Preparing for the Colts Future: Quarterback Quandary

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For Indianapolis Colts fans, the season started on its head. Fans and experts all around the league were so unconcerned about Manning missing a start or meaningful game-time due to injury that the only conversation was really about whether or not he would play long enough — enough seasons — to surpass Favre’s consecutive games record.

When Manning had neck surgery over the summer, few were really concerned that he would return to the field in time for the start of the season. As preseason reached Week 3 and Manning still had not spent meaningful time in pactice, though, fan confidence rattled.

When it was announced the Manning was undergoing spinal fusion surgery and that the team signed retired veteran Kerry Collins, most expected that Collins would be the best quarterback on the roster — even with such little time to prepare for the regular season. Instead, Collins played horribly and Curtis Painter was thrust into the starting role. Props to Reggie Wayne for calling it all from the start.

Fast forward to today. It seems relatively clear that it was a mistake to sign Kerry Collins, and it is fair to speculate about how the team’s record might be different if Painter got the call from Week One. There is also legitimate reason to believe that the Collins’ “concussion” is really an effort to save the veteran from embarrassment — and possibly the front office as well.

In order to prepare for an emergency, should Painter get injured during a game, the Colts brought in Dan Orlovsky — who spent training camp and preseason familiarizing himself with Indy’s offense. The shocker to this move is that the “injured” Collins and recovering Manning are also both still on the roster.

This means that that not only was the decision to bring in Collins was a bad one, his performance was so bad that — injury or no — bringing in another option to sit behind Painter was probably a good idea. Then, instead of accepting the mistake and cutting ties with Collins while the rest of the roster was dealing with injuries, the front office has chosen to take up four roster spots with quarterbacks.

The best thing the team could do is make a decision to place Manning on the injured reserve or release Collins. Frankly, retaining Collins under any circumstance makes little sense at this point.

Nonetheless, this back story of the 2011 quarterback quandary is growing less relevant to the team’s future. Now, the issue surrounds whether or not Manning will return healthy and capable of competing at an MVP level. If the team feels he can play at an elite level for the duration of his five-year contract, what other decisions will be made as the draft approaches?

Some will suggest that the best option is to take Andrew Luck if he is available, in what will likely be a top 3 draft pick. Others say that keeping Manning with confidence that he will compete for another four years at an MVP level makes using the team’s first selection on a quarterback as touted as Luck, only to sit him for four years, makes no sense.

If Curtis Painter continues to show that he is capable of developing — and he has improved in each of his first three games as the Colts starter — does it make sense to keep him around as the backup instead? Will there be another “Luck” by the time Manning’s career comes to a close?

One quarterback who is the recipient of a great deal of hype is Gunner Kiel, the top high school quarterback entering the NCAA. Kiel could be ready to enter the draft in three or four years and may give Indianapolis a shot to grab a superstar down the road. Or… he could not pan out and fail to live up to the hype that surrounds him now.

The fact the Kiel will play at Indiana University, just over an hour drive from Lucas Oil Stadium, will make scouting him very easy for Indy. Another reason to believe that plans to acquire Kiel could be in the works early on — if the team is interested.

Financially, it seems very difficult to justify carrying Manning’s large contract and paying top 3 money for his successor. Painter would be a far more cost-effective option at backup quarterback, and it would allow the team to address other positions that are beginning to deal with age concerns. He also has another year left on his current contract.

The Colts front office will be forced choose the team’s long-term fate when the 2011 season ends. If Andrew Luck is in the cards for the Colts, the only thing that makes any sense is to cut Manning — using the one-year exit clause written into the contract to free up the remainder of the money. Doing so will very likely weaken the team’s chances to get back to the Super Bowl in the next two or three years — meaning veterans like Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis, and Dwight Freeney could have the bulk of their remaining years as elite players squandered.

If the team chooses to stick with Manning, trading out of the top pick is the only thing that makes sense — assuming there will be teams interested (there will be). Players like wide receiver Justin Blackmon, offensive tackle Matt Kalil, or defensive end Quinton Coples would be huge talent infusions to the 2012 roster and they could be available as late as picks 5-10.

For the first time since Peyton Manning joined the team in 1998 Indianapolis has an uncertain future at the most important offensive position in football. How the team handles navigates through this dilemma will significantly alter the face of the team, the sports culture Indianapolis, and will likely change Manning’s lasting legacy in NFL history books.