The Indianapolis Colts have been the model of consistency over the past decade. From division titles to the coaching staff, the Colts have thrived on organizational stability and low roster turnover. The chaos of recent past has been highly unusual for this franchise and was punctuated last week with the departure of Peyton Manning and just about every other veteran player that has been an integral part of the Colts' "brand" over the last 10 years.
Like any organization attempting to "rebrand" itself, the challenge for the Colts' brain trust will be to weather the coming storm and to quickly rebuild, putting a product on the field that fans will embrace like they did the old one.
Unlike other businesses, football teams must retool from time to time. Age and injury mandate that. Even NFL dynasties like Green Bay and Pittsburgh have gone through this process. This is a first for Colts fans in Indianapolis, however, and the process will challenge the long-term perception of the team by its fans.
Let's take a look at the magnitude of what has transpired this week. It's impossible to overemphasize the significance of Peyton Manning to this franchise. In his 14 years, the Colts went to the playoffs 11 times, played in two Super Bowls, winning one of them. Until 2011, Manning started every game. Even though Manning didn't play in 2011, to say not having Manning as part of the team in 2012 will be unsettling is an understatement.
While Manning's departure was emotional, it wasn't a total surprise. Friday's purge of Gary Brackett, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Melvin Bullitt, and Curtis Painter left mouths agape. While we were all trying to get out minds around Manning playing in another uniform, the Colts released their best linebacker, tight end, running back and safety as well as 2011's starting quarterback.
The fan reaction was instantaneous and largely negative. "Did Jim Irsay give up the Colts for Lent?" asked one fan on Twitter. Another commented that the "sucking sound" was the "soul of the Colts" leaving the city. While these roster moves certainly makes at least some sense from a football and financial perspective in the long-term, the Colts should be prepared for the negative from the fans in the short term.
As if this weren't enough, it's likely not the end of departures. Last week's moves will open up salary cap space in 2013 and beyond, but for 2012 the Colts will be saddled with an estimated $36 million in "dead money" connected to those who were released. That means less money to spend this year and makes it unlikely that their lone remaining "big money" veteran, Dwight Freeney, will remain. It's also likely that Jeff Saturday will retire, completing the total gutting of the Colts' roster. Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon are likely gone in free agency.
Football success is all about winning on the field. To that end, don't expect the Colts to do much of that next year, or maybe even the year after. The NFL isn't built for teams to engage in this kind of roster overhaul. What went down last week may very well end up being the best decision in the long run, but in the short run it no doubt means losing and lots of it. It will take at least two draft/free agent cycles to put the personnel back in place for the Colts to be competitive.
That means that new GM Ryan Grigson is going to have little margin for error. One of his major qualities that made him an attractive choice for Jim Irsay was his ability in Philadelphia to find value in players drafted in the later rounds. Grigson must replicate that success in Indianapolis, or he may be better off renting rather than buying a house. Missed picks or injuries at key positions, like quarterback or running back, could derail this process.
Colts fans would be advised to be patient. We may very well be at this same place next year, discussing what the team will do with the overall number one pick. It's quite possible that more nights like the one last season in New Orleans will be witnessed. Whatever happens this season, keep the paper bags at home. And keep your minds and hearts open for this new group of Colts who will don the helmets with the horseshoe this Fall.
There won't be another Peyton Manning or Dallas Clark. Those players have etched their legends in Colts lore. There will be new legends being made, however, and those players deserve the support of Indianapolis every bit as much as their predecessors. We can only hope that given time, they can bring Colts fans as much happiness.
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