Indianapolis, who will host the Super Bowl in February, have many questions to answer if Peyton Manning does not return from injury in time for the season starter.
Peyton Manning's health is leaving Colts in limbo
INDIANAPOLIS // Peyton Manning's goals remain the same. It's the Colts' short-term focus that has changed.
Instead of using the pre-season to fine-tune their high-scoring offence, they are still waiting for Manning to get healthy enough to make a difference - and perhaps make Indianapolis' Super Bowl hopes come true.
"You understand why it's being hyped up, but it's so far away it doesn't even it feel like it's this year yet," said kicker Adam Vinatieri, who already owns four Super Bowl rings.
The muted reaction inside Indianapolis's locker room is understandable given the team's recent run of success. They has won seven of the last eight AFC South titles, tied the NFL record with nine straight play-off appearances, but uses Super Bowl victories as the measuring stick.
This year, with Indianapolis hosting its first Super Bowl, the city's expectations have changed. Fans are no longer discussing the four month lockout that put the big game in jeopardy and would rather debate whether the Colts can become the first team to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium.
"They would love it," the defensive captain Gary Brackett said.
Getting there was never going to be easy, and Manning's slow recovery from off-season neck surgery has been a bigger obstacle than anyone anticipated.
For only the second time in his 14-year career, Manning did not take a snap in training camp and he's expected to miss all four pre-season games. The last time that happened, Indy started 3-4 and had to win its last nine just to make the play-offs.
If the neck injury does end Manning's streak of 227 consecutive games, including play-offs, most figure the Colts have no chance at reaching the Super Bowl. But the Colts have a penchant for redefining conventional wisdom.
Indy finished last season with 18 players on injured reserve, including the star tight end Dallas Clark, and still won the AFC South. It won more regular-season games (115) between 2000 and 2009 than any team in any decade in league history. After reeling off 23 straight wins between 2008 and 2009, the Colts pulled their starters in the third quarter of Week 15, throwing away a shot at a perfect season.
Players think they can do it again.
"It's not like we're going to not play games and close up shop," Clark said. "Obviously, we had a lot of injuries last year, and, obviously, Peyton is a little bigger name. But whoever steps in has to do the job."
The questions are not just about Manning or his backup, as team owner Jim Irsay made clear on a recent Twitter post.
Receiver Austin Collie returned to practice on Monday after missing an entire week with a knee injury. He's coming back from two concussions. Receiver Anthony Gonzalez, who missed most of the past two seasons with knee injuries, has been bothered by a hamstring injury.
The Colts are hoping four former first-round draft picks - defensive linemen Jamaal Anderson, Tyler Brayton and Tommie Harris, and linebacker Ernie Sims - can help make the defence more stout against the run.
Indy are also reconstructing the offensive line that protects Manning. The Colts used their first two draft picks on offensive tackles Anthony Castonzo and Ben Ijalana in hopes of reviving a running game that has not topped four yards per carry since Indy's only Super Bowl-winning season of 2006.
"As tough as it is out here [at training camp], when the lights come that's really when you want to see guys step forward," the Pro Bowl centre Jeff Saturday said. "That's what we'll see over the next few weeks."
It's also when things will really get tough.
Houston believes they are ready to destroy the Colts' division dominance; Jacksonville nearly did last year; and Tennessee has signed Matt Hasselbeck to rejuvenate the only team other than Indy to win the South title. Outside the division, the Colts still have to contend with the two-time AFC runner-up Jets and perennial rivals Baltimore, New England, Pittsburgh and San Diego.
Of course, they've always had Manning to bail them out in the past. This year, who knows?
"He's working extremely hard to get back as quickly as he possibly can," coach Jim Caldwell said.
With or without the only four-time MVP in league history, Colts fans still have one wish: seeing their team playing at Lucas Oil Stadium in February.
"We've not talked about that at all," Vinatieri said. "You know there's going to be hype and how excited the city is about it. You see the mayor on TV every other day talking about it and you get that. But from the football side of it, we haven't even looked got past the pre-season yet. We can't allow yourself to think about that right now."