Face it, Manning era is over

Brian Billick talks about the Colts
Brian Billick talks about the Colts
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Mark Kriegel

Mark Kriegel is the national columnist for He is the author of two New York Times best sellers, Namath: A Biography and Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, which Sports Illustrated called "the best sports biography of the year."


At a Monday breakfast with commissioner Roger Goodell, just hours after his team had turned in a game, if losing effort against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Colts owner Jim Irsay let it be known Peyton Manning was likely lost for the season.

Shortly thereafter, he tweeted a clarification: “I didn’t say Peyton out 4season FOR SURE, keeping him on Active Roster n taking it month by month/Outside chance of return n December possible.”

I don’t know if that was intended to hearten the hopes of Colts fans. If so, it failed miserably. Even accounting for the sublingual idioms prevalent on Twitter, the difference is merely semantic.

Manning could come back by December? Really? I mean, why bother? If the Colts are 0-3 now, they could conceivably (though not likely) be 0-13 by the time he returns from his third neck surgery.

It’s worth mentioning here that his most recent procedure — a “single level anterior fusion” — was described as "uneventful." But again, when it comes to athletes, medical terminology is as deceptive as coachspeak. Any procedure not characterized as “successful” translates as “you’re pretty much done.” As in, “Colts fans, your season is pretty much done.” So much for the perennial champions of the AFC South. Wait’ll next year. In Indianapolis, a Manning-less season is meaningless.

Kerry Collins is 38 and, as of this writing, still being evaluated for a possible concussion. Curtis Painter is a sixth-round draft pick out of Purdue. Sure, he led the Colts on a scoring drive Sunday night. This is almost as encouraging as news of Manning’s possible December return. Upon entering the game Sunday evening, Painter’s career quarterback rating was 28.7.

How did a franchise run by the esteemed Bill Polian — who is as prudent and circumspect as Irsay is Twitter-happy — allow this to happen? Manning is 35, after all, and it was, you know, neck surgery. Why didn’t the Colts see this coming?

The truth is, in the most ideal of circumstances, backup quarterbacks are a crapshoot. Most of them are has-beens, unknowns or proven failures. Still, the case in Indianapolis is unique and has been for a long time. There’s a reason — though not an excuse — the franchise dismissed its quarterback’s mangled vertebrae as just a scratch.

The Colts are unlike any franchise in sports. NFL football — with its 53-man rosters, stocked with interchangeable parts — might be the ultimate team game. But since 1998, this team’s name is Peyton Manning. No other championship team has depended on a single player the way the Colts depend on Manning.

I think of the Cleveland team LeBron James delivered to the NBA Finals, but those Cavaliers didn’t come close to winning a title. The Bulls of Michael Jordan are often cited as a one-man team. That idea neglects the two other Hall of Famers in the Bulls’ second three-peat run. But it also ignores the idea that, even before the acquisition of Dennis Rodman, when Jordan was still a White Sox farmhand, the Bulls were one lousy Hue Hollins call away from returning to the Finals.

No, the Colts seem alone in their capacity to believe in one guy. It wasn’t just the front office or the fans, either. I don’t remember any alarm sirens going off all those years when Jim Sorgi was Manning’s backup.

Going back to Sept. 6, 1998 — back during the Clinton administration — Manning had started every game of his NFL career. That was 227 in a row, including playoff games. In 13 regular seasons, he threw 126 more touchdown passes than Joe Montana did in 15 years. He threw for almost 19,000 more yards than Tom Brady.

So, yes, there’s a reason the Colts believed as they did. To admit otherwise was to admit defeat. Then, as now, a Manning-less season was meaningless.

It really doesn’t matter if he comes back in December. It's already next year, as far as the Colts are concerned. Soon enough, Peyton Manning will be a 36-year-old quarterback trying to return from neck surgery, an occasion to be marked by more than a tweet. Those 227 games will feel like ancient history. And now that the streak is broken, it’s time to admit an era is, too.

Tagged: Colts, Peyton Manning

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