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"If [the Colts] get the first pick, you have to take Andrew Luck," says Tony Dungy, the former Indy coach who is now an analyst for NBC. "You never pass on a great player."
Some fans have started wearing Luck jerseys to games, an acceptance of the fate of the current squad and the trajectory of a proud but fading franchise. Though loyal and exceedingly polite (hardly a boo was heard at Lucas Oil on Sunday), the Indy faithful watched 12 offensive possessions that went fumble, interception, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, end of game. (The Colts' only score came in the second quarter on a Jerraud Powers interception return.) Curtis Painter, the unready backup with the unruly locks, passed for 98 yards before giving way to Dan Orlovsky, who added 20 more. If fans had wondered what life without Manning would be like, they are experiencing it in frightening, vivid hues.
"You have the one faction that says, We owe Peyton—he's the reason we have Lucas Oil Stadium," Staysniak says. "The other says, You don't mortgage the future of the franchise when Peyton may not be able to play. If it means letting him go or if he can't play, boy, we're sad, but we're willing to sit through a year of disappointment for the promise of another 10 years of great football."
Irsay is looking at various heavily wooded paths, roads that lead to losing in the short term and uncertainty in the long term. "It's speculative to say, 'Would you sign a quarterback if you had [the] Luck [pick], or would you have him wait like Aaron Rodgers and have Peyton play?' " Irsay says. "You're looking at every scenario—and I'm always looking three or four years ahead—but in talking to the doctors, the strong belief is that [Manning] should be able to come back, being 36 years old going into next year and not 40. But until that happens, there is going to be speculation on exactly what he will be able to do."
The five-year, $90 million contract Manning signed over the summer is essentially a one-year deal with team options beyond that. In March, when the Colts will have a better grasp of his health, they can either pick up Manning's 2012 option for a reported $28 million or let him become a free agent. "This injury is one that is a little bit unpredictable," Manning told reporters last Thursday. Asked if he would entertain a mentoring role for a player like Luck, he said such talk was premature. "I don't think that's fair to the players that are playing, to speculate on what draft choice the Colts will have," he said. "[Veteran center] Jeff Saturday and Reggie Wayne, these guys are out there fighting, trying to win every game."
Early in the second quarter, with the Colts already trailing 14--0, the jumbotron focused on Falcons cornerback Kelvin Hayden, the former Colt who was integral to Indy's Super Bowl XLI win over Chicago and was released during the off-season. thanks for the memories, read the caption on the screen. Hayden, who earlier intercepted a Painter pass, raised his hand as the crowd cheered.
The previous night he'd met up with Colts safety Antoine Bethea at a downtown steak house. "We tried to stay away from football," Hayden said. "People ask me about those guys [struggling]. I don't have an answer."
Neither does All-Pro Indy defensive end Dwight Freeney, who says he never would have envisioned this season. "We've been winning. That's what we do, is win."
That's what they did.
"We've had success and greatness for such a long period of time, you want to be able to sustain that forever," Irsay says, "but you realize that isn't a possibility."