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BENNER: Keep the orange No. 18 jerseys at home

September 8, 2012

Prediction: The Indianapolis Colts will earn a playoff berth.

Next season.

But now that I have your attention …

Sitting near us in Lucas Oil Stadium for the Colts’ first preseason game was a fellow wearing an orange, No. 18, Peyton Manning Denver Broncos jersey. 

We all understand the loyalty to Manning and the impact he had on the Colts and our city. His dozen years of success, the four most valuable player awards, the Super Bowl triumph, community initiatives such as the PeyBack Foundation and the St. Vincent Children’s hospital that bears his name and his national celebrity placed him on an unparalleled level.

If he’s not the city’s all-time sports icon, he’s on a very short list that would, of course, include the Indiana Pacers’ Reggie Miller, just inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame.

But now Manning belongs to someone else. We should all wish him the best and, especially, good health.

And I will be as interested as anyone in watching how it all unfolds in Denver.

But here in Indy, it is finally time to turn the page and—hey, buddy—change the jersey.

Barring the unforeseen, Andrew Luck will write his own special history, even if it will not come quickly. Patience, folks.

True, Luck has been heralded as the most NFL-ready quarterback since John Elway and Manning. However, Elway didn’t win Super Bowls until his 15th and 16th seasons in the league. And Manning went 3-13 as a rookie and didn’t win a Super Bowl until his ninth year.

With that—and last year’s 2-14 record—in mind, the experts’ forecasts for this season have been mostly dire. While everyone agrees Luck is a can’t-miss, the so-called “power rankings” have the Colts at or near the bottom. The prognosticators remember last year’s collection of Horseshoes and know that the quarterback position was merely the most noticeable of problems.

For now, new General Manager Ryan Grigson is the feel-good story of the season, the former Region Rat and Purdue Boilermaker who has come back to try to lead his home-state franchise out of the wilderness.

Just as with Manning and Luck, Grigson ultimately will be judged against the giant shadow of his predecessor, Bill Polian, who is certain to go down in history—and likely into the Hall of Fame—as one of the greatest NFL executives.

How quickly Grigson can assemble the complementary talent around Luck will determine the pace of the Colts’ rise. In the preseason, we saw a slew of talent spread among the wide receivers. Meanwhile, the prominence of the tight end—especially Luck’s Stanford University teammate Coby Fleener—in the Colts attack will be something to watch.

But in the NFL, a team has to be able to run the ball when it wants to run the ball, and stop the run when the other team wants to run. There are serious doubts whether the Colts are there yet, although I love the newfound aggressive style.

The kicking game is solid. Adam Vinatieri still has a stout leg, while brash, colorful, Twitter-meister punter Pat McAfee is a weapon. Let’s just hope he isn’t one of the special teams’ leading tacklers again this year. On a side note, I will personally miss long snapper Justin Snow, who was a class act and a champion of Special Olympics, among other causes.

As for the coaching, everything I’ve seen and read from Chuck Pagano has been encouraging. He’s fire where we’ve previously had ice. I’m not saying sideline stoicism doesn’t have its place (Tony Dungy), but at this particular point in the Colts’ development, there needs to be some passion coming from the top.

So what’s my prediction for this year? If Luck stays upright and the Colts defense doesn’t get routinely gouged by opposing rushers, I say 7-9, and maybe by the end of the year, no one will be wearing No. 18 Broncos jerseys to Lucas Oil Stadium.•

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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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