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Colts' future as dismal as their season?
A 62-7 loss to the New Orleans Saints was really, really, really bad.
The Indianapolis Colts' future could be even uglier than that rout Sunday — and it all stems from the player whose absence is the reason the team remains winless.
The decisions that team management faces about how to handle Peyton Manning are creating the kind of pain in the neck that the future Hall of Fame quarterback underwent surgery to fix.
Under normal circumstances, the Colts would be itching as much as Manning to get their franchise player back on the field to salvage what’s left of this year’s campaign and start laying the groundwork for next season.
These aren’t normal circumstances.
Indianapolis (0-7) has a very real chance of scoring the 2012 draft’s No. 1 overall pick unless a miraculous turnaround is staged under replacement Curtis Painter.
Advice for Colts fans: Don’t hold your breath.
Barring an unforeseen injury or unexpected return to school for his senior season, Stanford’s Andrew Luck will be sitting atop every draft board as the biggest can’t-miss quarterback prospect since Manning in 1998.
This is a problem for Manning.
Colts owner Jim Irsay told Yahoo! Sports that he could envision a scenario in which the Colts chose Luck even if Manning were healthy because “guys like that come along so rarely.” That sounds great in theory, but such a scenario brings its own set of issues if Manning still figures into Indianapolis’ plans.
Right now, that’s a big “if.”
The Colts can escape from the remaining four years of the $90 million contract Manning signed last summer by releasing him during the offseason. Otherwise, Manning will collect a whopping $28 million roster bonus.
On one hand, the Colts should want Manning to play this season to see whether his latest neck surgery was successful. Manning wants to know, too. It would be unfair to expect Manning to immediately display his usual fine form, but his return would greatly help in evaluating whether he is a viable option for several more years from both an athletic and financial standpoint.
On the other hand, any spark that he provides in 2011 could push the Colts out of the running for the quarterback who would lead the franchise in the post-Manning era.
Much like Brett Favre when the Packers picked Aaron Rodgers in the first round of the 2005 draft, Manning isn’t at the point in his career where he wants to serve as a mentor for his eventual successor. Now facing his NFL mortality after three neck surgeries in a 19-month span, the 35-year-old Manning knows he has a rapidly dwindling chance to vie for a second Super Bowl title.
But the window is still open. Choosing Luck would nudge it closer to being shut, because he couldn’t provide the kind of immediate personnel upgrade that the Colts need at other positions.
This becomes part of the discussion. Although he has proved the most indispensable NFL player to his team’s fortunes, Manning's injury isn’t the only reason the 2011 Colts are so dreadful.
Head coach Jim Caldwell — who helped guide Indianapolis to a Super Bowl only two years ago — is under heavy fire for not being able to compensate for Manning’s absence. There is reason to question his job security. But would a replacement be willing to give Manning the same type of control he enjoys over the team’s offense as Caldwell does? Or would he want to start fresh with a young quarterback who can be molded?
Let’s also remember Caldwell is playing poker with a losing hand. The Colts have used an NFL-high 59 different players this season because of injuries. This has destroyed continuity and taken a heavy physical toll on starters forced into more snaps because of depth problems. For example, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis — high-motor defensive ends who are at their best when playing predominantly in passing situations — have combined for only one tackle the past two games against Cincinnati and New Orleans.
Other problems are self-inflicted. Manning’s absence has exposed major mistakes made by the Bill Polian-led front office. Three of the team’s most recent first-round choices — defensive end Jerry Hughes (2010), running back Donald Brown (2009) and wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez (2007) — have flopped. An equally poor pick came in 2007 when the Colts traded their 2008 first-rounder to San Francisco for the chance to draft second-round tackle Tony Ugoh. He was cut after three mediocre seasons.
These kinds of busts are death to a team that builds almost exclusively through the draft rather than free agency because of the high salary-cap numbers carried by star players such as Manning and Freeney.
The Colts face other tough offseason roster decisions besides Manning. Three mainstays from the team’s glory years (Mathis, wide receiver Reggie Wayne and center Jeff Saturday) are set to become unrestricted free agents. Like Manning, they are also in their 30s. Re-signing them is only a priority if the Colts remain in a win-now mode.
Otherwise, Manning might not want to stick around either as the Colts rebuild.
Ex-Colts coach Tony Dungy recently said on “The Dan Patrick Show” that he would consider a Manning trade should Luck prove a viable option. Manning would be a great short-term fit elsewhere for a quarterback-starved team like the Washington Redskins. Head coach Mike Shanahan guided Denver to two Super Bowl titles with another graybeard in John Elway, who benefited from not having to carry the entire offensive mode in his later years a la Manning thanks to a quarterback-friendly system that emphasizes the running game.
However, the value and structure of Manning’s contract would make any trade difficult to complete. An outright release is the more likely option before Manning is paid the $28 million roster bonus.
There’s also this to consider: Should the Colts show such respect to a player who has meant so much to his franchise by letting Manning choose his own landing spot rather than being shipped to the highest bidder like with Green Bay’s 2008 trade of Favre to the New York Jets? Although it wouldn’t necessarily be in his team’s best business interests, the kooky Irsay has so much respect for Manning that he might be amenable to a release if the quarterback asked for one.
But let’s not run Manning out of the Hoosier State just yet.
If the Colts were truly prepared to move on, Manning would already be on injured reserve. Although that wouldn’t guarantee the NFL’s worst record in 2011, it would help ensure the Colts maintain front-runner status, along with Miami and St. Louis, in the “Suck for Luck” race.
Manning’s return instead remains a possibility. During a Tuesday interview with Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, Polian said that Manning was cleared to begin jogging — you gotta start somewhere, right? — but wouldn’t provide further details on whether or when he can resume practicing.
Manning looked like he was being tortured while having to watch the Saints debacle from the sidelines. But with the intensity he displayed while trying to encourage his demoralized teammates, it’s obvious that Manning hasn’t given up on this season or his career.
The ultimate question is whether the Colts will give up on him.