Can you imagine him in, say, a Dolphins uniform?

Assuming that you haven’t been vacationing in some remote Nordic country for the entire 2011-2012 NFL season (do they have football in Finland?), you know that the Indianapolis Colts finished this year with the worst record in football.  You also know that Jim Caldwell has been fired (and hired by the Baltimore Ravens), and Chuck Pagano— former Defensive Coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens– has been brought in as his replacement.  So the 90-million dollar question is:  What does this mean for Peyton Manning?

So much has been written about Peyton that it seems pointless to continue writing this article.  It’s like painting black on black– the man’s legacy eclipses words. For the next fifty years, people will debate whether Peyton Manning was or was not the greatest quarterback of all time. They will talk about rings versus records and drop names like Johnny Unitas, Tom Brady, and Joe Montana.  If Eli is able to take the Giants to the Super Bowl and win again this year, his name might also be in that conversation.  And why not? He’s earned it.  When it comes to football, there’s nothing wrong with allowing your loyalties to overpower your logic– it’s why we love the game.  We know that nothing is ever certain, and we cling to the possibility of victory to the last possible second, despite all evidence to the contrary.  But there’s one thing that we do know for certain: Peyton Manning is the greatest player that’s ever suited up as an Indianapolis Colt.

The NFL has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, but for the Colts, two things have remained constant: Manning behind center and the Tampa 2 defense. (Watch Brian Billlick’s explanation below.) The Colts’ defense has been a liability for years, and Chuck Pagano could be exactly what the Colts need to turn the unit around.  Caldwell was criticized for some of the play calls he made, and for his refusal to bench Curtis Painter this year, but I don’t believe that’s why he was let go. I believe his misplaced faith in Tony Dungy’s defense is what cost him his job.

The Tampa 2 has been the most common defense in the NFL for the last 10 years.  It relies, typically, on four down linemen to bring pressure to the quarterback, and a middle linebacker whose job is to read the offense and drop into coverage on pass plays.  Traditionally, the weakness associated with the Tampa 2  has been coverage in the middle of the field.  Offensive coordinators have learned that the best way to exploit that weakness is by slipping an extra receiver– usually a tight end or a pass-catching halfback– into the heart of the field.  This is why the tight end’s role in offense has evolved so dramatically over the years, from a blocking position to a true receiving position, and why Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, and Jermichael Finley have all become stars.

Another flaw in the Tampa 2 system is that it gives your defensive play-caller very little

Does Chuck Pagano have a plan for the Colts' defense? Did the Fonz have a leather jacket?

ability to disguise the pass rush.  If you look at the last year’s Super Bowl champs, the Green Bay Packers, as well as this year’s San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens, and Houston Texans, you can see evidence that there’s a new defensive trend emerging in the NFL.  The 3-4 defensive set works well because the coordinator can bring the pass rush from any combination of the four linebackers, as well as the three linemen, which makes it harder for the quarterback to anticipate from where the blitz will come.  I believe that the Colts, with the emergence this year of Pat Angerer (who was shamefully snubbed by Pro Bowl voters), have the personnel to run Chuck Pagano’s defense– but it’s going to mean retaining some talent.

Irsay worked the $28 million bonus that Peyton’s set to receive March 8th into his contract in order to protect the franchise.  You would think that if, in 1973, Lee Majors could get a bionic body built for $6 million, then surely Manning’s neck wouldn’t be a problem, but that hasn’t been the case.  The Colts kept Manning off of injured reserve all season, fully believing that at some point he would be able to come back and practice.  That never happened.  With the Colts holding the number-one draft pick, Manning should have been on the sidelines flexing his muscle and lobbying for draft talent.  It wouldn’t have taken more than a few YouTube videos of Manning throwing to get the Indianapolis fans rallied back to his cause, and Jim Irsay has proved nothing this year if not that he takes the fans seriously.

Unfortunately, Peyton is now surrounded by strangers. His recent interview with Bob Kravitz in The Indianapolis Star seems to confirm that he’s unhappy.  Irsay has added to the drama by publicly criticizing Manning’s comments.  These are clear signs that Irsay is more concerned with the future than the present.  There was a plan in place prior to this season, and all Peyton needed to do was get healthy enough to play.  He hasn’t been able to do that, and because of that, I think we’ve seen him suited up as a Colt for the last time.

I am not ashamed to say that Peyton Manning is one of my heroes.  If I am forced to eat these words in March, I will do so gladly, knowing that come next September, all will be right once again in the football universe.  I am as anxious as anyone out there to see what Pagano does; he’s already chosen Bruce Arians from the Steelers as his offensive coordinator, and we should know his defensive coordinator soon. The possibility of Andrew Luck in Indy is also intriguing, but for now, I will go to sleep dreaming of an aggressive 3-4 defense, and another year with number 18 under center. The clock, however, is winding down in Indianapolis, and as fans, all we can do is hold our breath and pray for one more Manning miracle.

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