To see the impact a good center can make, the Colts don't need to look far. All they have to do is look at their franchise record books, which - much like the NFL's record books - are dominated by Peyton Manning. One of Manning's numerous records is shared with longtime center Jeff Saturday: the two started 170 games together, the most in history for a quarterback/center duo.
The combination of Peyton Manning and Jeff Saturday was a perfect match. The two grew to trust each other, with Manning even allowing Saturday to handle the offensive line calls. Manning, of course, would become one of the most prolific players the league has ever seen. Saturday didn't do too bad himself, either, as he started 202 games overall, made six Pro Bowls (five with the Colts), was a two-time first-team All-Pro, and is a member of the Colts' Ring of Honor - a group Manning will join as soon as Jim Irsay can get his name put up in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Peyton Manning and Jeff Saturday defined what a quarterback/center relationship can and should look like, and it was fitting that both men left the franchise in the same offseason. Manning was released in 2012 and Saturday left as a free agent to play one year with the Packers. Manning's replacement came easy for the Colts, as they drafted a once-in-a-generation prospect with the first overall pick in Andrew Luck. Saturday's replacement, however, was harder to find.
Over the past four seasons, the Colts have had five different players start at center over the span of 70 games (including playoffs). Samson Satele started 27, Jonotthan Harrison started 19, Khaled Holmes started 12, A.Q. Shipley started nine, and Mike McGlynn started three. 13 times in the past four years the Colts have made a change at the center position from one week to the next, whether due to injury or performance. Last year, the Colts actually had the most consistent year yet in terms of centers, as Khaled Holmes started the first seven games and then Jonotthan Harrison started the next nine. Neither of them proved to be the answer, however, and so it finally came to the point where Ryan Grigson knew what he needed to do: he needed to invest in the position.
So Grigson went out and grabbed the best center in this year's draft, taking Alabama's Ryan Kelly with the first overall pick. The hope is that, finally, the Colts have their permanent replacement to Jeff Saturday to play with their permanent replacement to Peyton Manning. And hopefully, things will turn out as well as it did for the franchise's previous era.
"I kind of equate it to the relationship that Peyton and Saturday had for 170-whatever games, whatever that was," head coach Chuck Pagano said on Thursday night. "Lord willing and the creek don't rise, the same thing can happen. That chemistry, that continuity, you can't replicate that any other way. You certainly can't replicate it by going down the road that we've been down for the last four seasons, 64-65 starts for Andrew and five different guys in there and 10 starts for one of them being the most. That's not fair to anybody. That's not fair to the football team."
Pagano is right: the Colts have been trying to find a plug-and-play guy to be the answer at center, but they knew they couldn't keep switching it up with sub-par talent in front of Andrew Luck forever. That's part of what makes the pick of Ryan Kelly such a good one for the Colts, as the expectation is he will be able to be the long-term starter at center with Andrew Luck the long-term starter at quarterback. Some fans might question the value of a center, but don't tell that to the Colts. They've seen first-hand the value of a good quarterback/center relationship with the best in history, and now they're hoping to replicate it with their new era.