There are some athletes who you may not root for but are so ingrained in the fabric of their sport’s cloth that their absence leaves a glaring hole.
Now, their leader has undergone more neck surgery and is out indefinitely. He may not even play this season and that’s unfortunate not only for the Colts, but also for the NFL as a whole.
No position has as big of an impact on a team as the quarterback. Injuries to the starter under center are the most demoralizing, especially when he’s also the best player on your team.
When Tom Brady went down with a knee injury and was lost for the season, the Patriots turned to the inexperienced Matt Cassel. They still finished 11-5. The Colts must now try to win without their leader to keep their streak of consistent excellence alive.
The replacement? Kerry Collins, an adequate quarterback with a lot of experience. He’s been to a Super Bowl and is second to Manning among active quarterbacks in passing yards, completions and attempts.
The 2008 Patriots exceeded what teams who lose their starting quarterback tend to do. But there are examples of both successes and failures.
Then you have the 1999 Jets, who lost Vinny Testaverde in Week 1 and seemed doomed. While it took awhile to figure out the right replacement, Ray Lucas eventually turned out to be just that and the Jets finished a respectable 8-8.
The Colts already have their replacement set and he is anything but raw. The real issue for them won’t be Collins, but Manning's absence expounding a number of other problems including a weak rushing offense and defense.
Manning under center is akin to a symphony on stage. Improvisation that’s never predictable, but precision in doing so that rarely fails. You sit back and soak it in. You know you’re watching a legend, one good enough to mask deficiencies with his incredible play. His late-game prowess wins games that otherwise might go in the loss column.
That’s not going to happen with Collins. The Colts may not be as bad as some experts think, a three- or four-win team. They’re not a playoff team with Collins though. They’ll be slightly below average, a five- to seven-win bunch. That means the best rivalry of the past decade, Colts/Pats, isn’t going to be the same and may be nearing an end.
There’s no way to quantify the totality that Manning’s loss will have on the league. It’s going to be weird watching a Colts highlight and not seeing Peyton Manning connecting with Reggie Wayne or Dallas Clark or even Blair Thomas. You may not even know Thomas’s name if not for Manning. He’s a special player in that he makes those around him better.
The NFL is a product that is in no danger of suffering anytime soon. Ratings for last night’s season opener were even better than in 2010.
But there will be a void.
It’s like going back to school when a friend graduates. Just as a campus and buildings remain the same, the Colts will still be in all white, horseshoe on helmet, playing in Lucas Oil Stadium.
It just won’t be quite the same sans Manning.