INDIANAPOLIS, DEC. 19 -- The Indianapolis Colts were barely 45 minutes into the 1990 season when General Manager Jim Irsay saw the present and future lying in a heap at Buffalo's Rich Stadium.
Jeff George, the young gun brought in by Irsay to carry a wobbling franchise into the National Football League's upper echelon, had just taken a vicious hit from Bills linebacker Cornelius Bennett. Irsay tried to keep from trembling too noticeably.
"It's something you've already rehearsed in your mind," Irsay said. "You try to prepare yourself for Jeff getting hit and either getting up slowly or not getting up at all. What are you going to do? You can't just slit your wrists or jump out of the pressbox."
George recovered from his opening day concussion, but the Colts remain a franchise with weak knees. When they host the playoff-bound Washington Redskins Saturday night at the Hoosier Dome, they will do so with a 6-8 record, faint playoff hopes of their own and questions that refuse to go away.
Among those: Is George everything Irsay, Coach Ron Meyer and the rest of management thought when they sent Pro Bowl tackle Chris Hinton, Pro Bowler-to-be wide receiver Andre Rison and two draft picks to Atlanta?
After 14 games, the Colts believe the answer is yes.
"Jeff is something special," said Irsay, who thought enough of George to construct a six-year, $12 million contract. "And he's only going to get better."
Despite missing all or parts of six games with the Bennett-inflicted concussion and an abdominal injury, George has pieced together a solid rookie season. He is 4-6 as a starter, has completed 54 percent of his passes, thrown for 1,678 yards, 11 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
How important is George to the well-being of the franchse? In his four victories, he has completed 58 of 104 passes (55.8 percent) for 813 yards, 7 touchdowns and 1 interception. In his six losses, he was 79 of 152 (52 percent) for 783 yards, 4 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
"The exciting thing is that Jeff has only scratched the surface," Meyer said.
En route to its 6-8 record, Indianapolis has toured more peaks and valleys than a roller coaster. The Colts have been good/lucky enough to win at Philadelphia and Cincinnati, but bad enough to lose at home to New England. They whipped Kansas City and accounted for three of the four interceptions Steve DeBerg has thrown this year, but squandered a 17-6 second-half lead in a 20-17 setback to Phoenix.
"We're never going to be a real good football team until we become a consistent football team," Irsay said.
Overall, the Colts seem to be as impotent offensively as their No. 28 ranking indicates.
The running game, which currently rates as the NFL's second-worst (80.4 yards per game), never got off the ground. That is due partly to Eric Dickerson's self-inflicted five-game suspension. Sharing in the blame is a line that never has jelled.
Not only was Hinton laboring in Atlanta, but right guard Ben Utt was lost to Plan B free agency and guard Randy Dixon's holdout ate up the entire preseason. The line has yielded 44 sacks in 14 games after allowing only 28 a year ago.
Holdouts, age and injuries have taken their tolls on the defense. When Indianapolis ventured to Buffalo on opening day, linebacker Jeff Herrod, the team's defensive MVP a year ago, and end Jon Hand were still trying to pry new and improved contracts from Irsay.
Herrod has since returned to his nasty form -- he leads the team with 125 tackles despite missing three games -- while Hand has been a step behind all year. He may play against the Redskins after missing three games with a knee injury.
In Hand's absence, the Colts started the season with a "thirtysomething" defensive line of Harvey Armstrong, a 31-year-old nose tackle, and ends Donnell Thompson and Sam Clancy, both 32. Compounding that problem has been a knee injury that sidelined Armstrong for four games and a foot injury that kept Thompson inactive for four weeks.
It adds up to a defense susceptible to the pass and the run. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 62.7 percent of their passes and have thrown a league-low seven interceptions against 17 touchdowns.
Ironically, a team that is being pummeled for 133.9 rushing yards per game has yet to surrender a 100-yard individual outing.
"We knew it was going to be a long, tough year," said Meyer, who has withstood season-long rumors trumpeting his demise. "Now, when reality strikes, no one likes to face it. But we still have a chance to kick this thing into an 8-8 type of season. We can still make this a very rewarding season."