Indianapolis built its entire strategy around Manning, neglecting to craft an defense or train a backup quarterback. No wonder the team's fallen apart since he got injured.
The biggest difference between the 2011 Indianapolis Colts and its roster from the previous 13 seasons is obviously the absence of quarterback Peyton Manning. The four-time Most Valuable Player may just deserve the award again this season - because he hasn't played a single down and the team has gone 0-7 without him: an unorthodox but unassailable case for his value.
League observers have said for years that the team was too Manning-centric, that the team's success was invested too heavily in the ability of their future Hall of Fame quarterback to tally points and keep pressure off their defense. And yet the team's front office did little or nothing to change the delicate dynamic. Only a historic combination of poor planning, hubris, and run-of-the-mill injuries could turn a team that was 14-0 through week 15 of the 2009 season into the 0-7 team that limped off the field after getting shellacked 62-7 by the Saints on Sunday night. And for all you hear about "Suck for Luck"—the 2011 NFL buzz term for teams purposely tanking in order to secure the No. 1 pick in next spring's draft, a slot that will likely be filled by Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck—the Colts really aren't that bad. They may be on pace for zero wins, but these are not the second coming of the 2008 Detroit Lions, the only team to finish a 16-game season with no wins. No, in some ways they're more disappointing. During the decade from 2000 to 2009, the Colts won more regular-season games than any franchise in the NFL. They won more than 12 games a record seven seasons in a row (2003-2009), yet they were often unfavorably compared with baseball's Atlanta Braves: For all their regular-season success, the Colts only managed one championship.
Before Manning and his teammates finally broke through and won a title against the Bears following the 2006 season, he had a reputation as a statistical juggernaut who couldn't win the big game. Even now, after winning one Super Bowl and appearing in another versus the Saints after the 2009 season, Manning's career postseason record stands at a pedestrian 9-10. By contrast, the playoff record of the Patriots' Tom Brady, the one quarterback with whom Manning is consistently compared, is a superlative 14-5, with Brady winning three Super Bowls to Manning's one. But when Brady was knocked out for the 2008 season with a leg injury in the first game, the Patriots rallied around their untested backup, Matt Cassel, went 11-5 and almost made the playoffs. Does the Patriots' success that season prove that Manning, not Brady, is the more valuable of the two quarterbacks? It seems you can make that argument. But here's another argument you can make: The Patriots were better able to withstand the loss of their quarterback because they had a respectable defense that finished fourth in the NFL that year. Sure, Cassel had to step up and play well in Brady's absence, but the team had to collectively compensate for the loss of their best player. The 2011 Colts have not done that, because they're not constructed to do that. They've never been constructed to do that.
Team vice chairman Bill Polian and his son, Chris, the general manager, were so ill-prepared for Manning's health issues (he's had three neck surgeries in the last 19 months and has an outside chance of returning this season) that right before the season started they lured Kerry Collins out of retirement to fill in for Manning until, well, they weren't sure. The Colts' front office had seen Manning start 208 straight regular-season games since 1998—second only to Brett Favre's all-time record of 297—so they'd apparently been lulled into believing that Manning was impregnable. When reality proved otherwise, the Polians started to scramble, looking like car owners who realize it's a good idea to have car insurance only after they've run a red light and t-boned a city bus.
Rather than entrusting Curtis Painter, the backup quarterback they drafted in 2009 in the sixth round (the same round, by the way, that Brady had been drafted by New England in 2000), the Colts panicked and offered $4 million to a retired quarterback who was at home working on a country music album. These types of decisions don't engender much confidence in a team's fan base. As Stampede Blue, a Colts fan site, put it, "Signing Collins, and the gross under-valuing of Painter, were pretty colossally stupid decisions in a 2011 off-season defined by front office incompetence."