After nine straight seasons in which they had at least 10 victories and reached the playoffs, they have been reduced this year to trying to avoid the ignominy of a winless season and pondering what they might do in April if they have the top overall selection in the NFL draft — and first shot at Stanford star quarterback Andrew Luck.
The total unraveling of the Colts’ season leaves little doubt, experts say, that Manning is among the most indispensable players the sport ever has seen.
“It’s like taking the mom out of the household,” said former Green Bay wide receiver Antonio Freeman, who played with another centerpiece quarterback, Brett Favre, with the Packers. “There’s no way to replace Mom.
“There wasn’t a lot there before Manning and there’s not a lot there now that he’s hurt,” Freeman added. “People in Indy, all they can do now is think about the good days when he was in there playing.”
‘They lost their leader’
There are other examples of teams experiencing major dropoffs in performance after losing a top quarterback. The Denver Broncos went 6-10 in the 1999 season, a year after John Elway led the franchise to its second straight Super Bowl triumph and then retired. The Buffalo Bills went 6-10 in the ’97 season after going 10-6 and reaching the playoffs in ’96, their final season with Jim Kelly, the quarterback who led them to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.
But neither of those teams fell quite this far, and former Bills coach Marv Levy said there were other factors in the decline in Buffalo.
Backup quarterback “Frank Reich had already moved on. We had a young quarterback in Todd Collins. But we had also just lost people like Cornelius Bennett and Kent Hull, who had been key members of those teams,” Levy said. “Certainly losing Kelly was a big cut and part of the reason why we didn’t play at the same level, but it wasn’t the only reason. This is unprecedented, to my knowledge, for this to happen to a team with the loss of one player.”
Another prominent former NFL coach, Dick Vermeil, said he thought when the season began that the Colts could be a “close to break-even” team minus Manning.
“I started in the league in 1969 and I can’t ever remember this happening,” Vermeil said. “I don’t know if it’s 100 percent because of him being out or if they were in decline already. But they certainly wouldn’t be this bad if he was playing.”
Other teams have weathered the loss of a franchise quarterback much better. The New England Patriots, for instance, went 11-5 in the 2008 season with Matt Cassel at quarterback after Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opening game, leading to the conclusion that the Colts depend on Manning even more heavily than the Patriots rely on Brady, their three-time Super Bowl winner.