Manning’s health leaves big questions for Colts

Peyton Manning’s goals remain the same. It’s the Colts’

short-term focus that has changed.

Instead of using the preseason to fine-tune their high-scoring

offense, they are still waiting for Manning to get healthy enough

to make a difference – and perhaps make Indianapolis’ Super Bowl

hopes come true.

”You understand why it’s being hyped up, but it’s so far away

it doesn’t even it feel like it’s this year yet,” said kicker Adam

Vinatieri, who already owns four Super Bowl rings.

The muted reaction inside Indy’s locker room is understandable

given the team’s recent run of success. It has won seven of the

last eight AFC South titles, tied the NFL record with nine straight

playoff appearances, but uses Super Bowl victories as the measuring

stick.

This year, with Indianapolis hosting its first Super Bowl, the

city’s expectations have changed. Fans are no longer discussing the

4 1/2-month lockout that put the big game in jeopardy and would

rather debate whether the Colts can become the first team to play

the Super Bowl in its home stadium.

”They would love it,” defensive captain Gary Brackett

said.

Getting there was never going to be easy, and Manning’s slow

recovery from offseason neck surgery has been a bigger obstacle

than anyone anticipated.

For only the second time in his 14-year career, Manning did not

take a snap in training camp and he’s expected to miss all four

preseason games. The last time that happened, Indy started 3-4 and

had to win its last nine just to make the playoffs.

If the neck injury does end Manning’s streak of 227 consecutive

games, including playoffs, most figure the Colts have no chance at

reaching the Super Bowl. But the Colts have a penchant for

redefining conventional wisdom.

Indy finished last season with 18 players on injured reserve,

including star tight end Dallas Clark, and still won the AFC South.

It won more regular-season games (115) between 2000 and 2009 than

any team in any decade in league history. After reeling off 23

straight wins between 2008 and 2009, the Colts pulled their

starters in the third quarter of Week 15, throwing away a shot at a

perfect season.

Players think they can do it again.

”It’s not like we’re going to not play games and close up

shop,” Clark said. ”Obviously, we had a lot of injuries last

year, and, obviously, Peyton is a little bigger name. But whoever

steps in has to do the job.”

The questions are not just about Manning or his backup, as team

owner Jim Irsay made clear on a recent Twitter post.

Receiver Austin Collie returned to practice Monday after missing

an entire week with a knee injury. He’s coming back from two

concussions. Receiver Anthony Gonzalez, who missed most of the past

two seasons with knee injuries, has been bothered by a hamstring

injury.

The Colts are hoping four former first-round draft picks –

defensive linemen Jamaal Anderson, Tyler Brayton and Tommie Harris,

and linebacker Ernie Sims – can help make the defense more stout

against the run.

Indy also is reconstructing the offensive line that protects

Manning. The Colts used their first two draft picks on offensive

tackles Anthony Castonzo and Ben Ijalana in hopes of reviving a

running game that hasn’t topped 4.0 yards per carry since Indy’s

only Super Bowl-winning season of 2006.

”As tough as it is out here (at training camp), when the lights

come that’s really when you want to see guys step forward,” Pro

Bowl center Jeff Saturday said. ”That’s what we’ll see over the

next few weeks.”

It’s also when things will really get tough.

Houston believes its ready to destroy the Colts’ division

dominance; Jacksonville nearly did last year; and Tennessee has

signed Matt Hasselbeck to rejuvenate the only team other than Indy

to win the South title. Outside the division, the Colts still have

to contend with the two-time AFC runner-up Jets and perennial

rivals Baltimore, New England, Pittsburgh and San Diego.

Of course, they’ve always had Manning to bail them out in the

past. This year, who knows?

”He’s working extremely hard to get back as quickly as he

possibly can,” coach Jim Caldwell said.

With or without the only four-time MVP in league history, Colts

fans still have one wish: seeing their team playing at Lucas Oil

Stadium in February.

”We’ve not talked about that at all,” Vinatieri said. ”You

know there’s going to be hype and how excited the city is about it.

You see the mayor on TV every other day talking about it and you

get that. But from the football side of it, we haven’t even looked

gotten past the preseason yet. We can’t allow yourself to think

about that right now.”