ANDERSON, Ind. – All is quiet with the Indianapolis Colts.
That's not necessarily a good thing … at least depending on the perspective.
As you watch Colts practices these days, there is a decided lack of noise – one noise, specifically. The loud, incessant Southern twang from quarterback Peyton Manning's(notes) voice is not anywhere to be heard. He's on the mend in the training room, still recovering from May neck surgery to repair a bulging disc, his second such procedure in less than 18 months.
"It's definitely a lot quieter," wide receiver Reggie Wayne(notes) said with a grin. "A lot shorter, too – when Peyton is out there, you may have a play we run just fine and he says, 'I want another look at that.' Practice gets to be longer, maybe only four minutes, but when you're out there running plays, four minutes is a long time."
At the same time, Wayne and the rest of the Colts will gladly trade four minutes of practice to get Manning back as soon as possible. This is the second time in four preseasons that the Colts have had to deal with Manning being sidelined in training camp. If the last time is an indicator, the situation could get a little ugly for a team that has won at least 10 games in nine straight years.
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In 2008, Manning went through a series of problems with his right knee related to surgery and a subsequent infection. He didn't practice until a week before the season started. Over the first seven games that season, the Colts went 3-4 and Manning had one of the most inconsistent stretches of his career. In five of those games, he posted a quarterback rating of less than 82 (his career rating is 94.9). He threw nine interceptions compared to 10 touchdowns in that span.
Manning had a great recovery over the final nine games, tossing 17 TDs to just 3 INTs. Still, he finished with a 95.0 rating (the second worst of his past eight seasons) and 27 touchdown passes (tied for his second fewest since '01), averaging only 250 yards passing per game (the third lowest of his career).
Similarly, Manning struggled last season as the Colts pass-catchers failed to stay healthy, upsetting the delicate balance of the team's passing game. With tight end Dallas Clark(notes) out for 10 games with a wrist injury; wide receiver Pierre Garcon(notes) (hamstring injury) missing Weeks 3 and 4; wide receiver Austin Collie(notes) in and out of the lineup because of concussion issues; and the revolving door at running back, Manning had a five-game stretch in which threw 13 interceptions. That uncharacteristically bad period contributed to a 91.9 rating for the season (his worst such mark since 2002).
Given how things turned out the last time Manning missed significant time in training camp, Wayne would be wise to help with his quarterback's physical therapy – anything to get the league's most prolific passer back on the field. In '08, Wayne finished with only 82 receptions, his lowest of the past six seasons and the only time in the past four he has recorded fewer than 100 catches. Don't think for a second that Wayne isn't aware of that.
"We have to do everything we can out here to make sure we help him out when he gets back," said Wayne, who is currently working with quarterback Curtis Painter(notes). "We have a lot of guys who know how to push it, make sure everybody is ready."
Wayne, in particular, needs a healthy Manning under center. There's money and fame riding on it. Wayne is in the final year of his contract. At 32, he likely has one good contract left in him.
Wayne knows that all too well. He's at 194 pounds coming into camp, down six pounds from the same time last year. On Sunday, he ate fried food for the first time since February, no small feat for a guy who grew up in New Orleans. He's also cut out a lot of bread.
"It's kind of hard to eat a hamburger without bread," said Wayne, a 10-year vet with three 100-catch seasons in the past four and seven straight 1,000-yard seasons. "But you get older and the joints start to hurt more, the knees and hips. Taking off some weight can only help. … I have to put another good year on my résumé. It's like putting together another demo tape."
On top of that, Wayne's chances of ever getting to the Hall of Fame are likely hitched to Manning, who is on the physically unable to perform list and hasn't spoken to the media since signing a five-year, $90 million contract extension at the start of training camp.
As for Wayne, he should have well over 1,000 catches and a boatload of other impressive stats assuming he stays with the Colts (a safe assumption when you look at the team’s depth chart). While that will be the norm for many modern, very good receivers, it will also be a prerequisite for any discussion of the Hall by the time Wayne has been out of the league for five years.
Between Wayne, center Jeff Saturday(notes) (who returned to practice Monday), Clark and linebacker Gary Brackett(notes), the Colts still have some strong leaders. None, however, quite rate with Manning, whose drive to be great practically makes him the OCD QB.
"There's only one guy like him, and that's why he'll be standing on that stage at Canton one day," Colts coach Jim Caldwell said, referring to the Hall of Fame. "Just because he's not out here doesn't mean he's not preparing, not doing everything he can to get ready."
Manning watches tape incessantly, examining formations, patterns and even body language of his teammates and opponents. That's nothing new. The question is whether it's enough in a year when the offseason was slowed by the lockout, his surgery and the joyful-yet-overwhelming birth of his twin boy and girl in April.
"He's been busy," Clark said with a grin. "But if anybody can handle it all, it's Peyton."
Fair point, but Manning is still a singular creature of habit, a guy who goes over things again and again. He is famous for driving hours just to throw in the offseason with young receivers or calling them in individually for throwing sessions so he can learn their subtle moves. "We've gone over some of the things that happened in 2008, hoping to avoid some of that," said Colts general manager Chris Polian, who is progressively taking the reins from his father, Bill, who is now the vice chairman of the team. "We have to make sure we support him the best we can. At the same time, we have other things we have to do, like evaluate a lot of our young players and install the new things the coaches want to put in."
That's all true and it's all rushed in this strange offseason, when teams couldn't work with players from March to the end of July because of the lockout. Of all the seasons for Manning to be missing practice, this might be the worst for all involved. Polian and the Colts have tried to make the return easier by bringing back running back Joseph Addai(notes) to pair with Donald Brown(notes) and re-signing offensive lineman Ryan Diem(notes). Manning helped make that possible by signing a more cap-friendly contract and the Colts followed through on their promise to him.
The reality is that nothing is going to look much better until Manning returns to the field, which could be as early as next week.
Certainly, it will sound a lot different.