The Indianapolis Colts have fans from all walks of life, from different generations, who have different motivations. Prior to Peyton Manning’s move to the “Hoosier State,” a few things were true about the NFL fanbase in Central Indiana.
First, Colts fans were used to disappointment. Even the prospect of playoff appearances or a chance to advance in the post-season was cause for extreme celebration. Second, there was no extended period of stability amongst the franchise in the front office or on the field. Philosophies changed often to suit an ever-changing player dynamic and no identity ever really took form — at least until Jim Harbaugh stepped in and helped create the “Cardiac Colts” moniker for his late-game heroics. Third, fans were loyal to the Colts as a whole, to the team’s impact on the city, and to the team’s successes and failures as a professional football franchise. There was not a delineation between being a fan of a “player” over a fan of the “team.”
Once Bill Polian and Peyton Manning arrived in 1998, that all changed. A superstar was born that transcended even his own team amongst NFL followers. Fans for every NFL team likely include a group of Manning fans. Even some Colts fans are really fans BECAUSE of and FOR Manning over the franchise itself.
In a lot of ways, this is not a bad thing. It isn’t even all that unusual for NFL fans to choose certain players that gain their loyalty and support aside from their own teams. It isn’t uncommon that a team’s fanbase will grow as a result of legendary players taking the field, breaking records, and creating memories that will last lifetimes.
Good or bad, the difficulty of the transition Indianapolis faces is the realization that ultimately, rooting for an NFL franchise requires acceptance of expiration dates and difficult decisions. The ride does not go on forever with one man navigating the ship. A return to the “franchise-” and “city-first” approach is almost always a foregone conclusion.
2012 marks the time that this mindset switch is required. It is no longer time to think of the Indianapolis Colts as perennial Super Bowl favorites who are in a “win a championship or bust” mindset. It is no longer time to look at one player on the field and rely on that one player for game-changing heroics.
The time for finger-pointing and question-raising is taking a short break.
Don’t get me wrong. There are tons of unanswered questions and plenty of uncertainty about the team’s immediate and long-term future. But the answers to those questions are no longer plug-n-play by nature.
The entire defensive scheme and philosophy will change. What players will plug in where and for what exact purpose is no longer predictable. The coaching staff will alter the way players at each position play.
The 2011 offense attempted to maintain a Manning-style pass-heavy identity and tempo even with quarterbacks like Kerry Collins and Curtis Painter attempting to fill the future Hall of Famer’s shoes. If a rookie quarterback takes over in the coming season, which seems likely, the offense will probably look different. The kind of players the coaching staff, or a marquee rookie quarterback like Andrew Luck, will target to lead this new offensive animal could very well change.
As much as this transition will be bitter, it should also be a little sweet. Few NFL franchises have experienced the level of sustained success as Indianapolis Colts fans have had the luxury to experience. Even fewer NFL franchises are given really big reasons to be excited about the future.
No matter which direction the Colts take this summer, there is reason to see promise in the future. There is reason for excitement. And, in some ways, the change may bring a much larger fanbase than Manning inherited closer together as they rally around the team, the city, and have pride for being the Indianapolis Colts above all else.