It’s always an adjustment when a Peyton Manning-led Colts season doesn’t entail an undefeated watch into November.
But a 2-2 start, including 0-2 in the division? That must signal some kind of impending doom. And there are plenty of pundits forecasting the downfall of the Manning era and its larger implications for the future of humanity.
So it begs the question of just how much weight to place on the Colts’ first four faltering weeks.
Let’s start at the top. It’s certainly not Manning’s fault. He’s only second in the league in completion percentage and yards while leading the way in total completions, passer rating, and touchdowns. He’s managed 11 touchdowns in four games to just one interception, a crucial one in the Jacksonville loss after he foolishly hit Brody Eldridge in both hands before the rookie coughed it up into the waiting arms of a defensive back.
Well then let’s blame the defense. True, they’ve had trouble stopping the run (quite a detrimental trait in a division featuring Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew.) They’re a beat up unit with Bob Sanders, he of the glass chin (and arms and neck and…) and his replacement Melvin Bullitt both out for extended periods.
With the exception of their pass defense studs in Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, this is a workmanlike but unspectacular defense. Antoine Bethea and Gary Brackett are excellent players, but not guys capable of single-handedly changing games on a weekly basis. We saw the price of when this unit doesn’t capitalize on its game-changing opportunities (right, Kelvin Hayden?)
Maybe it’s the offense then. Manning isn’t the problem, though you have to wonder just how much better he would be with a receiving corps of larger than three. He’s got Anthony Gonzalez, who’s matching Sanders in the fragility department break for break, and Pierre Garcon both on the sidelines, leaving double-teams for Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark and crunch-time duties in the unsteady hands of Eldridge and Blair White. That’s to complement the lack of offensive balance pervasive it seems since Edgerrin James left. Even the line, once a heavily fortified mainstay that allowed one or two sacks a year isn’t the dominant unit it once was, with ageing veterans replaced by less-than-convincing young players.
Perhaps most of all, this Colts’ team lacks that swagger it once had. For all of Manning’s success this year, they just don’t carry that palpable dread that enveloped the days of James and Marvin Harrison onto the field for every offensive possession. And Tony Dungy never made as much of a mess with a coaching decision as Jim Caldwell’s timeout blunder on Sunday.
But all of this needs to be viewed in context. Yes, they’re 2-2, a game and a half behind the Texans in the AFC South. But they’ve also lost both of their division games away from Lukas Oil Stadium. And there are plenty of teams (including the defending Super Bowl champs and the New England Patriots prior to Monday night, that also looked downright mediocre so far).
Let’s not forget that they’re a 200-yard game from an undrafted free agent and a career-long 59-yard field goal from an average kicker away from being undefeated.
It’s time to realize that there are levels to the Colts’ success and not among those classifications are an 8-8 season. This isn’t a middling team in a decidedly average division; their skill simply won’t allow it. The question instead isn’t whether Manning’s dynasty will soon come apart at the seams; it’s whether Wild Card weekend is their peak rather than the Super Bowl.
It’s quite obvious that the Colts as a team need to improve. But the disaster many forecast won’t be coming anytime soon, not as long as number 18 is still in the huddle.