There could be no bigger kick to the diaphragm for Colts fans as that which has come over the weekend. The likelihood that Indianapolis will have to start the season, and could have to play a significant portion of it, without four-time MVP Peyton Manning is increasing each day. It is a sickening thought for Colts fans and should be a sickening thought for the NFL.
In order to brace for the impact of that potential reality, it is time for fans in Indianapolis and around the league to wrap their heads around more than just the medical diagnoses experts and amateurs are releasing surrounding Manning’s recovery. The fallout of Manning missing significant time would affect everything.
Prepare for a Different Offense
When the Colts chose to sign full back Chris Gronkowski it indicated to me that the team is very serious about addressing the running game. Coltzilla writer Greg Cowan astutely pointed out that the signing may have more to do with the uncertain status of second-year tight end Brody Eldridge, who would normally man the H-Back role in the offense. Both perspectives are logical and legitimate but more than just the Gronkowski signing makes the running game a bigger part of the Colts in 2011.
The team chose to sign Delone Carter in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft, in part because short-yardage failures have made it difficult for the team to stay on the field in the past. Bill Polian put a lot of blame on the offensive line in 2009 for not getting the job done on third-and-short. Since that time, there has been emphasis placed on improving that area of the game.
When the team chose to stick with Darren Evans on the regular season roster as well, it was choosing to keep another bigger, bruising running back who is capable of getting extra yards after contact. This has not been the team’s modus operandi at running back in previous years. This is a much bigger, bulkier group of running backs who were retained to play a different role than in the past. Add Gronkowski to the mix, and you can see where my thought process is heading.
If Kerry Collins has to start for the Colts, over the short- or long-term, the offensive balance is going to switch. With Manning under center the team uses the pass to set up the run — although it had not necessarily been effective even in doing that. With Collins, the run will have to set up the pass more so than it has in years.
As Coltzilla explained after the Colts final preseason game, fans need to expect that there will be a great deal more pressure on the offensive line with Collins. He is not a mobile quarterback, and frankly sits almost like a statue once he drops back in the pocket and begins going through his reads. The message that is sent to offensive linemen is, “I am going to stand right here, it is your job to keep my immediate area clear of any oncoming defenders.”
Accordingly, be prepared for an attack that places more emphasis on keeping the opposing defenses in a run stopping mode. It will reduce the pass rush and allow Collins time to find Colts receivers in favorable match-ups.
Prepare for Defense to have more Responsibility
Since Peyton Manning joined the team and started his rise to the pinnacle of NFL quarterback play, the Colts defense has had a relatively unique situation. The role was primarily to force mistakes when possible, get to the quarterback as often as possible, and simply don’t allow big play. “Bend but don’t break.”
Now, the bend but don’t break rule could be ineffective. They need to not bend or break, they need to smash opposing offenses in the mouth, wear the offense down, and give Indianapolis the ball as often as possible. The “track meet” approach to winning football games would no longer be a favorable strategy. It is for this reason players like Jamaal Anderson and Tyler Brayton were kept around.
The good news is that when the starters have been on the field in preseason, the team has been more effective stopping the run than in years past. The bad news is that keeping a run stopping group on the field reduces the pass rush and increases pressure on the secondary.
There is always a trade-off in these situations and as much as there will be pressure on the players taking the field to get the job done, the coaches will be under it as much or more.
Prepare to be Sickened by Fan Reactions
It has been discussed throughout the summer that Peyton Manning is a polarizing figure. His presence in Indianapolis has played a major role in the team being relevant, successful, and highly competitive for more than a decade. Every other team in the league who has to face the Colts can choose to see him in a couple of ways.
Some fans, even of other teams, look at Manning as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and actually take the time to watch him play in games for an appreciation of seeing league history in the making. Other fans cannot stand Manning or the Colts for the pure fact that the team has gotten so much attention in the media during Manning’s career. Every time media attention turns to a handful of teams, it goes away from others.
Throw in Manning’s presence in so many commercials, even his respectful demeanor in interviews, and it can become overwhelming to other fans. They are tired of hearing about it, tired of hearing about “him,” and they will celebrate if he misses time.
There will be trolls on message boards, comments made in water cooler discussions by fans of other teams who will use this as ammunition to attack Manning’s records and reputation, to point out the flaws on the team without him, and to enjoy their temporary boost in NFL significance because one power house will fall out of favor. Some fans will be classy, of course, but fans better believe that the ones who are not classy will be the loudest. Colts fans will have to tune them out or it will become maddening and frustrating.
When hyenas see a wounded animal, there will be a lot of racket.
Prepare for a Return to Reality
Indianapolis Colts fans have had the luxury of expecting greatness for a long time. Super Bowl or bust is the mantra often projected by fans. It’s easy to not appreciate being a perennial playoff team, because it’s easy for a lot of fans to forget what it is like to not make it to the playoffs as a rule.
If Manning has to miss significant time, every game will be a challenge. It will take time for the team to come together in its new (hopefully temporary) form, and each game is going to be a different animal. Part of what will make each game so competitive is that Colts opponents will also be in the dark on what to expect. Preparing to play Indianapolis without Manning is like preparing to play an entirely new team.
There is little denying the fact, though, that if Manning does not play it will take a motivated effort on the part of every member of the Colts 53-man roster to make a push for a playoff berth.
Prepare to Still Have a Chance
The best way for the team to get into the playoffs in 2011, particularly without Manning, is to win the AFC South. Assuming that the team will be able to win games against teams like the Steelers, Saints, Falcons, Patriots, and Ravens without Manning may be unrealistic.
It helps that the division is going through a lot of rebuilding right now — two teams have new quarterbacks, one team is attempting to install a new defensive scheme, the Colts are not the only team with meaningful injuries either — and it is also good for fans to consider that Kerry Collins was capable of taking the Titans to a 13-3 playoff season in 2008, including 11 straight wins. Of course the 2008 Titans and the 2011 Colts are significantly different — and Collins is three years older — but it is not unreasonable to think that he could lead the team to a division championship.
All the Colts have to do is keep their head above water, stay in the running for the division, and survive until Manning returns. If he returns in 2011 and the team has achieved those goals, the Colts could be right back in a position to be Super Bowl contenders.
It is critical that fans and experts take a close glance at the schedule before prognosticating the team’s 2011 future. There is ONE division game in the first seven weeks. Four division games occur from Weeks 10-17 — with three to close out the season. If Manning does need some time, this season’s schedule, more than most other years, allows for it.
Colts fans, be prepared for football without Peyton Manning. Of course there is still a chance that he plays in the season opener — and all of these thoughts are unnecessary — but that is looking less likely each day. Alter expectations of what the Colts might look like on the field, and don’t expect to be able to compete against the other NFL juggernauts until Manning returns (a win against those teams without Manning should be a pleasant surprise). However, don’t give up on the season. Don’t stop following the team.
This season actually allows Manning more time than most would because of the heavy late-season division schedule. If the team can survive until Manning returns — assuming he does miss time — the Colts will be back.