Indy's ragtag bunch of Peyton Manning-less football paupers will once again be paraded around on national television for all to see, this time on Monday Night Football against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It's a cruel and pesky thing, that irony, and it's turning out to be that way for the Colts. The fruits of Manning's 13-year labor, namely all the nationally-televised games, have become poisonous and perilous exercises in high-definition humiliation. With Manning, Indy was arguably the most watchable team in the NFL, with crisp routes and timely passes turned into piles of points on offense, allowing pass rushers like Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to tee off on opposing quarterbacks on defense.
Without Manning, the Colts are practically doomed to play from behind, regardless of whether it's Curtis Painter or Kerry Collins calling the shots under center. Their offense looks lost, and their defense unprepared to play from behind.
You could always tell in years past that the team was built around Manning, and for good reason: He's the best quarterback in the league when healthy, a man who is simultaneously the team's quarterback, offensive coordinator and unquestioned leader.
But never has it been so clear for all to see just how Manning-centric the Colts are and have been.
Even in the best of times, the emperor (the Colts) was only scantly dressed (by Peyton Manning). Now, the emperor is not only nude, but looks like he wouldn't even know how to slip a robe on if he had one.
Mind you, this is all taking place on the biggest regular-season stages in football. What is usually taken by a team as a golden opportunity to show the world what it's made of has become a burden of sorts. Playing on NBC, ESPN and NFL TV, as the Colts will have done five times by the end of the season, exposes not only the team for being so devoid of talent, but also the front office for allowing things to get this bad, for resting on their (read: Manning's) laurels.
Then again, it's entirely likely that the players in Indianapolis still relish the opportunity to play in night games, that they, like most all professional football players, take pride in what they do and don't want to be made to look like fools in front of a national audience. That was what we saw from Indy last Sunday night against Pittsburgh, when they came so agonizingly close to upsetting the Steelers with a gritty, opportunistic performance to give their fans something to hope for.
Perhaps, the Colts, downtrodden as they may be, will find additional motivation in the medium through which they'll be reaching the nation on Monday night. Perhaps personal and professional pride will help them transcend Manning's absence on the road. Perhaps, Jim Caldwell will get his team back to basics, with a strong running game and an attacking defensive scheme, just like the Pittsburgh game.
Perhaps, but this is the NFL we're talking about—a league in which "maybe" doesn't quite cut it.
Not even if you're the Indianapolis Colts, a once-proud team that's now left to decay with everyone watching, including Manning.