INDIANAPOLIS - The last few seasons, when the Colts came snorting and bucking out of their corral and ran off 13, nine, and seven victories in a row, were a statistical anomaly. That's what their quarterback, whose perspective covers a decade, kept advising the new guys.
"I've tried to tell our young players these past three years, this is not normal, what we've been doing," Peyton Manning said. "I'm not sure they believed me because you do it three years in a row and they say, 'Maybe this is how it is in the NFL.' "
As they say on Wall Street (and have been reminded expensively this autumn), past performance does not guarantee future results. Nor does it at the Crossroads of America, where the Colts, just two seasons removed from their Super Bowl victory, are off to their worst start (3-4) since 1998.
And Manning, whose career numbers (5,670 completions, 43,380 yards, 316 touchdowns) all but guarantee him a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is having the roughest stretch since his rookie campaign in 1998.
He's thrown only one more touchdown pass (10) than he has interceptions (9), and his quarterback rating (79.0) is only 22d in the NFL and 10th in the conference. If the first question here and elsewhere is, what's up with the Colts, the next one is, what's up with Manning?
"I'd say you'd have to say it's a slump, based on his numbers and his productivity," said coach Tony Dungy, whose squad faces a must-win game against the Patriots here Sunday night. "He's generally been 7-plus yards per attempt and a high number of touchdown passes. Usually, we score 28-30 points. We've generally scored more touchdowns than we've had punts. We haven't done that."
Reasons abound. Manning, who has started every regular-season game (a record 167 straight to start a career) since he took over for Jim Harbaugh, missed virtually all of training camp and the entire exhibition season after having two surgeries involving an infected bursa sac on his left knee. His banged-up offensive line has been through four combinations. And top running back Joseph Addai has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury.
The result has been a sputtering offense that has been misfiring at crucial times, as it did in Monday night's 31-21 loss at Tennessee. "I really can't give you a one-word or one-sentence summary, but we do need to play better," said Manning, who pointedly includes himself in the collective. "Our offense needs to find a way to score some more points. It just comes down to executing better and trying to be sound, with all 11 guys doing the right thing at the same time and not 10 guys on this play and nine guys on that play. That's what we need to get back to."
That's how it's been for the last five years with Manning orchestrating things from the line, waving his hands like a maestro with everything in synch and points coming quickly and in bunches. But from the season's opening game, a 29-13 loss to the Bears inside their new home, Lucas Oil Stadium, the quarterback and his offense have looked out of rhythm.
No doubt Manning's knee problems set him back. After the sac was removed in mid-July, he had to go back under the knife less than three weeks later to make sure there'd be no further issues with the knee. When Manning got the ball against Chicago, he'd gone nearly eight months between snaps. How much of his arrhythmic play has been due to rust?
"I had no bar to compare it to, so I really don't know," Manning said. "All I know is, I was out there for Game 1 and tried to play my best in order to win that game. If this had happened to me before, I could probably give you a more comparative analysis of how I was feeling as compared to what it's felt like in the past. I've just adjusted to how I felt at the beginning of the year and tried to play my best."
Since then, good outings have been mixed with bad ones. There was the miracle road comeback against the Texans, in which Manning tossed two scoring passes as the Colts came from 17 points down in the final five minutes to win, 31-27. There was the 31-3 beatdown of the Ravens, in which Manning threw for 271 yards and three touchdowns, including a 67-yarder to Marvin Harrison. Then there was the 34-14 disaster at Green Bay, in which Manning had interceptions run back 62 and 99 yards for scores, and the loss at Tennessee, in which Manning was picked off twice and missed on several key passes.
His uncharacteristic inconsistency has led some observers, most notably Steve Young during last Monday's telecast on ESPN, to say Manning might still be hurt, provoking a strong denial from Colts president Bill Polian. "I can assure you that Peyton is not hurt," Polian said on the club's website. "He has no injuries to speak of. There's nothing wrong with his arm. There's nothing wrong with his knee. To put those kinds of conjectures to rest, he has not appeared on any injury list and won't, because he doesn't have an injury."
Manning has been blessed that way, unlike rival and star-spangled phone pal Tom Brady, whose season was over as soon as it started because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his left knee. "I hated to see it when it happened," said Manning, who has phoned Brady a couple of times since his surgery to wish him well. "It's a pretty unique fraternity, quarterbacks are, so when one of them gets hurt, you hate to see it. I wish Tom the best in his recovery and his rehab. I'm sure he'll be back before they say he will."
If Manning's knee still is bothering him, his warrior's code has kept him mum about it. "If I was [hurt], I probably wouldn't tell you, but that's not the case," he said. "It's certainly not an excuse. It's something I'd never use as an excuse. We just need to play better. I need to play better."
What the Colts need to do is get back to what got them galloping out of the gate the last three years. "Making those plays on Sunday," Manning said. "Trying to stay on the field on third downs. Trying to avoid first- or second-down negative plays that get you into the third-and-longs, which are hard to overcome. And we certainly need to protect the ball better."
Unlike the young'uns, their quarterback has been through rough patches before. His rookie season, in which Indy lost eight of its first nine and finished 3-13. The 2001 campaign, in which a 4-3 start soured to 4-8 and, ultimately, 6-10. For much of the league, that's normalcy, but 3-4 has become abnormal in Colt Country. "This is real football here," Manning said. "This is a little bit of gut-check time. We are fighting and scratching. Hopefully, we can fight and scratch and find a way to get some victories."
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.