Ever the model of political correctness, and willing to diligently parrot the party line even if his fingernails are ripped out one at a time, quarterback Peyton Manning wasn’t about to acknowledge after Sunday’s victory over the Cincinnati Bengals that the Indianapolis Colts’ makeshift receiver corps is almost making him appear mortal.
So we’ll say it for him.
And, better yet, so will the numbers.
In the past five weeks, when he has been forced by injuries to play with a veritable musical chairs-set of receivers, Manning has a passer rating of only 79.1, has thrown only five touchdown passes vs. three interceptions and completed a mere eight passes of more than 20 yards.
The Colts won four of those outings and, as usual, occupy first place in the AFC South. This is a division they have essentially owned since the NFL implemented four-team groupings in 2002 and which they have won won in six of the previous seven seasons. But the Colts are not dominating opponents the way they used to, certainly aren’t closing out foes, and the dented receiving lack-of-depth chart seems to be the main reason for the relative struggles.
"There wasn’t a whole lot of flow or rhythm to (the Indianapolis offense), especially in the second half," said Manning, who on Sunday led his team to only one field goal after the intermission. "There is only so much the coaches can do to prepare a young guy to play … whoever it may be."
The "whoever it may be" on Sunday was a pretty callow crew, and the injuries that have forced Indianapolis to extend its bench, and even to activate a player from the practice squad this week, might finally be catching up to the offense.
And to the heretofore indomitable Manning, as well.
Consider the hairy Sunday circumstances: Tight end Dallas Clark, long a Manning safety net, is gone for the season with a wrist injury. Former first-round pick Anthony Gonzalez, whose career has been one injury after another, also is on injured reserve with a bum knee. Second-year wide receiver Austin Collie, who in 2009 tied for the NFL lead in receptions by a rookie, is still seeing cuckoos circling from the concussion he suffered last week. Rookie Blair White was inactive with a banged-up shoulder.
That left the stalwart Reggie Wayne, who faces double-team coverage from the time he exits the tunnel for pregame introductions; Pierre Garcon, who might not quite possess the manos de piedra (hands of stone) of former boxing star Roberto Duran, but who could have trouble with an Allstate Insurance application; Brandon James, elevated this week from the practice squad, and making his debut in a regular-season game. And tight end Jacob Tamme, making his second career start.
Allowed Cincinnati safety Chinedum Ndukwe: "I’m sure they’re all good players … but they lined up with some guys who, well, I didn’t know who they were."
Join the club.
Introductions have been a near-weekly ritual for the Colts, who are playing a bunch of pass-catchers with very sketchy credentials, and relying on Manning to find a way to make the receivers look good. But attrition catches up to everyone and, while the "next man up" mantra popularized by former coach Tony Dungy and perpetuated by successor Jim Caldwell, is terrific in theory, the Colts’ offense is pretty threadbare. Even elastic, it seems, has a breaking point.
Too bad former Colts great wide receiver Bill Brooks, a member of the Indianapolis Ring of Honor, is no longer employed by the team full time. Otherwise, Caldwell might be tempted to activate him.
Anybody got Marvin Harrison’s phone number? How about Matt Bouza’s cell?
With the offense sputtering along in fits, spasms and hiccups, Manning threw for just 185 yards on Sunday afternoon. That’s his lowest output, in a game in which he played the whole way, since November 2008. In 201 games, all starts, it marked only the 36th time Manning was under the 200-yard mark, and that’s counting the contests in which the Colts yanked him early because they had the division or a playoff spot already secured.
A couple of weeks ago, Manning suggested to yours truly the element of the Colts’ offense that was most suffering from the body shortage was the two-minute drill, because the club could only run seven or eight hurry-up snaps in practice before the receivers were gassed. Notably, Indianapolis, which used to operate the two-minute drill with clockwork efficiency, has just two touchdowns and four field goals in the final two minutes of a half during the past five weeks.
During the Nov. 1 game against Houston, as Manning completed passes to a bunch of receiver/poseurs, the press box marveled aloud that the Colts quarterback could make just about anyone look good.
But, apparently, not quite everyone.
No matter their brilliance, every quarterback needs his receivers to bail him out every once in a while, to make the great catch that salvages an overthrow or turns a wounded duck into a touchdown.
Because of injuries, and the necessity to jerry-rig a receiver corps, it’s not a given Manning has many of those players left anymore.