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And Then Grant Said to Lee: A Season Without Peyton

First, an apology to Patriots Nation: I'm going to be deviating from the norm a little today.

I know I write for Pats Pulpit, and thus my job is to cover the New England Patriots. And Lord knows there is plenty to write about today as the Pats get ready to put the smack down on the Miami Dolphins tonight. Between the matchups that need breaking down, fundamental offensive philosophies that need comparing, and Tony Sparano's mustache that needs mocking, today really should be all about New England. So please forgive me for putting all that aside for now, as I feel there is another issue that needs to be addressed - an issue that we Patriots fans can all-too-easily overlook.

Chin up, Indy. 

I'm very aware that this isn't the best forum for this, and that after yesterday's debacle against Houston condolences it's the last thing you are expecting from a Patriots fan. After all, this is a pro-Patriots website, the Patriots open up their season in a matter of hours, and the Pats and the Colts hate each other. We were the bane of their existence for the first half of the 2000s, while they were the bane of ours for the latter half. The Brady vs. Manning debate has gone back and forth more times than you could count, and most of us here in Patriots Nation would rather lose to any other team in the league than drop one to the Colts. Because of all this, you'd figure that watching yesterday's drubbing would be a cause for celebration here in New England; by all accounts, I should be drunk, shirtless, and dancing in the street right now. Well let me assure you: while I'm most definitely drunk and shirtless, I was actually pretty upset to see the Manningless Colts get manhandled on Sunday.

I know, I know. As a member of Patriots Nation, I am legally obligated to hate Peyton Manning. And don't worry - I do. I hate everything there is to hate about Number 18, from the obnoxious press conferences to the goofy sideline looks. I hate the whining and the squinty eyes. I hate the way he stutters around in the pocket and throws his hands up after every interception. I hate the way the Colts can be down 3 touchdowns with 2 minutes left to play and I'm still absolutely terrified that Manning will find a way to will pull out a win. Just looking at Peyton Manning and his massive, Cro-Magnon forehead makes my blood boil. I just straight up can't stand the guy.

But as Wes Mantooth pointed out to Ron Burgundy, there is a big difference between hate and respect. I respect the hell out of Peyton Manning, and have no trouble acknowledging that he is one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play this game. 

And there is where the real tragedy lies. When you miss out on the chance to see one of the all-time greats play the game, you miss out on more than just stats and fantasy points. A player of Manning's caliber comes along once in a blue moon, and watching him practice his craft is something that even the most avid of Manning haters can appreciate. I'm comfortable enough in my Patriots fandom to admit that for 15 weeks out of the year, I really enjoy watching Manning play.

 As we all should, to be honest. It's all too easy to lose sight of the fact that before we are fans of any team - be it the Patriots, Colts, or even those three guys that still go to Jaguars games - we are first and foremost all united as fans of this wonderful game called football. And as football fans, we lost something really special last week, just as we did in 2008 when Tom Brady suffered a season ending knee injury. The reality is that, like Tom Brady, the NFL is a better, brighter place when Peyton Manning is around. He is one of maybe 2 or 3 current players that completely changes the dynamic of the league, and losing that for what is most likely going to be an entire season puts a damper on many of the things we take for granted.

Will the Colts be as much fun to root against without Manning under center? Are we as excited for December 4th today as we were a few days ago? As much as I hate the Manning and the Colts, I love the rivalry - we all do. And you can't have Pats vs. Colts without Brady vs. Manning. It can't be done. Now that Manning is out, this year's annual Patriots vs. Colts game now features the significantly less epic Brady vs. Collins showdown.  All of the hype, buildup, and excitement that usually surrounds what has traditionally been one of the best games of the year just went right out the window. December 4th officially just turned into a pizza with no toppings: still great, but not at all what it could be.  

I know I'm fighting a losing battle here trying to offer solace, or tell you that I understand, because I'm pretty sure everyone over in Indianapolis is all inconsolable at the moment. But don't forget that we here in New England know EXACTLY how you are all feeling right now. It sucks. It really, really sucks.

But it also is what it is, and the question now is how you are going to approach the coming league year. The way I see, it, you have two options. The first has been dubbed in some parts as the Alec Shane Solution: just enter into a several week long, booze-filled grief coma that will inevitably end with you asleep with your pants down in the family planning aisle at CVS. It definitely makes the pain go away, but when you come out of it (and you always have to, unfortunately),not only are all your problems still there, but you'll forever be known as that jerk who dropped trou in the condom aisle at a pharmacy. And believe me when I say there is no coming back from that.

That's why I recommend option two: try and look on the bright side. I know it might seem like there can't possibly be any bright side to losing your All-Star QB for God knows how long - especially after yesterday -  but I'm sure there are a lot of ways that the Colts can learn and improve from A Season Without Peyton, and maybe even grow as a result. Here are just three of them

[I realize I'm grasping at straws right now - but give me a break, will ya? I'm trying to be supportive here.]

 Better early than late. This is the mantra I repeated to myself over and over - and over - in 2008 as I sat in the shower, fully clothed, drinking Jack Daniel's straight from the bottle and rocking back and forth with my knees pulled up to my chest. While you never want to lose your star player, it's definitely better to lose him early in the season so he has a full year to recover and get back to 100%. Imagine how much worse things would be if Indy made it to the AFC Championship game and Manning's neck had given out then. At least now Manning can have his procedure, rehab slowly and effectively, and hopefully be ready to go in 2012.   

Opportunity to create a more rounded offense. One argument you hear a lot from those who insist that Manning is a better quarterback than Brady is that Matt Cassel was able to put together an 11 win season in 2008 before getting traded to the Chiefs. The common belief here is that "the Patriots still went 11-5 without Brady. Without Manning, the Colts will be lucky to win 3 games." While I agree with that statement, I personally don't think it counts as evidence supporting Manning as the superior QB. Rather, it highlights an inherent structural flaw in Indy's approach to team building. The reason Indianapolis will flounder without Manning, other than the fact that he is great, is because almost every personnel move the Colts have made in the past has been based almost entirely around Manning and custom-tailored to maximize his particular skillset. The fact that Manning is such a phenomenal QB that an entire team rests on his shoulders may be the ultimate compliment - but as the Colts consistently prove year in and year out, it doesn't win you Superbowls. The reason that the Pats were able to plug Cassel in and still find success - other than the fact that Cassel turned out to be a pretty damn good QB - is that Bill Bellichick realized that no one player is bigger than a team. While the Pats are built around Brady's skillset, they aren't built on top of it, and were thus able to adjust when Brady went down. Having a season without Manning will force the Colts to follow suit and balance some of their offensive schemes to better cater to the team as a whole rather than focus so heavily on what Peyton alone brings to the table. Their reliance on Peyton was glaringly obvious yesterday, and that needs to change. If Indy is able to find ways to become more of a team and win some games this season, the Colts offense will be that much more dangerous when Manning does come back. 

Evaluation of the coaching staff. Probably the only exciting part of losing Manning for the season is that it will make the drinking game my friends and I play a lot more enjoyable. Feel free to play it yourself - it's called Coors for Caldwell, and the rules are simple: chug a beer any time the camera catches Jim Caldwell on the sidelines blinking or speaking. There are more complex rules that center around other basic movements, like taking a step or scratching his head, but you get the gist of it. The real problem with the game is nobody ever ends up drinking, because the guy doesn't move or open his mouth all damn season. A Manningless year should mean that Caldwell will have a lot more to do than just stand there and... well, just stand there. Now that the team's QB/offensive coordinator/head coach won't be on the sidelines running things, it will give Jim Caldwell, Clyde Christensen, and Jim Bob Cooter (actually the Assistant OC's name. I had to look it up twice) a chance to earn their paychecks and prove their mettle. It's easy to look good when the sun is shining; real coaches adjust their hoods and find ways to win no matter what. 

And if all else fails, at least Indy will have a high draft pick next year. So you got that going for you. Which is nice. 

I know none of this makes the here and now any better. But sitting there crying about it isn't going to do any good either - believe me, I know. All there is to do now is wish Peyton Manning a speedy recovery, suck it up, and throw your support behind Old Man Collins.  

So that's it. I hope you were able to find at least some small bit of comfort in this rambling, borderline nonsensical drivel. Before I go back to hating your team and setting my sights on Miami tonight, I'll wish everyone over in Colts Nation my best. It's going to suck, but you'll get through it, I promise. And my best to Peyton as well, should he ever read this. I hope his rehab goes smoothly and he is back out on his rapidly stuttering feet in time for the first touchback of 2012. Because, as much as I hate to admit it, things are better when he is around.

But should he want to take his time and wait until after the Colts play the Patriots next year to launch his comeback, I won't begrudge him. After all, you never can be too careful.