Jim Irsay's office is a monument to music, philosophy and optimism. A picture of Martin Luther King Jr. hangs in the entryway. A Neil Young box set rests behind his desk. Irsay, the owner of the Colts, takes to Twitter frequently, whether to post a picture of himself in a throwback Colts uniform ("Happy Halloween!"), offer up prizes for trivia ("How does a head of lettuce become a bed of lettuce?") or simply send out good vibes ("I'm at the factory this morning, creating rainbows, dreams n sunrises").
"You have to be relentlessly positive," Irsay explains. "I believe in that energy."
Through his office windows on a Thursday afternoon Irsay sees the onset of autumn, a gray mist shrouding rows of rust-colored trees. This has long been the Colts' time of year, when the annual march to the playoffs begins in earnest. But not this season.
In three days Irsay's Colts will suffer a 31--7 loss to the Falcons that will leave them at 0--9, the last NFL team without a victory. Indy will turn the ball over on its second play from scrimmage, a fumble on a run up the middle. By midway through the third quarter Lucas Oil Stadium will begin to empty. A column in The Indianapolis Star on the morning of the game will take aim at the front office for poor personnel decisions, painting G.M. Chris Polian as "a toxic force who has brought this franchise to its knees for reasons other than Peyton Manning's injury."
After the game Polian's father, Bill, the team's vice chairman, will go on the Colts' radio network and defend the family name, declaring that "some people are just rats who lie about people."
Who can stay positive in this kind of environment? "It sucks, man," veteran receiver Reggie Wayne will say in a nearly deserted locker room after the loss. "It's rough."
Minutes after Bill Polian's radio interview, Irsay will take to his Twitter feed once more, his sunny disposition finally giving way to encroaching darkness: "We will never accept this kind of chronic losing ... it's an unwelcome visitor, that we will not tolerate."
FROM 2000 THROUGH 2009 the Colts won 115 games, more than any other NFL franchise. Manning punched the clock week after week, weaving together the kinds of seasons that established him as one of the best quarterbacks the game has ever seen and made Indianapolis a hub of the sports world. But in early September he underwent his third neck surgery in 19 months, related to a bulging disc, and the timetable for his return to football remains unclear. His absence has left the Colts flat-footed and a city searching for equilibrium.
"There is disappointment, but we're not to the point where people are wearing bags," says former Colts offensive lineman Joe Staysniak, who hosts a sports talk show on WIBC radio in Indianapolis. "But you do see the editorials, the cartoons where the kids are trick-or-treating and they're walking away from a house saying, 'Oh, no. More Colts tickets.'"
The team's complete lack of competitiveness (Indy has been outscored 120--24 in its last three games) and Manning's slow recovery haven't just sunk the mood in the city, which will host Super Bowl XLVI in February, it has also created a potential dilemma. Indy could end up with the first pick in the 2012 draft, setting up a scenario that seemed inconceivable only months ago: Would the Colts draft Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the consensus No. 1 and a player some view as the best QB to come out of college in years? If so, where would that leave Manning? Unless the Colts turn things around—and that prospect does not look very likely—the questions will hang over the franchise, promising a winter of scenarios endlessly talked out: Manning playing Brett Favre to Luck's Aaron Rodgers; or, following the Joe Montana path, traded to another team at the end of his career; or set on the road to retirement.