News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

October 20, 2013

MARK BENNETT: One-ring blues?

As Manning returns, Indy should be thankful for a Super Bowl win, another solid QB and a departure from mediocrity

TERRE HAUTE — Minutes before kickoff tonight, the Lucas Oil Stadium tech crew should play Sam Cooke’s classic, “(What a) Wonderful World” over the sound system.

Just to hear the late, great Sam sing the opening line, “Don’t know much about history.”

The song is 53 years old, but ridiculously relevant.

As the countdown to Peyton Manning’s return to Indianapolis neared last week, Jim Irsay — the Colts owner who made the difficult decision to let the superstar quarterback go — gave an interview to USA Today that obviously bothered Manning, his current Denver Broncos coach, John Fox, and many of Peyton’s notable friends. Irsay’s lament that he had only one Super Bowl ring to show for the 13 seasons Manning played in Indy sounded like an insult.

Irsay had routinely praised Manning, the global face of the franchise, especially as they parted ways in 2012. A neck injury sidelined Manning for the entire 2011 season, prompting Irsay to release his four-time NFL Most Valuable Player rather than pay Manning’s hefty salary.

Irsay drafted Stanford star Andrew Luck as the new QB, and then revamped the club from the front office to the front line.

In his USA Today comments, Irsay explained that Manning understood the decision.

Then Irsay said, “We’ve changed our model a little bit [since 2012, with Luck], because we wanted more than one of these,” pointing to his Super Bowl XLI ring. “[Patriots quarterback Tom] Brady never had consistent numbers, but he has three of these [referring, again, to his big ring]. Pittsburgh had two, Baltimore had two, and we had one [in that timespan]. That leaves you frustrated. You make the playoffs 11 times, and you’re out in the first round seven out of 11 times. You love to have the ‘Star Wars’ numbers from Peyton, Marvin [Harrison] and Reggie [Wayne]. Mostly you love this.”

“This,” again, meant his ring.

Coach Fox called it “a cheap shot,” adding, “I’d be thankful with that one Super Bowl ring because there’s a lot of people that don’t have one.”

The Broncos boss is right, but misses the big picture, in Indianapolis Colts historical terms. It transcends the club’s 21st-century Super Bowl ring count. After all, NFL stats junkies could argue endlessly over Manning’s legacy, based on his 9-11 postseason win-loss record vs. his incredible statistics, MVP honors, Cal Ripken-esque durability and memorable performances. They’re measuring his Colts record by a set of standards that didn’t exist in Indianapolis before he joined the team in 1998.

Manning gave Indianapolis fans the opportunity to be disappointed by an early exit from the playoffs.

At one time, simply making the playoffs — “Playoffs?! Playoffs?!” in Jim Mora’s words — seemed ridiculous. Likewise, in the not-so-distant-past, the thought of compiling a 9-11 postseason record would be a pipe dream.

At one time, the concept of the Indianapolis Colts participating in a Super Bowl would come only in hallucinations.

Their pre-Peyton history is not pretty.

How quickly Irsay and many others have forgotten the days when Hoosiers expected the Colts to lose. The days when fans of visiting teams would nearly outnumber the Indianapolis backers. The days when Manning’s quarterbacking predecessors struggled to generate first downs and avoid repeated sacks. Remember those guys? Mike Pagel, Art Schlichter, Mark Herrmann, Jack Trudeau, Gary Hogeboom, Blair Kiel, Chris Chandler, Tom Ramsey, Jeff George.

Jeff George.

Take 1991. Please. The Colts won one game that dreadful season, George got sacked 56 times, and the team scored just 143 total points in 16 games. By contrast, in 2004, Manning’s Colts scored 162 points in November.

Or consider 1995, the highlight of the franchise’s Indianapolis era until Peyton, Marvin, Reggie, Edge, Polian (yes, Bill Polian) and Co. arrived. Jim Harbaugh surprised the league by quarterbacking the Colts to a then-stellar 9-7 record and into the playoffs for the first time in 24 years.

24 years.

But never mind the sparse victories and offensive futility, let’s not forget the cringe-worthy, off-the-field episodes. George boycotting training camp and feuding with the fans and teammates. Future Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson’s contract disputes and suspension for reportedly refusing to practice. Losing the first 13 games in ’86.

Tonight’s game should be a reminder for Colts fans to count their blessings. They’ll watch the two best quarterbacks of the Indianapolis years go head to head — their former hero, Manning, against his resilient, gifted heir, Luck. Irked by Irsay’s words, Manning may dissect his former team in a lopsided romp by the Broncos, a team he’s restored to Super Bowl-contender status. Then again, Luck could respond with an audacious performance and add to his resume, already impressive after just a season and a half.

Either way, the circumstances should be kept in perspective. Indianapolis enjoyed 13 years of “Star Wars” offense, and now it’s witnessing “The Next Generation.” Twenty years ago, the best Indy fans could hope for were reruns of “Lost In Space.” If Colts followers keep that in mind, what a wonderful night this could be, as Sam Cooke put it.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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