Based solely on the way DeSean Jackson is being portrayed as this season's symbol of wretched malingering, one might not think that he was one of the NFL's premier game-breakers just last year. He shredded defenses in short yardage, across the middle (evidenced by his near decapitation against Atlanta last year), deep downfield and -- most memorably on the final play of a game at the Meadowlands last year against the Giants -- on special teams.
But in this one short, lost season, Jackson's greatest hits have been replaced by the recent uneven, unflattering melodies sung to choruses that he isn't playing hard because he is distracted by his contract. Instead of being an indispensable contributor to what was supposed to be a Philadelphia Eagles dream team, he is being vilified for letting his teammates down. Once, stopping him was the key to stopping the Eagles; now, Jackson is a risk for a contract extension. He hangs out with the wrong people. He is unprofessional, and so on.
The Jackson narrative is familiar and easy. It's easy because it feeds into the stereotype of the star player as prima donna as well as the financial and generational resentment that exists toward young players. It's easy because it obscures the truth that his employer, the Eagles, have not been particularly professional, either. (Philadelphia created a rift on its roster by bringing in and paying big money to players such as Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin and Michael Vick but not to Jackson, a clear recipe for a distraction.) And it's easy because it allows anyone not in his situation to adopt an air of superiority in believing that he or she would behave better and more professionally than Jackson has.
But the biggest reason Jackson makes for an easy target is that in sports, it is easier to pile on an individual than an organization. And this season, the NFL's biggest, most obvious malingerer and practitioner of professional negligence has escaped almost completely untouched: the Indianapolis Colts football club.
The Colts are an embarrassment. Perennial title contenders with nine consecutive 10-win seasons entering 2011, they are 0-12. Even beyond Peyton Manning, Indianapolis ostensibly enjoys Hall of Fame-level talent, including defensive ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, wide receiver Reggie Wayne, tight end Dallas Clark and place-kicker Adam Vinatieri -- yet hasn't won a single game. The Colts have lost at home to such titans as Kansas City, Cleveland and Carolina. Their most recent defeat came at New England on Sunday, where they fell behind 31-3 in the third quarter before a garbage-time rally made the one-touchdown loss (31-24) appear more respectable.
They have let themselves, and their fans, down.
In a game in which front offices routinely are lauded for their acumen, the Colts' management reacted to Manning's neck injury like a deer suddenly noticing a Jeep's headlights on a dark country road. Indianapolis' front office seemed paralyzed at first, then acted oddly by sending out cryptic tweets that foreshadowed the tanking of a season. The coaching staff, led by Jim Caldwell, was uninspiring. When the lockout ended, the players appeared unsuitably motivated to play football.
Yet the Colts have received a free pass and more. The conversation about their poor start morphed seamlessly into their likelihood of winning the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes as the team with the No. 1 draft pick next year -- an indication that organizations can quit but players cannot. That narrative would be unthinkable if a player -- Jackson, for example -- tanked a season in looking forward to his upcoming free agency.
The worst offenders in the Colts' long list of suspects are owner Jim Irsay and general manager Bill Polian. Manning has undergone three neck procedures in the past 15 months, and his prognosis for the 2011 season was bleak as far back as May. In a death sport like football, neck injuries, after all, are not just season-threatening but potentially career-ending. The lockout came and went, and the Colts still did not seem to have a plan to replace him. Vince Young was available; the Colts didn't move. Finally, in desperation, as though hearing about Manning's injury for the first time, management signed Kerry Collins in late August, two weeks before the season began. Some of the team's own veterans, starting with Wayne, scoffed.
Indianapolis didn't even make a move on Manning, who wouldn't practice a meaningful minute this season yet never was placed on injured reserve. Meanwhile, Irsay sent out cryptic tweets about the "wild ride" on which the Colts were embarking, imploring patience from fans.
The explanations -- both for the Colts' lifelessness and the front office's apparent lack of concern about it -- leave much to be desired. Manning might be the greatest quarterback of his time, but he isn't so much better -- if at all -- than Tom Brady, and the Patriots won 11 games in 2008 with Matt Cassel at quarterback after Brady was lost for the season in the first quarter of the first game. Yet once it became clear Manning would not return any time soon, the expectations for the Colts waned as though losing every game is commonplace when a team is without its quarterback.
Then there is the excuse that Indianapolis is so far on the downside that even a full season with Manning wouldn't have saved the Colts from a 6-10 season. Mathis is 30, Freeney is 31 and Wayne is 33. Manning is 35, and the Colts' window, or so went the thought, was closing even faster than it is for the bygone Chargers.
Football, with its nonsensical paramilitary culture, is ostensibly the sport in which each member of the unit awaits selflessly for his turn to support the cause. But the leaders of the Colts folded up and surrendered.
Should Caldwell fail to survive the season, it will be hard to suggest that he is actually real coaching material, based on this year. Wayne did not scoff at the signing of Collins because Collins is incapable but because that particular quarterback was incapable of running an offense designed by and for Manning on two weeks' notice. Caldwell and the Colts not only seemed unable to adjust emotionally to the challenge of winning without Manning but also failed to adjust strategically by putting the players he had in the best positions for success.
And that supposedly is the reason the guy in charge wears the headset.
The best evidence of Caldwell's failures can be seen through the prism of John Fox's success in Denver, where the Broncos are tied for the AFC West Division lead with a quarterback whom Fox and his ownership team -- led by John Elway -- had slated to be third-string. Tim Tebow is not a great pro quarterback; in a traditional offense, he is hardly even a good one. But instead of tanking the Broncos' season by letting Tebow drop back and throw into a defensive maze he can't yet read, Fox did something novel. He actually coached, devising a run-heavy, deception-laden offensive game plan tailored for what his personnel can do.
Many coaches would be complaining about all that Tebow can't do, but Fox subjugated his ego, took on the challenge personally and provided Tebow with a structure that makes it possible for him to complete all of two passes and win a game (as Denver did against Kansas City in mid-November). Had he given Tebow the playbook for Kyle Orton's offense, there is little question that Fox, Tebow and Denver would've failed. Today, they are, at least now, dangerous. Fox and his offensive staff are the unsung architects of Denver's success. Jim Harbaugh or Mike McCarthy likely will be named the coach of the year, but Fox has been the best coach in the NFL by far this season.
Caldwell might not survive in Indianapolis, and the Canton credentials of Wayne and Freeney and Clark have been diminished. But the responsibility for this winless season falls on the front office, which did not earn its keep. Meanwhile, the sports culture that demands individual accountability but allows for mediocrity by institutions remains soundly intact. The howls about DeSean Jackson fill the airwaves, while the Colts have been a 12-game waste of time.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.