp started, and Manning wasn’t at practice. Then preseason games started, and Manning wasn’t playing. And then, as the regular season approached and Manning still wasn’t ready, it became apparent what was happening.

The Colts had been blindsided.

On the morning of Sept. 9, Manning went in for another surgery on his neck — this time a “single level anterior fusion,” a much more invasive procedure — confirming that he would miss games for the first time in his NFL career. The fact that Indianapolis kept Manning on the active roster was designed to provide some hope that he might be able to come back, perhaps in Week 10 or 11, and push the Colts back into the postseason. The reality, of course, was that Manning would likely miss the entire season and might never play again.

And it was obvious the Colts were unprepared.

So confident were the Colts that Manning would be back that they spent the entire offseason without putting a second of consideration into a Plan B. They didn’t use any of their five draft picks on a quarterback. Once the post-lockout free agency period started in September, they didn’t pursue anyone to have on the roster just in case Manning’s progress stalled. Indianapolis would open 2011 with the same quarterback depth chart as they had in 2010: Manning the starter and Painter, who took zero snaps in 2010, the backup.

Maybe Manning wasn’t realistic about the pace of his recovery or expectations for his health at age 35. Maybe, as he maintains, he felt like he was close to being ready for weeks but just couldn’t quite get over the last hurdle. Either way, the Colts take their cues from Manning when it comes to the quarterback position, and their failure to have a suitable backup plan leads directly back to him.

By the time it became apparent that Manning’s status for the regular season was in jeopardy, the best option left for the Colts was bringing 38-year old Kerry Collins out of retirement. The results have been nothing short of dreadful. In the first three weeks of the season, the tandem of Collins and Painter combined for 541 passing yards, two touchdowns and five turnovers. The Colts’ offense, typically a model of precision, is now one of the worst in the league.

And Manning isn’t coming back, not this year, and maybe not ever. With neck and back injuries, especially once they become a recurring problem, you just don’t know.

But if there’s a consolation to this mess, it’s that Manning may unwittingly give the Colts a reason to do what they should’ve been done long ago. With their franchise quarterback turning 36 in March, it’s time to start grooming Manning’s successor. Stanford’s Andrew Luck, a leading Heisman Trophy candidate, will likely be the No. 1 pick next May, and the Colts may lose just enough games this season to get him.

All those years, the Colts never worried about life after Manning. Now, suddenly, it’s staring them in the face.

By Dan Wolken. Dan is a national sports columnist at The Daily, the first daily newspaper built specifically for the iPad and soon to be available on other tablet devices.