Let me start out by saying that I am not a Peyton Manning fan for reasons that I will not get into; they are irrelevant.
While I do at times indulge in the "overrated!" and "choker!" Manning bashing and would actually take Eli Manning over his brother if I were building a team. Why?
Peyton is the better player, but Eli has the stronger arm and makes more plays downfield. Sorry, but I like the vertical game much better than these new spread type offenses.
I have to be honest and admit: Peyton Manning gets a bum rap from people like me who are all too willing to give it to him.
For instance, the reason why Manning never won anything at Tennessee was because his coaches didn't figure out how to defend Florida—or play defense in general—was until after he left.
As for Indianapolis, they are a small market team whose owner has a limited cash flow. Jim Irsay and Bill Polian figure that the most likely avenue to success is a low-risk approach to building and maintaining a team that makes them more likely to make the playoffs every year but somewhat less likely to win a Super Bowl in any given year.
Simply put: The Colts never "go for broke" by going after boom or bust players high in the draft or by signing expensive free agents for a two to three year run that will put them over the cap and force them to blow up the team and be horrible for a year or two.
So, the only thing that you can really blame Manning for is the following:
First, for not playing better in games that he was going to lose to better teams anyway (i.e. for the "deer in the headlights" look against New England and Florida, or for throwing that pick-six against New Orleans) and second, for not being willing to do what Troy Aikman did with the Cowboys, which was to take pay cuts so the Cowboys could afford free agents on defense.
While Manning is certainly costing himself more than enough money in the added endorsements that he would get from having three or four Super Bowl rings to make up the $4 million a year that it would take to sign a Pro Bowl DT or LB, the fact is that franchise QBs rarely take pay cuts to help the team.
And indeed Aikman was viciously attacked in many quarters for doing so. Thus, it is impossible to go after Manning on this issue without doing the same for the other franchise QBs.
So, far from being an underachiever and certainly not being any sort of a failure, the Colts have grandly benefited from the Manning era.
What should by all rights be just another franchise that is cannon fodder and a punching bag for the ones in larger markets with rich owners that are SUPPOSED to dominate the NFL, Irsay, Polian and Manning have made the Colts one of the top NFL franchises of the past decade: always in the playoffs, a fixture in high profile TV games, and the face of an NFL that even if it has avoided the serious issues that have afflicted the NHL, Major League Baseball and the NBA, has certainly had its share of problems.
Or say it like this: the Colts without Manning are what the St. Louis Rams were before (and after) Kurt Warner; the Buffalo Bills before (and after) Jim Kelly; and what the Jacksonville Jaguars are generally.
Still, it would behoove the Irsay, Polian and Manning show to do their best to get one more Super Bowl title, in addition to staying generally competitive, for the remaining six to seven good years that Manning has in him.
And that cracks the door to the problem: Manning's best years are behind him.
It is difficult to tell at present, because with Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Donald Brown (who will hopefully contribute next year)and Anthony Gonzalez, Manning is surrounded by more talent than he has ever had.
Just a few years ago, it was Marvin Harrison (who had clearly lost a step), Edgerrin James (knee injuries having robbed him of his power and speed), Clark and Wayne (much younger and playing at nowhere near the level that they are now) and undrafted types and cheap free agents like Dominic Rhodes, Brandon Stokley and James Mungro.
Amazingly, even Tom Brady is younger than Manning.
It is ridiculous to think that an aging Manning will continue to give the Colts an advantage over that group of younger passers in the AFC, to speak nothing of being able to outplay whoever the NFC produces in a Super Bowl, especially if it is a younger, elite passer like Drew Brees.
So, while the Manning is still one of the best QBs in the NFL, the Colts have to start running the football, and running it to win.
The first part is relatively easy.
Since they are set at WR, TE and RB for the next five years, the Colts no longer need to address those positions in the first three rounds. There are needs on defense but they are overrated—get a good DT (or if Fili Moala pans out) and some better LBs and the Colts are as good on defense as anyone.
So, the Colts need to concentrate on their offensive line.
The Colts have adhered to the common thinking that with a franchise QB who gets rid of the ball quickly like Manning, they don't need to invest much in their OL. Their reasoning is that money is better spent on guys to run and catch the ball instead.
However, it has now passed the point of diminishing returns, as the Colts have two very talented first round draft picks on guys who aren't producing a thing because the OL isn't opening up holes for them to run.
Also, where Manning is past his prime (but still an All-Pro caliber QB), Joseph Addai is entering the time of peak productivity for a tailback, the three to four years when a tailback has mastered the mental aspects of the NFL game but before his body begins to break down.
Colts fans have forgotten this, but Addai was a speedster coming out of college who impressed NFL scouts after a rather pedestrian career at LSU (largely due to his being underutilized) with a blazing 40-yard dash. But rather than benefit from that speed, the Colts have had to watch Addai average barely four yards a carry because the offensive line is just that bad.
A better offensive line plus altering the playbook to get him going would result in Addai rushing for 1500 yards at well over five yards per carry.
Even better, you wouldn't have to wear Addai out, because Donald Brown is a great change of pace back.
He isn't bigger than Addai, but Brown has a more "between the tackles" running style where Addai is more of a speed back. Brown didn't go from rushing for 2000 yards for a not particularly talented Big East team that didn't have a passing game to being a bust in the NFL.
Instead, Brown only gained 3.6 yards per carry and 281 yards because the Colts' offensive line and playbook didn't allow him to do any more.
These have to change.
The Colts need to use at least three of their first five picks, including their first pick, on offensive linemen. They need two of those guys to play right away plus a developmental guy - say LSU's Ciron Black - who will be able to play in two years.
The Peyton Manning show needs to be curtailed and be less about Manning's famous audibles and short passing but with more things in the playbook dedicated to getting Addai and Brown yards. And yes, the Colts need to acquire—gasp!—a good FULLBACK and (double gasp!) a good blocking TE and to use them on more than just short yardage formations.
The Colts still have Peyton Manning and all those WRs, and they might as well use those advantages, in addition to exploiting the current NFL rules that make it practically illegal to so much as breathe on a QB or WR. (Brush up against a QB's helmet, it's a 15-yard personal foul!)
So, this will remain Peyton Manning's franchise.
However, the inability to run the ball when it counted, cost the Colts' dearly in playoff losses to the Patriots, Steelers, and Chargers. More to the point, a strange inexplicable refusal to give Joseph Addai as many carries as Dominic Rhodes got in the Colts' prior Super Bowl cost the Colts dearly in their loss to the Saints!
Granted, there was bad weather in the Colts-Bears Super Bowl.
Still, the Colts ran 40 times (against 38 passes) against a much better Bears' run defense for 190 yards.
By contrast, despite averaging over five yards per carry against a Saints defense that was daring them to run the ball, the Colts only ran the ball 19 times while throwing it 45. The Colts only had one more carry than did the Saints, who were only getting 2.8 yards per carry.
And consider that the the Saints run an offense where short passes from Brees basically take the place of the running game!
Despite what Colts fans insist on believing, Manning is not a Brees-Brady type of QB who can replace the running game with short passes. Manning needs a running game to control the ball and help put points on the board.
What the Colts failed to do in their missed opportunity against the Saints should be their blueprint for getting the most out of the last third of Manning's career.
The Colts should still be Manning's team, but they need to improve their OL and give Joseph Addai and Donald Brown a much larger role.
Otherwise, Manning's NFL career will end in the same manner that it began: with a bunch of early playoff exits.