How Peyton Manning And The Colts Explain The (New) NFL World

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - AUGUST 19: Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts watches the action during the game against the Washington Redskins at Lucas Oil Stadium on August 19, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

With Peyton Manning injured, the Indianapolis Colts may be forced to confront life without their superstar for the first time since 1998. But as the Colts dynasty faces extinction, they offer fans a lesson on the NFL's evolution.

In football you can be injured, you can be hurt. Or you can be Peyton Manning, floating somewhere in between — maybe too hurt to play in the short term, definitely too valuable to risk serious injury for the long term. But where that leaves the Colts in 2011 is far more telling about Indy than it is Peyton.

First, Manning. He's already won more MVPs (four) than anyone in league history, he's by far the most marketable player in the NFL, and he'll probably go down in history with his name atop most records for passing, and close to the top on the list of greatest players in NFL history.

He's started 208 consecutive games since 1998, and even if his streak ends on Sunday, he's one of the most durable superstars the league's ever seen. None of that changes if he misses Week 1.

As for the Colts, here's what's left on offense without Peyton: Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie and an offensive line that's either old (Jeff Saturday) or overmatched (Ryan Diem) depending on where you look. With Peyton under center holding everything together, it can work. Without him—especially if he's gone for an extended period of time this year—things could fall apart completely.

Manning's like the big screen TV at the center of a college kid's living room. As long as the 60-inch flat screen's in the center, friends don't notice the beaten up sofa, the stained coffee table, and the carpet that looks like it belongs to a homeless person. Take away the big screen, though... Then it becomes, "How could anyone possibly live here?" Instead of making everything look better, Peyton's absence will force everyone to see just how shoddy the rest of the room looks.

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What's interesting is that where the Colts may have been looked upon as victims of the injury bug ten or fifteen years ago, in 2011, they've got nobody to blame but themselves. Look no further than the team the Colts have measured themselves against for the past decade.

The Colts and Patriots have been one of the NFL's best rivalries for years, but with or without Peyton, the next few years could be a little lopsided, and it speaks to a broader NFL truth. While the Colts have been using patchwork to hold things together around Manning and Dwight Freeney over the past decade, the Patriots have done full-scale renovations two and three times over.

First on offense, when Bill Belichick added Wes Welker and Randy Moss to reivent the passing game, and then the past few years on defense, when they turned an aging core into one of the league's youngest, most promising defenses. Then again on offense, where the Patriots got rid of Moss, and have built around young running backs and tight ends. The results—two first-round playoff exits the past two years—haven't been a whole lot better than what Indy's done, but now the two rivals are headed in opposite directions.

While Bill Belichick and the Patriots have mined the early and middle rounds of the draft to revamp their roster as they go—with guys like Brandon Spikes, Aaron Hernandez, Patrick Chung, and Devin McCourty—Bill Polian and the Colts have bet big on top picks, and they've mostly missed.

Since 2005 Polian's drafted guys like Marlin Jackson, Joseph Addai, Tony Ugoh, Donald Brown, Antoine Bethea, Anthony Gonzalez, and the latest top pick to disappoint everyone, defensive end Jerry Hughes. Of that group, only Bethea and Addai are starters, and neither can really be called dominant in 2011. But it's not just a matter of luck.

The Patriots have missed on plenty of prospects themselves. First round picks Laurence Maroney and second round picks like Chad Jackson never panned out, and this weekend they released their 2007 top pick, Brandon Merriwether. The difference is that New England's playing the percentages.

In the past four drafts, while the Colts have added 16 players (an average of four players in the first four rounds), the Patriots have added 22. On numbers alone, they have a much better chance at finding starters. Throw in undrafted success stories like Gary Guyton, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Brian Hoyer, and a deep prospect pool gets even deeper.

This isn't about anointing the Patriots personnel department, though. It's just... Coming into Week 1, there's no bigger story than the presumed absence of the Peyton Manning, and if we put on our Football Nerd hats for a second, the story goes deeper than an injured superstar.

The Colts are in trouble because of bad management as much as bad luck. In the past, we expected a dynasty like Indianapolis to fade away as the centerpiece superstars (Dwight Freeney, Manning) aged. That's what happened with the '90s Cowboys, and even the early 2000s Rams.

What's different in 2011 is that the NFL's gotten smarter. Teams like the Colts (Manning), Vikings (Adrian Peterson), and Cowboys (Tony Romo) have tried to use superstars as the foundation for Super Bowls, but the real NFL success stories understand that the foundation is bigger than just a superstar. Teams like the Saints, Packers, and Patriots all have superstars, sure, but they've also built carefully through the draft and free agency.

The same way the Packers positioned themselves for life after Favre with Aaron Rodgers, the Patriots have already invested in insurance policies for Tom Brady (Ryan Mallet, Brian Hoyer), and the Saints could probably absorb a temporary Drew Brees injury in 2011 (Chase Daniel). All a variation on the theme: The foundation of the NFL dominance is good scouting, not just great players.

That's how guys like James Starks, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Pierre Thomas wound up playing crucial roles on Super Bowl contenders, while a first round pick like Donald Brown carried six times for 18 yards in the Colts' playoff loss to the Jets. It's how Tramon Williams, Devin McCourty, and Tracy Porter became successful starters, while Bob Sanders' injuries left a gaping hole in the Colts secondary over the past few years. Some of it may be luck, but it's more about a slavish dedication to finding guys who fit the mold, and cutting ties with players who don't.

The Colts have won at least 10 games in 11 of the past 12 years, and they've been entrenched in the NFL's upper crust for practically the entire time. That Peyton Manning has single-handedly compensated for his front office's failures the past few years is a pretty telling example of how unbelievably dominant he's been over the course of his career.

His absence, even for a few weeks, will make that point obvious. But as he gets older and the Colts fade to mediocrity, the real lesson won't be about the value of Peyton.

Instead, as the Colts dynasty stares down extinction while their doppelgangers in New England look poised for another decade of prosperity, the Colts are about to become the dinosaurs we all point to when we try to explain the ongoing evolution of what really makes a "dynasty" in today's NFL.

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