With this series, I'm writing about what does not worry me as we head into the 2012 season. I obsess over all other sorts of issues (the secondary, the negative perception of the fanbase, lack of ticket sales, the crazy owner, etc.), but I don't write enough about the stuff that doesn't have me losing sleep. We did the the offensive line and the tight ends first. Now, it's time to talk gunslingers...
Peyton Manning Is Dead. Long Live Peyton Manning!
There was always an odd, unsettling truth that hovered over the Peyton Manning Era Colts, and that truth was this: Without Manning, the team simply wasn't that good.
Keep in mind, that sentiment was more true in the years following their Super Bowl victory over the Bears in 2007. However, even during the days of Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James in their primes, without Manning, the Colts simply weren't a good all-around football team.
For some reason, a healthy number of Colts fans were actually OK with this; that if the quarterback went down, it was perfectly acceptable to classify the Colts as "done." The season would then become meaningless, and there was always next year.
Loser mentality, in my humble opinion.
Ask the 2011 Texans if it was OK to give up and pack it in after they lost not one but TWO starting quarterbacks in the span of two weeks.
One position cannot define the season for an entire team, and the quarterback should not be the difference between the team winning twelve games and the team winning two. If he is, then A) That's one helluva quarterback (and Peyton was that at one point), and B) the general manager must be an incompetent boob.
There was also speculation during the Manning years that Peyton was uncomfortable with the team drafting a quarterback earlier than the third round. Like Joe Montana and Brett Favre, Peyton had little interest in grooming anyone as his future replacement(or as a true starter should Peyton fall to injury. Thus, hapless quarterbacks like Jim Sorgi and Curtis Painter were taken in late rounds of the 2004 and 2009 draft, respectively. Both grew to become friends of Peyton's likely due, in some part, to their willingness to hold a clipboard and get out of Peyton's way.
I recall a statement John Madden made about Jim Sorgi back in 2007. This was right after Sorgi signed a three-year, $3,855,000 extension with the Colts, a team he had absolutely no chance to ever start for. Sorgi had never truly proven himself as an NFL-caliber QB at the time, and was even booking endorsement gigs as the NFL equivalent of the Maytag Repair Man (if you need that reference explained to you, go here). Sorgi got the extension, and when the subject was brought up during a television broadcast (with Madden acting as a color commentator), the old Raider coach made this rather astute observation (paraphrasing): I would never sign a quarterback who didn't want to start.
[Note: Another funny Madden line about Sorgi playing quarterback: That's a double-edged Sorgi.]
The point of all this isn't to simply bash Sorgi or Painter. No, neither one were good quarterbacks. The Colts simply lacked the coaching talent or the scouting guile (or both) to find and development a quality back-up. Part of the reason for this was Manning. He didn't want someone on the roster looking for reps with the first team, and it is only with reps with the first team (aka, the good players) that a back-up truly develops. Manning wanted all the reps, all the quality spare time receivers could give him before and after practice. In hindsight, this was a mistake. Peyton should have been forced to share. The goal is for the team to win, not simply to make one player happy. Franchises like New England and Pittsburgh still won football games with players like Matt Cassell and Charlie Batch. If they could do that, why couldn't the Colts? The question was valid, and, unfortunately, never answered until the 2011 season.
Also tossed into this mixed salad is the fact that, via free agency, the Colts did bring in some marginal free agent talent at the back-up QB position. Players like Shaun King in 2006 and Tom Brandstater in 2010 outplayed Jim Sorgi and Curtis Painter, respectively, during training camp and preseason those years. Yet, for reasons that baffle, Sorgi and Painter were retained while King and Brandstater were tossed aside. Personally, I think the reasons for this moves had more to do with the ego of the former team president. If free agents like King or Brandstater were retained over Sorgi and Painter (both of whom were drafted), that somehow bruised the former president's pride. It didn't matter that Shaun King had experience starting and winning playoff games in Tampa Bay, or that Brandstater was calm and composed in the pocket. Sorgi and Painter had to be good if, for nothing else, so that Bill Polian could prove his critics wrong.
In the end, the Colts got lucky for roughly 13 years. That, and despite his selfish tendencies, Peyton Manning was a tough guy who played the position the way it is meant to be played. It's interesting to wonder if, had Peyton not been so stubborn, maybe he'd be healthier today. He's saying all the right things about his new Broncos teammate, Brock Osweiler, but at the end of the day, Peyton has no interest in sharing reps with him or teaching him how to be a starting quarterback. Like Sorgi and Painter before him, Osweiler will hold a clipboard and shut up. If he doesn't, he'll get the Manning Face.
In an odd way, I'm glad the Manning Era is over. There is a sense now that, with the new quarterbacks, it's more about fitting them into the fabric of the team rather than the team getting in line with the wishes of the quarterback. It's more the Indianapolis Colts now rather than Peyton Manning... and the Indianapolis Colts.
There's Talent Behind Andrew Luck
The comparisons between Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning will continue for years. Doesn't matter if it is fair or not. Luck was drafted to replace Manning, and if he fails, fans in Indianapolis will tune out the Colts much the same way they did the Reggie Miller-less Pacers in recent years. However, one element Luck has going in his favor is that, unlike Peyton in 1998, he's coming to a franchise that has a culture of winning already in place. Established veterans like Robert Mathis, Reggie Wayne, Adam Vinatieri, and Antoine Bethea are already providing internal leadership. They've won Super Bowls. They've made Pro Bowls. Two of them are borderline Hall of Famers. Luck doesn't have to come to Indy and establish a new culture. He has to fit into the existing one.
The other thing Luck has going for him is, unlike Peyton, he actually has some experienced talent backing him up.
Schmucks like me hold G.M. Ryan Grigson's feet to the flame because the local Indianapolis media is soft; more glorified P.R. than what would pass for journalism. However, even though my language and tone is tough, don't mistake that for me disliking Grigson's work so far. In fact, one of my favorite Grigson moves this offseason was him trading a 6th round pick to the . for backup quarterback
Stanton isn't any sort of franchise quarterback, which is what Detroit envisioned him being back in 2007 when they took him with the 43rd overall pick. What he does have is experience starting and winning games. He has size (6'3, 230 lbs) and he's got a good arm. He also doesn't crumble under pressure. In starting three games for an injured Matthew Stafford in 2010, Stanton completed 59% of his passes for 547 yards, 3 TDs, and 2 INTs. He also ran for a TD during that stretch, utilizing his surprising mobility (11 rushes, 80 yards).
Not gaudy numbers, but very respectable. The Lions went 2-1 during that stretch, which is what one can expect from a back-up stepping in.
After the 2011 season, Stanton left the Lions and signed with the Jets to back-up Mark Sanchez (and maybe replace him). However, when Peyton Manning was signed by the Broncos, John Elway quickly shipped his starter in 2011 (Tim Tebow) to the Jets. With Tebow in Gang Green, there was no chance for Stanton to ever get meaningful reps. He requested a trade, and got it. Now, with Indianapolis, he doesn't have much of a chance to start, but he isn't buried on the depth chart like he would have been in NY.
Should Luck struggle, or worse (he gets injured), Stanton has the talent and experience to keep things moving in the right direction. I'm of the opinion that if a guy like Stanton had been Manning's back-up last season, the Colts would not have started 0-13.
Why I'm Not Losing Sleep
The health of Peyton Manning used to always worry me. Any hard hit he took, any stray shot he endured, I wondered if that would be the blow to effectively "end" the Colts season. With Manning gone, and with a better, more objective attitude by the front office to evaluate the talent at the quarterback position, I feel better abut things. Trading for Drew Stanton was one of the more underrated moves made by Ryan Grigson this offseason.
You'll notice that I didn't mention "Mr. Irrelevant" Chandler Harnish in the previous section. Harnish is an Indiana native who the Colts took this year as a developmental player. He has decent size (6'2, 220 lbs) and mobility, much like Luck and Stanton do. However, unlike other Colts project players (ahem, Sorgi and Painter), Harnish is not expected to be the back-up right now. Nor should he. He actually has time to, you know, develop. He can cut his teeth with the third stringers, easing his way into the speed of the NFL. Meanwhile, Stanton has already experienced live NFL action, and played well in it. He can be a true back-up.
I've gone through all of this and I've said maybe written just one or two things about the new face of the franchise, Andrew Luck. At the end of the day, I'm not losing sleep over Luck because I've watched his college game tapes. I've seen him in interviews. I've read the practice reports and talked with people who watched him conduct the offense in minicamps.
Luck is a 23-year-old version of Manning.
He's less demanding. He's less "Type-A." He's more willing to fit into the group rather than the group fitting in with him. In these ways, he's more like Eli Manning than Peyton. However, when it comes to the important stuff, the attention to detail and the ability to lead men, Luck is a Peyton clone in many ways.
Our favorite franchise is so stupid Lucky, it's not even funny.
So, to recap, we have a true franchise quarterback in Andrew Luck, a quality back-up veteran in Drew Stanton, and a decent developmental QB in Chandler Harnish. Yeah, I feel pretty damn good about the QBs this year.
For a complete breakdown of the QB position, check out Josh Wilson's Position Breakdowns-The Quarterbacks