Just two short years ago, the top story as the NFL's regular season unfolded was the Indianapolis Colts and their pursuit of a perfect record. The Colts opened that year 14-0, and then inspired a national debate by taking their foot off the gas after Christmas, choosing to rest their players for the playoffs rather than chase perfection.
That controversy and all of its attendant fallout must seem eons ago in Indianapolis these days. The Colts in 2011 are again mounting a run at perfection, but it is their unblemished streak of playing perfectly awful football that now captures our attention. Forced for the first time ever to get along without injured quarterback Peyton Manning, who is still recovering from recent neck surgeries, the Colts aren't just a shell of their old selves, they're not even recognizable beyond their blue and white color scheme and that familiar horseshoe on their helmets.
Indianapolis is a stunning and NFL-worst 0-7 this season, and Sunday night in New Orleans represented the nadir of the Colts' nightmare (it had better), a 62-7 humiliation at the hands of the Saints, the team they narrowly lost to in the Super Bowl a little more than 20 months ago. The Saints' point total matched the highest ever by a team since the 1970 merger, and it highlighted the depths to which the Manning-less Colts have sank.
It feels almost comical to point this out given the context, but in being its seventh loss of the season, Indy's defeat at New Orleans was something the Colts had avoided for the past 10 years. Indianapolis' league-high streak of nine consecutive seasons of 10 wins or more is officially over, and you can bet the mortgage at this point that the Colts' league-record-tying run of nine consecutive playoff trips (2002-10) will come to a crashing halt as well.
How did it come to this? And historically speaking, has any team that has been this good ever fallen this far, this fast? Not that anyone needs reminding, but these Colts have played in two of the past five Super Bowls, and averaged more than 13 wins per year, including the playoffs, from 2002-10. And yet, winning even one game now seems a task larger than they're up to, and in New Orleans the Colts looked like a dispirited and mentally defeated team that had already spent its best effort in earlier losing causes this season (see narrow defeats against Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Kansas City).
Indianapolis appears rudderless in terms of leadership at this point, with the job security of dazed third-year head coach Jim Caldwell already very much in question, and no difference-making moves forthcoming from the front office management team of club president Bill Polian and general manager Chris Polian, who have presided over this disaster as smoothly as Capt. Smith at the wheel of the Titanic (Manning injury = iceberg is roughly the equation at work here).
And what to make of the Colts' other veteran stars not named Manning, who seem to be sleepwalking their way through this lost season? Team leaders like receiver Reggie Wayne, center Jeff Saturday and defensive end Robert Mathis are all scheduled for free agency in 2012, and they're not exactly creating a burgeoning market for their services by succinctly proving that the Colts were indeed a one-man team all along.
Next man up? Not in Indy. You can save that cliché for elsewhere in the NFL, because the Colts are playing as if they've never really pulled themselves out of the mental fetal position they resorted to once Manning was lost. And not to underestimate the loss of middle linebacker Gary Brackett and strong safety Melvin Bullitt to season-ending shoulder injuries early on this year, but other teams have suffered significant injuries (see Houston in the Colts' AFC South) and not seen the bottom drop out to the tune of 0-7, with 62-7 final scores.
But as admittedly crucial as Manning is to everything Indianapolis does on offense and defense -- a unit that was designed and constructed to play from ahead, not behind -- the complete crumbling of the Colts' season is still almost unfathomable. No one would have been surprised by a rare down season in Indy without No. 18 in the lineup, say a 3-4 or 2-5 start to the year, and no real contention in the AFC South. But winless through seven games? And a 55-point prime-time demolition on national TV? It's as if all the good karma of the past nine seasons in Indianapolis has been reversed and rained down on the Colts' heads in the span of two months. And you know what they say about paybacks.
It's not a complete apples to apples comparison, but think back to what the 2008 New England Patriots faced when they lost their franchise quarterback, Tom Brady, to a season-ending injury in the first half of the opening game. The Patriots didn't go to the playoffs that year, but they had enough faith in head coach Bill Belichick that he would lead them out of the desert, and enough leadership in the locker room to go 11-5 that season and make something good out of a very bad situation.
But I don't get the feeling there's the same level of confidence in Caldwell or leadership in the Colts' locker room to duplicate the Patriots' salvage job of 2008. This is a team that came very close to waving the white flag the other night in New Orleans, and you would think they owed it to their fans and to the league to better prepare and perform than what we saw against the Saints.
I spent time digging through the NFL record book on Monday, searching for something, anything, to compare to this overnight and total collapse by the Colts, but it's just not there, football fans. There really is no parallel for the case-of-the-bends rapid descent that is unfolding in Indy this season. In terms of Super Bowl-era teams that had an extended run of success and then plummeted suddenly in the standings, these examples fit, but they don't match Indy's swoon:
• The 1999 49ers collapsed to 4-12 in Steve Young final, injury-marred season, ending the franchise's NFL-record 16-year streak of 10-plus-win seasons. San Francisco had made the playoffs the previous seven years in a row, and a remarkable 15 times in those 16 seasons.
• The 1994 Bills went 7-9 and sunk to fourth place in the five-team AFC East after making four consecutive Super Bowl runs from 1990 to '93. Buffalo started that year 5-3, but then an aging team faded in the second half of the season.
• The 1968 Packers replaced retired head coach Vince Lombardi with Phil Bengston and posted a 6-7-1, third-place finish in the NFL Central after winning the first two Super Bowls in the previous two seasons.
• The 1972 Colts, the Baltimore variety, went 5-9 and came in third in their division after winning the Super Bowl in 1970 and losing in the AFC title game in 1971. Colts general manager Joe Thomas dismantled that great Baltimore team almost overnight, shipping quarterback Johnny Unitas to San Diego after the season.
• The 1990 Broncos stumbled to 5-11 and came in last in the AFC West after going to and losing the Super Bowl three times in the four-year span of 1986-89.
• And the 1999 Broncos, coming off back-to-back Super Bowl titles, lost franchise quarterback John Elway to retirement, then started the season 2-6 en route to a 6-10, last-place finish in the AFC West.
While some of those declines were indeed precipitous, nothing duplicates the Colts' 0-7 off-the-cliff results of 2011. It's as if Manning was the entire foundation of the pyramid in Indianapolis, and once he was pulled out, a collapse of epic proportions was inevitable.
Perhaps we even saw the makings of the coming trouble last season, when the Colts and Manning had to struggle to 10-6 and into the playoffs, winning their last four games of the regular season after being 6-6 in the second week of December. Including the playoffs, Indy is just 5-12 in its most recent 17 games, and there is the possibility that even with Manning healthy this year, the Colts' long run of success would have come to a conclusion.
For a team likened to the Atlanta Braves of the NFL -- years of playoff berths but just one championship to show for it -- the Colts may have just finally hit the wall, with the speed of their impact hastened significantly by Manning's absence.
There is certainly enough blame to go around in Indy for the current meltdown, and I can't help but wonder if Colts fans would have preferred a season-long lockout over watching this debacle? From an organizational and coaching standpoint, the Polians and Caldwell and his staff have seemed wholly unprepared for life without Manning. The Colts probably lived on borrowed time in regards to Manning's recurring neck issues, and their lack of preparing a plausible fallback plan at quarterback finally bit them in the butt.
In retrospect, the Kerry Collins signing in the preseason smacks of a desperation move that merely underlined the team's lack of faith in backup quarterback Curtis Painter, and sent an unspoken message of panic to the locker room, an opinion that Wayne voiced pretty clearly at the time. Again, the comparison to the '08 Patriots is fairly apt, because Matt Cassel was no more experienced than Painter was when he was forced to assume command of New England's offense, and yet that situation didn't result in a season-ruining disaster.
The Colts thrived for so long thanks to how much Manning's unique talents dominated their offense, and helped control the game and field position for their defense. But now they are paying dearly for that level of dependence, because the reality is no quarterback can walk into the Colts huddle and remotely replicate what Manning did for and meant to Indy. Making the playoffs and winning at least 10 games in nine out of 10 years is an incredibly successful ratio. It's just a lot tougher to remind yourself of that happy fact during the one desultory season you have to suffer through.
And who knows, the disaster of 2011 in Indianapolis might wind up being a Luck-y break, if it earns the Colts the right to draft Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck next April and sets the franchise up for another extended run of greatness. The pain brought on by the pursuit of a perfect season in reverse might well be worth it if the team's Manning era blends seamlessly into its Luck era.
If that's the reality that awaits Indy, 2011 will be remembered very differently than it feels at the moment. But it isn't a fun ride the Colts are on these days, and their historic descent continues to pick up speed, showing no sign of ending any time soon.