And so the NFL's costliest injury ever claims two more victims. Is there any end to the resulting fallout of Peyton Manning's pain in the neck?
In a move that was stunning for the sweeping width and breadth of the clean break it signaled, the Indianapolis Colts on Monday blew up the front office structure that was largely responsible for their becoming the NFL's model franchise in the past decade -- at least in the regular season -- with a league-record-tying nine consecutive playoff berths from 2002-2010.
Gone are Colts vice chairman Bill Polian, and his son, team general manager Chris Polian, both of whom were long-time members of the organization who have been fired by team owner Jim Irsay. And the departures from Indy seem far from over, with third-year head coach Jim Caldwell also expected to be a potential casualty of the Colts' 2-14 showing in 2011, a dismal finish brought on by Manning's season-ending neck surgery.
While the dismissal of Caldwell, Tony Dungy's hand-picked successor, has been considered likely for a while now, the job security of the Polians was not thought in jeopardy in recent weeks, and both men seemed to be heavily involved in plotting out the future of the organization's pivotal months ahead.
But that plan apparently changed at some point of late, and Monday's blockbuster developments likely signal that Irsay and the Polians were no longer on the same page, with the owner choosing to chart a fresh course for the franchise without the senior personnel executive who helped the Colts make 11 playoff appearances in his 14 years on the job.
It's not known yet whether any disconnect developed between Irsay and Bill Polian regarding how to best use the team's No. 1 overall draft pick next April. Both men had seemed to echo the belief in recent weeks that the team could retain Manning and draft a first-round quarterback of the future, at least if Manning received clearance to play again this coming spring after undergoing neck surgery twice in 2011.
Irsay has said repeatedly that Manning will return to the Colts if he's healthy and can earn his hefty salary, while Bill Polian seemed eager to position the team to make the drafting of Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck the team's top offseason priority. Irsay is very loyal to Manning and had talked often of making a decision that reflected how important the Colts quarterback is to his franchise, his family and to the Indianapolis community in general.
While there's no guarantee of which direction a new Colts general manager will head in regards to the team's up-in-the-air quarterback decision, it's hard to imagine Irsay hiring any replacement for Polian who doesn't share his commitment to make Manning the team's priority this offseason. Perhaps Polian's enthusiasm for that approach waned, or perhaps Irsay just felt after 14 years together their working relationship had out-lived its usefulness.
In any event, an era in Colts football is over, and only Manning remains from the most successful and long-running marriage of a quarterback and a team's front office in recent NFL history. As much success as Polian and Manning shared in Indy, the Colts rightfully received plenty of criticism for not having a viable backup quarterback in place in the event of an injury to Manning, who had never missed a start in his entire NFL career prior to 2011.
In addition, the rest of the Colts roster seemed to sag and collapse in the absence of Manning this season, losing their first 13 games before closing out the year with a 2-14 record after Sunday's 19-13 Week 17 loss at Jacksonville. Polian acknowledged the team had developed something of a false sense of security born out of Manning's seeming indestructibility, and the accountability for that misjudgment falls squarely on the front office.
More than anything, Irsay seems to have decided the time was right for change in Indianapolis, and he wanted to use this season's new depths to chart a new course. The Polian era was wildly successful, but Irsay probably didn't like the chances of re-scaling those same heights under the man who had been atop the team's front office flow-chart since 1998.
So now, Indianapolis heads in a new direction, with new leadership. Manning, for now, remains. But the impact of his neck injury continues to reverberate, and with it, Black Monday in the NFL has again proven its ability to shock and surprise us.