Manning, Colts face great unknown this season - NBC Sports

Manning, Colts face great unknown this season
Indy must try to stay close in division with QB out, but offense sure to struggle
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Peyton Manning is the Colts quarterback and de facto offensive coordinator, NBCSports.com's Gregg Rosenthal writes.
September 8, 2011, 4:09 pm

The last time it happened was Dec. 21, 1997. Jim Harbaugh, now the 49ers head coach, started for Indianapolis that day. Current Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo was gearing up for his 10th Christmas.

The NFL without Manning is equally disarming, especially for a few months. His play has been the constant in the league over the past 13 seasons. In an era of worst-to-first, Manning's Colts have been to the playoffs nine straight seasons and 11 out of 12 years.

Manning's latest setback after neck surgery told us this season is going to be different, no matter how it ends. Once the surest bet in the NFL, Manning's Colts face the great unknown.

Nobody knows
On June 1, Colts vice chairman Bill Polian said he had "little or no worry" about Manning's second neck surgery in as many years. The Colts thought Manning would be ready for training camp. On July 22, Colts owner Jim Irsay said he wasn't worried and expected Manning to be ready to play. And then Irsay gave Manning the best contract in league history.

And on Thursday, Peyton Manning underwent neck surgery and could miss up to 2-3 months. That ends his streak of 227 consecutive starts, including the playoffs.

No one knows when Manning will truly be healthy again. This isn't a knee sprain that Manning can gut out. It's nerve regeneration.

Life without Manning
Manning has won four MVP awards. They didn't all arrive in best seasons, but they were all well-earned because no player is more important to his franchise.

The Patriots won 11 games without Tom Brady in 2009. Indianapolis would be lucky to win six without Manning. New 39-year-old backup quarterback Kerry Collins can't learn the "Colts offense" because you can't separate the playbook from Manning.

Manning earns his money as the team's quarterback and offensive coordinator. He calls the plays; he sets protections; he perfects his timing with random receivers from Blair White and Jacob Tamme to Pro Bowlers such as Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark. Manning makes it all go.

The Colts picked up Collins too late, midway through training camp. That move alone tells us the team was caught flat-footed by Manning's injury. It tells us that the Colts have no idea when Manning will be back. They just want the best chance possible to stay afloat in the meantime.

So is it possible?
The Colts' offensive line was a sieve last season. It has been almost completely remodeled for 2011. That should be a good thing long term, but raises questions right now.

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It's not like the Colts can rely on their ground game. They have been among the least-effective rushing teams in football three years running. Without Manning, Indy goes from a top-5 offense to one that could be among the worst in the league.

The receiver group remains an asset. But so much about what makes Wayne, Clark and Austin Collie great is that they know how Manning thinks. With Collins in the game, that mental synchronicity evaporates.

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The Colts open Sunday on the road against division rival Houston. Next they host the Browns and Steelers before a Monday trip to Tampa.

The key for Indy is to stay close in the division until Manning comes back, like Pittsburgh did with Ben Roethlisberger. Unlike the Steelers, Colts don't have a dominant defense to rely on.

They also don't know when Manning will return or whether he'll be the same when it happens.

A wide-open division
Half of the playoff teams every season don't make it back. Yet the Colts always make it back, and it's almost always as AFC South champs. (The Titans beat them to the No. 1 seed in 2008 when the Colts went as a wild card.)

This season has a different feel. The Texas have boasted one of the steadiest offenses in the league the past few seasons, but never had a smart plan on defense. The new plan is proven: Wade Phillips has a virtually unmatched record as a defensive coordinator over the past two decades. The defense only needs to be average, and let the offense do the rest. It's Indy's model. The division is Houston's for the taking.

Jacksonville and Tennessee have new life a well. Jaguars GM Gene Smith has methodically built his roster for three drafts while pointing toward the 2011 season, even if they still need a quarterback.

The Titans are rebuilding, but they have a terrific offensive line and Chris Johnson at running back. It's a better roster from top to bottom than people think.

Manning has dominated this division for so long, covering up Indy's other weaknesses. His sudden vulnerability will have the Colts' rivals smelling blood. Out of division games against the Steelers, Saints, Falcons, Ravens, and Patriots won't be any easier.

Whether Manning is in the game, every team will get amped to beat the Colts.

The great unknown
By going public with Manning's setback, the Colts re-set expectations. This injury is going to take a little time to heal. They essentially admitted they gave Manning his money without truly knowing when he was going to be healthy again. Even Peyton Manning probably doesn't know when he'll be back.

On Sunday afternoon, Collins will take the first snap from center for Indianapolis. It will be a sobering moment for Colts fans, one in which they understand this is a new, strange season. It will be the moment Colts fans realize how lucky they've been the past 13 years.

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