Editor's Note: Longtime NFL writer Dan Pompei, who has covered 26 Super Bowls, will be writing about the league for Bleacher Report this season.
This isn’t about Peyton Manning versus Jim Irsay.
And it never was supposed to be.
When Irsay, the owner of the Colts, told Jarrett Bell of USA Today, “We’ve changed our model a little bit, mostly because we wanted more [championships],” he wasn’t talking about something Manning failed to do. He was talking about his evolving philosophy on team-building.
Irsay may have had what everybody else wanted when he had Manning. But like the guy with the gorgeous girl and a wandering eye, he wanted more. He wanted a team that could win in more ways than the Manning Colts could. And he is in the process of trying to get that team now.
Whether Irsay—who made the decision to release Manning, perhaps football’s greatest quarterback ever, and make Andrew Luck the No. 1 pick of the 2012 draft—is right or wrong remains to be seen, but he has not moved forward with an absence of logic. And his logic never has been more interesting than it is this week, as his Colts are preparing to host the Broncos in Manning’s return to the stadium he helped build.
“A quarterback is a big piece of it, but man, there is so much more to it to really get to greatness,” Irsay told Bleacher Report.
Irsay went into depth discussing an era of Colts football in which his team dominated the regular season like few teams in history but won only one Super Bowl and was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round seven times in 11 tries.
“You have to ask yourself why when we are favored by 10 points plus at home against the Steelers [2005 season] and Chargers [2007 season], whatever the numbers were, and we come up short,” he said. “You look at the  Super Bowl, being only the second team in Super Bowl history to have a 10-point lead and lose the game. Even the  Super Bowl we won, we gave up a kickoff return to start the game. Those Patriots teams in ’03 and ’04, we had trouble getting past them. All those things. You try to analyze it, along with all the success you had.”
So Irsay took the opportunity of Manning leaving to rebuild the Colts in a different way. He let new general manager Ryan Grigson know of his vision before Grigson took the job, and Grigson was of like mind. They hired Chuck Pagano, the defensive coordinator of the tough and nasty Ravens, to be the head coach. Since that time, they have replaced offensive coordinator Bruce Arians with Pep Hamilton, who is more inclined to run the ball. And they have parted with a 2014 first-round pick in a trade for a running back, Trent Richardson.
Did the Colts make the right decision on Peyton Manning?
“Starting a new era, there was a real conscious thought in terms of trying to be more balanced in the other two phases of the game, defense and special teams,” Irsay said. “Oftentimes you can end up playing in real difficult weather conditions—outside, cold, windy. So you try to be a little more balanced in terms of how you commit your salary-cap dollars and everything else. You obviously want a dynamic offense and playmakers, but at the same time, you want to be consistent, be able to stop the run and play really sound special teams, where you feel you have an edge there.”
What’s interesting is so far this year the Colts already have defeated perhaps the two most physical teams in the NFL, the 49ers and Seahawks. They won one game with help from a pick-six, and another with help from a blocked punt for a safety. They have run the ball 45 percent of the time. In the entire Manning era, the Colts ran the ball a higher percentage of time only once, in 2005.
Every team builder would prefer a more balanced roster. But assembling one, especially with one player taking up an inordinate amount of cap space, is challenging.
It may be easier for the Colts to have this type of team now that Luck is in his first contract. When he gets his second and third contracts, he likely will eat up more cap space, and there will be less for others. But Irsay said he believes they can achieve his goals with a highly paid quarterback because others have done it.
“Look at the Patriots,” he said. “They’ve had [Tom] Brady all these years. In ’03 and ’04, he was one of the greats in the league with Peyton. They found a way to do that. Same with [Ben] Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. They have done an incredible job in terms of cap dollars. You have to realize spending wise, we’ve been consistently in the top three or four teams. … The Steelers and Patriots have proven you can have that quarterback and find a way to get it done. There are enough dollars to go around, even with the franchise quarterback.”
So Irsay apparently believes the Colts could have taken this approach with Manning early in his career. He made it clear his respect for Manning remains immense, despite what some, such as Broncos coach John Fox, have perceived this week.
“I know in my heart my affection and appreciation and love for Peyton, what he means to this city, this franchise and to me,” Irsay said. “You do anything you can, and I have in terms of being his No. 1 supporter. I sent him on a private plane twice to Switzerland for treatments. After the Super Bowl, I flew him on my plane to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. I don’t have to worry about what others think. You can’t control that. They happen for different reasons. I know the reasons why some of them happened, but to mention why would fuel the fire even more. Different people have ulterior motives. Controversy sells. You know how the machine works. It doesn’t bother me. I just smile at it.”
Irsay has no regrets about what he said, because he said he was talking more about his failures than anyone else’s. “In the end, I’m the one responsible for putting it all together,” he said. “Not winning more than one falls squarely on me.”
He considers it a lesson learned. And the new-model Colts are the result.
• Josh Freeman, Minnesota Viking, doesn’t sound much like Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay Buccaneer. The word out of Eden Prairie, Minn., is Freeman has been coming in early and staying late—and working on his day off to boot. He also appears to have picked up the Vikings offense quickly. The Vikings knew he was smart, based on his 27 score on the Wonderlic test, and it’s showing. All that said, there remains considerable doubt that Freeman is ready for the Giants on Monday. He has not had enough time to get his timing with receivers down and understand all the nuances of Bill Musgrave’s offense.
• One veteran talent evaluator believes Robert Griffin III’s struggles this year might be a portent of what is to come. His thinking: The Redskins QB is going to have to make the transition to being a pocket passer to be a top NFL quarterback, given his knee issues and the risks of inordinate movement. But RGIII’s pocket passing has been spotty this season. “He might not be accurate enough—accuracy never was his strong suit,” the evaluator said. “He missed a number of key second-half throws you have to make against Dallas.”
• Bears coaches believe rookie middle linebacker Jon Bostic is better prepared to play well now than he was in the preseason. He will get his first start Sunday in place of D.J. Williams, who suffered a season-ending pectoral injury. Bostic started every game in the preseason and made a number of flashy plays before taking a seat when Williams came back from a previous injury. Bostic’s understanding of the defense has grown, in part because he has used his time on the bench to learn all three linebacker positions. As a backup, the second-round pick was going to be the next man up at any linebacker spot. “When you have to play multiple positions, you have to know everything and you have to know why,” Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. “He knows more about what people are doing next to him now, and he has a deeper understanding of the defense and his responsibilities.”
• On draft day, the chances of Kenbrell Thompkins catching a game-winning touchdown pass in October were not very good. Representatives from multiple teams said he wasn’t even on their draft boards as a result of his extensive arrest record (seven arrests by the time he was 18) and questionable intangibles. In fact, word out of New England is the Patriots never would have touched Thompkins if they knew about Aaron Hernandez’s situation at the time they signed Thompkins as an undrafted free agent. But two teams said Thompkins had enough talent to justify a fifth-round pick if character was not a part of the equation.
• Not many teams had much interest in tight end Joseph Fauria back on draft day, either. Teams say he did not leave great impressions at Notre Dame (sources say he left there after a controversy over allegedly slapping a priest on the rear end) and UCLA, where his attitude and effort level were issues. He also ran a 4.85 in the 40-yard dash. But Fauria was 6’7” and could catch, and a number of teams thought he was worth a late-round pick. The Lions took a chance on him as an undrafted free agent, and it turns out Fauria was just what they needed. With Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush drawing all the defensive attention, Fauria has been matched up in the red zone in single coverage with much smaller defensive backs, and he has five touchdown catches on nine passes thrown his way.
Draft Tip of the Week
The Colts’ trade for Richardson makes more sense if you know what the 2014 running back draft crop looks like.
“It’s one of the worst running back classes I’ve seen,” one veteran scouting director said. “Cleveland won’t be able to find a replacement for Richardson in this class.”
Of the seniors, the best in class right now appears to be Marion Grice of Arizona State, and scouts say he looks like a third-round pick. Barring someone emerging between now and April, there might not even be an underclassman with a legitimate first-round grade. The best appears to be Baylor’s Lache Seastrunk, but two front-office men pegged him as a second-rounder if he leaves school early.
There has been some buzz that Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas could be a high pick, but at 5’9”, 173 pounds, he gives scouts pause. It’s going to take some big footballs to take him in the first round. “He’s not a full-time back,” said one scout, who had him pegged as a third-rounder. “He’s tiny.”
There is no debating Manning’s brilliance this season. But it is also true that he is getting help from a gifted stable of pass-catchers. In fact, no team in the league has gotten more yards after the catch than the Broncos, who have 1,108.
Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas has 294 yards after the catch, more than any player in the league, according to Stats. Tight end Julius Thomas has 204 yards after the catch, second-most among tight ends. Wide receiver Wes Welker ranks 12th among wide receivers, with 181 yards after the catch. Fellow receiver Eric Decker is just eight yards behind Welker, and he ranks 16th in the league at his position. And Knowshon Moreno has 133 yards after the catch, more than all but 15 running backs.
But Manning is not getting an unusual amount of help from his receivers, if you consider how much he has thrown the ball. His 1,077 “air yards” (before run after catch) rank first in the NFL through Week 6.
And though 50.6 percent of the Broncos’ passing yards have come after the catch, there are 11 teams with a higher percentage of yards after the catch. Even New England, purported to be a receiver wasteland, has gained 50.3 percent of its passing yards after the catch.
Which leads back to an important point—a lot of yards after the catch can be attributed to the quarterback.
• Matt Elam needs to learn you can’t hit a ball-carrier too low. Or too high. Just grab the flag off his belt and get out of the way next time.
• Virtually everyone involved in the NFL, except those counting beans, would be in favor of eliminating Thursday night games. So Thursday night games have no chance of being eliminated.
• Browns fans are searching for a quarterback with an advertisement on Craigslist. If Browns history is a guide, the chances of finding a good one on the website may be the same as finding a good one in the draft.
• A brokerage service is allowing investors to buy stock in Arian Foster. However, smart investors who want to buy low and sell high are much more interested in Matt Schaub stock.
• And finally, Jets players need to clean out their ears. They apparently heard something different when Rex Ryan told them, “No sacks this week.”