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Colts Quarterbacks: A historical perspective

Take a look back at the Colts franchise history at quarterback to get a better understanding of where the team has been and put where it is going into perspective

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Super Bowl XLI: Indianapolis Colts v Chicago Bears Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Throughout the process of completing the voting for the Colts All-Time 53-man roster it became clear that there was a lack of appreciation for the team’s history at each position. While this is natural and expected, given that the team has been in Indianapolis now for over thirty years and twenty of those years have been filled some pretty fantastic players, it might help keep things in perspective to know more about the storied history that came well before the legends of the franchise in Indianapolis.

It makes sense to start at the quarterback position, where Peyton Manning has put his mark on NFL history, by looking back at some of the quarterbacks that preceded him and helped lead the way for the horseshoe.

Peyton Manning

Philadelphia Eagles v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Peyton Manning finished his career with 71,940 yards, 539 touchdowns, 186 wins in 266 games, two Super Bowl wins in four Super Bowl appearances, Super Bowl MVP, 5-time NFL MVP, 14 Pro Bowl appearances, and is a 7-time first team All-Pro. If you want an idea of the many Colts franchise records he holds, visit this link and scroll near the very bottom of the screen. If you prefer to skip right to the all-time NFL records he currently holds, visit this link and scroll about two-thirds of the way down the page.

His spot among the all-time great quarterbacks in NFL history will be solidified forever. National media morons might say things that make themselves look stupid or to ruffle some feathers to generate attention for their dying forms of media, but for most NFL fans — save maybe Patriots fans — there will never be any doubt that Manning’s name belongs among the games greatest. Maybe even at the very top of a distinguished list.

There isn’t a great need to tell Peyton Manning’s story in a piece like this one. Pretty much every fan that is reading this story now has been forever changed by seeing his brilliance on a football field. Every quarterback that comes after him in Indianapolis, or anywhere else, will be measured against the seemingly impossible. I, for one, am grateful to have been here to watch it all unfold.

Johnny Unitas

It is fair to say that Peyton Manning played during a time when passing in the NFL reached new heights. The league will likely continue making passing a more desirable and lucrative option for putting points on the scoreboard and so it won’t be surprising to see Manning’s career records get broken sooner than should be possible. But this new world that Manning played in and helped create is part of the reason that it is so impressive to take a look at Johnny Unitas during an entirely different football era.

From the mid 50’s and into the early 70’s, Unitas led the Baltimore Colts as one of the most feared and accomplished franchises during the berth of the NFL. His accomplishments include being a 3-time NFL champion, winner of Super Bowl V, 10-time Pro Bowl selection, 5-time First-team All-Pro, member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was a 4-time NFL passing yards leads, 4-time NFL passing touchdowns leader, threw for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns, and has his number 19 retired with the Colts. For more details on his impressive career, visit this link and scroll three-fourths of the way down the screen to view his Legacy.

Of course, to share these accomplishments and players numbers doesn’t truly define what that player meant to the team, to the fans, when he played. If you want a glimpse into that, I suggested you read an article submitted by a fan to Sports Illustrated in their vault. In this story, Frank Deford tells it like it was actually watching the Baltimore Colts and the team’s leader Johhny Unitas.

Bert Jones

Bert Jones (QB) was the NFL’s MVP in 1976, along with being a First-team All-Pro and the NFL Offensive Player of the year. He threw for 18,190 yards and 124 touchdowns with a 56.1% completion percentage. With the Colts he took the team to three straight AFC East division titles from 1975-1977 and during the entire 70s decade, Jones was one of only three quarterbacks to achieve a 100+ passer rating -- joining Roger Staubach and Ken Stabler.

His accomplishments, similarly, don’t do justice to the impact he left on the franchise and on the game. I would invite you to read a story written by Chad Lamasa on Bleacher Report to get a better idea of just how good of a player Jones was during his time in Baltimore. Included in this story is that Jones called the plays from the line of scrimmage like Manning did and that Bill Belichick called him the “best pure passer he ever saw.”

Earl Morrall

Morrall’s story doesn’t follow the same kind of script as the other quarterbacks on this list. He was a journeyman who played for the 49ers, Steelers, Lions, Giants, Dolphins and the Colts. This didn’t stop him from putting up an impressive resume during his career that included being a three-time Super Bowl champion, NFL champion in 1968, 2 -time Pro Bowler, 2-time First-team All-Pro, NFL passer rating leader in 1972, NFL Comeback Player of the Year in 1982, NFL MVP 1968, and NFL passing touchdowns leader in 1968 — compiling 20,809 passing yards with 161 touchdowns.

The greatest Colts story during Morrall’s career in Baltimore occurred in 1968, when Johnny Unitas injured his elbow during what amount to the last preseason game and would miss the entire season. All Morrall did that season is lead the Colts to a 13-1 record and to the Super Bowl against the New York Jets — where they famously lost to Joe Namath in Super Bowl III. While that was an awful game for the Colts, including Morrall, that season is arguably the best single-season a 34-year old quarterback has ever played.

For a more in-depth look at his impact on the NFL, I recommend taking a look at a story by Chase Stuart at Stuart covers Morrall’s journey around the NFL and the impact he had for each team he played for along the way.

Jim Harbaugh

While it is certainly fair to say that Jim Harbaugh doesn’t quite fit in with the company he keeps in this list, he played an important role in Indianapolis Colts history. After the team moved to Indianapolis in 1984, the team would not have any meaningful success for a long time. One of my personal memories is watching the Colts training camp at Anderson University in the mid-90s and there was almost no fans in attendance.

The biggest change to that was drafting Peyton Manning in 1998 but something really important happened before that, which lit the fire that started burning in the hearts of football fans in Indiana even before Manning arrived.

In 1995, Jim Harbaugh “Captain Comeback” led the “Cardiac Colts” to the AFC Championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. During this season Harbaugh had the best season of his career, accumulating a completion percentage of 63.7, passer rating of 100.7, threw 17 touchdown passes, and led the team to a 7-5 record during the 12 games he played during the regular season — the team finished 9-7 overall.

The Colts team in 1995 earned the “Cardiac Colts” moniker because so many games were down to the wire. No one really expected Indianapolis to make the push to the playoffs — let alone to the AFC Championship game — and they didn’t just make it to the game they were one play away from winning it and going to the Super Bowl. This pretty incredible consider that Harbaugh found himself on the verge of getting replaced before the season when the Colts traded their first round pick to the Bucs for quarterback Craig Erickson.

It is a truly remarkable story and for those who became fans after Manning arrived, it is worth taking the time to read Manny Ranhawa’s story in the Indy Star breaking down the most important season in Indianapolis Colts history that pre-dates Peyton Manning. There is a reason Colts fans have clamored for the return of Jim “Captain Comeback” Harbaugh, it is because he breathed life into Indianapolis Colts fans in 1995 and will never be forgotten because of it.

As for Harbaugh’s broader career accomplishments, he was named to the Pro Bowl in 1995, was named NFL Comebacker Player of the Year in 1995, the AFC Player of the Year in 1995 and he threw for 26,288 yards and 129 touchdowns. He played for six teams in his career with the bulk of his time spent with the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts.