Ten questions worth pondering about the Colts without Peyton Manning:
1. Who’s under the most pressure?
The obvious answer is Kerry Collins, but if the expectations are unreasonable for the 39-year-old quarterback, that’s not on him. He can still be effective, but consistency is an issue and he tends to start games slowly. That’s a problem for the Colts, who are built to jump to leads and let defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis pursue quarterbacks who are trying to throw to catch up. Those successful two-minute drills that Manning has run at the end of a half or a game won't happen as often with Collins.
2. What will we learn about Colts head coach Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen?
Jokes about Manning coaching the team tend to be over the top. But he certainly makes more pre-snap decisions on the field than any other quarterback in the league. Even if Collins winds up making some of those reads and determinations, Caldwell and Christensen must show they can plan effectively for him in a way they weren’t always responsible for with Manning at the controls.
3. Is the line ready to play better?
A lot of people not that familiar with how the Colts play look at the sack numbers (16 allowed in 2010) and judge Indianapolis to be one of the league’s best pass-protecting offensive lines. It’s not. The Colts spent their top two draft picks on offensive linemen Anthony Castonzo and Ben Ijalana. Castonzo is slated to start at left tackle, and left guard Joe Reitz has not played in an NFL regular-season game. Ryan Diem appears to be moving from right tackle to right guard as Jeff Linkenbach, undrafted last year, takes Diem’s long-time spot. Collectively, the group must offer Collins reliable protection and block more effectively for a running game that must do more.
4. How does Collins handle blitzes and pass pressure?
Teams typically paid for blitzing Manning, but defenses will certainly try to do more to get to Collins. He didn’t move well when he was younger, and it’s certainly not a big piece of his game now. He’s not afraid to throw it away and live for another day. And former Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, who coached Collins the past five years in Tennessee and game-planned against the Colts twice a year from 2002 through 2010, said Indianapolis will be equipped to counter extra blitz pressure with screens to Joseph Addai.
5. Who has a chance to shine?
Even if Manning were around, I expected the Colts to try to get the ball to rookie running back Delone Carter in short-yardage and goal-line situations. He’s different than fellow running backs Addai and Donald Brown and seems like a player who can find a tough yard even when things don’t get blocked as they should. That offensive line can get a lot of attention if it plays well. And Brody Eldridge, more of a blocking tight end, could see more time if the Colts feel like they must sacrifice three-wide sets for additional protection or run-game help.
6. Can the defense help more?
As we mentioned, it’s a team built to pass rush against an offense that must throw. The Colts have not been a good run-stopping team and the defense didn’t fare well at it in the preseason. Indianapolis is slated to face a bunch of top-level backs. We could see two veteran additions at end, Jamaal Anderson and Tyler Brayton, get chances to contribute on run downs and help keep Freeney and Mathis fresher to rush. Rookie tackle Drake Nevis can help too. Overall, the philosophy of limiting big plays and making teams move it a little at a time has worked well enough. It’s not like they can make a dramatic change in it now.
7. What about special teams?
It’s been a neglected area for much of the Manning era. The offense is good at driving the ball down the field and doesn’t often get a good return to set up field position. While Manning makes big dollars, so do the team’s other stars: Freeney, Mathis, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Gary Brackett and Antoine Bethea. Dedicating a lot of pay to that core means the team doesn’t have a lot of veteran backups, and veteran backups make up the backbone of good special teams units. This also is an area where things can’t really be changed because they are dictated by personnel.
8. What if Collins goes down?
Curtis Painter, a sixth-round draft pick from Purdue in 2009, is the third quarterback. The team is very defensive about him, but it’s an organization that works very hard to defend draft picks. But the fact is, in his limited regular-season action and in the preseason, Painter has been ineffective. If the Colts lost their backup quarterback and had to turn to Painter, they’d be in giant trouble. I can’t see Indianapolis going after another veteran now. David Garrard, released by the Jaguars this week, should find a job better than what the Colts might have to offer. I don’t see Indy being interested in him anyway.
9. Will the offense slow down?
As experienced and as wily as Collins may be, it’s difficult to imagine him being able to play at Manning’s pace, snapping the ball to catch defenses with too many men on the field or flapping his arms while changing, or pretending to change, what’s about to unfold. The Colts, however, benefit from locking defenses into personnel groupings. If Indy doesn’t huddle or take the time to substitute, the opponent can’t either. Whether they can, or want to try to, maintain that as an advantage remains to be seen. If they huddle more, they allow defenses to adjust more, too.
10. If the season is a total bomb, would they want Stanford QB Andrew Luck in the draft?
The deal Manning just signed is for five years. But if Indianapolis vice chairman Bill Polian had a chance at a guy who’s regarded as the best college quarterback to come out since, perhaps, Manning, I don’t see how the Colts wouldn’t take him and let him learn under Manning. But a four-year wait for Luck to play couldn’t happen either, and the Colts would have to craft a long-term plan.