Benner/Sports and Colts and Opinion and Sports Venues and Sports Business

BENNER: It's time for Colts to make game plan for future

January 15, 2011

Maybe the reason the Indianapolis Colts insist on keeping the roof closed at Lucas Oil Stadium is to keep anyone from noticing that the sky is falling.

Or, perhaps, beginning to.

Yes, they’re coming off a record-tying ninth straight journey to the National Football League playoffs and another AFC South championship.

Yes, they did it in somewhat miraculous fashion, overcoming the epidemic that placed 18 players on injured reserve and decimated the secondary and receiving corps.

And, yes, if and when the NFL resumes play in the fall, it is unthinkable that anyone other than Peyton Manning, newly enriched with what owner Jim Irsay has vowed will be the biggest contract in NFL history, will line up at quarterback.

I’ve always thought that, as long as the Colts have No. 18, that’s enough to make them a Super Bowl contender.

I no longer think that.

This recently concluded season, both incredibly inspiring yet profoundly disappointing in how it ended, was proof.

Required to shoulder more of the load than ever before because of the injuries, Manning was more mere mortal than miracle worker. Like many, I’d always been blinded by his work ethic, talent and intellect. I always figured that, one way or the other, he always was the Colts’ hole-card ace.

I’d forgotten that football is the most “team” of team games.

This season was a heady, ready reminder.

And maybe we all needed to also be reminded that no team rides the crest of the wave forever. Sooner or later, it crashes on the beach.

For the Colts, it is possible the shoreline is in sight.

No matter when, or how, the impending labor dispute is resolved, the fact is that, whenever the Colts reassemble, we will see as many fall chickens as spring ones.

Manning, Reggie Wayne, Jeff Saturday, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Gary Brackett, Adam Vinatieri—mainstays all—if not in the twilight of their careers, can at least see the sun beginning to sink. Running backs have notoriously short careers, which is why I can’t see Joe Addai being a major factor two or three seasons down the highway. Donald Brown has done little to inspire confidence as his successor.

Bob Sanders is gone (so, too, is the No. 21 jersey in my closet). We can’t think otherwise. Austin Collie, bless him, seriously needs to think about life after football considering the three concussions he suffered this season. And no one could blame him. Remember, too, that Dallas Clark has been the recipient of some brutal hits that, realistically, will shorten his time in pads. It all takes a toll.

I’m not a doom-and-gloomer. I didn’t buy it fully two seasons ago when talk-show gabbers began to opine that the Colts’ “window” (or was it their roof?) was closing. But it is folly to look at the Colts in their current state and believe their potential is as great as it was five years ago.

Which brings me back to Manning. As he moves into his final contract and closing years, it is imperative that the Colts shore up the positions around him. His skills will erode even if they haven’t already.

Unlike the Colts’ radio voice who said—in a fit of off-air pique that was recorded and made it on to the air—that the time had come to search the draft for Manning’s replacement, I believe that is an unthinkable, let alone unspeakable, notion.

But if he is going to go out in a blaze of glory, a la John Elway, the Colts must bolster the arsenal around him, which is why future Hall of Famer Bill Polian and his son/successor, Chris, make the big money. Now, more than ever, there can be no draft-day whiffs or disdaining of the free agent market.

You know, I’ve read—and said myself—that to some extent, we’ve taken this amazing run of success the Colts have had for granted. But in some ways, I think the Colts have taken it for granted, too. True, they can’t conduct business by way of pundits or popularity polls, but the input—and the passion—of the paying customer should be respected.

After all, the sun doesn’t shine on the same dog’s tail every day … especially if the roof is closed.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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