Manning-era failures fuel Irsay's impatience

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·NFL columnist
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For Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, the pressure today comes from the resources of the past. It comes down to perspective and accomplishments. Most of all, it comes from a man who once fielded one of the rarest gifts in the NFL: 13 seasons of a historically elite, Hall of Fame quarterback – but never maximized the opportunity.

The Peyton Manning era matters now, every bit as much as the past three years, which have witnessed the Andrew Luck-led Colts go 33-15 and ascend to the AFC title game last season. But the pressure on the Colts' coaching staff and front office today isn't just about starting 3-4. It's not simply about poor decisions on the field, or personnel misfires off of it. It's about having another chance with a special quarterback, and Irsay being motivated to not become too patient, lulled by success into thinking things will work themselves out.

The Colts have transitioned nicely from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck. Still, ownership isn't happy. (AP)
The Colts have transitioned nicely from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck. Still, ownership isn't happy. (AP)

The gravity of the current recession is "as significant as it gets" for head coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson, one NFL source with intimate ties to the Colts' brain trust told Yahoo Sports.

"The pressure from the very top is going all the way down," the source said. "Knowing how [Irsay] feels about the [Manning years] and understanding how chances are lost, that plays into it. Not taking a big step [forward] is a serious problem. … The goal in [Irsay's] mind is still the Super Bowl. It's not changing because of the start. He expects this team to put it together and compete for a Super Bowl."

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The Manning lens shouldn't be a shock to anyone who has listened to Irsay in recent years. He has made it known that he would have liked to have more than one Super Bowl ring on his finger from that era. And that's understandable considering his most hated rival in the league is the New England Patriots, and Manning's contemporary, Tom Brady, is 4-for-6 in his Super Bowl escapades.

Irsay has watched those numbers pile up, and in their wake it becomes impossible to not question how 227 total games and 11 playoff seasons of Peyton Manning resulted in one Lombardi Trophy. It becomes impossible to not ask the question: Is there something I could have done better?

To be fair, one ring is still a luxury in some circles. Ask the Dan Marino-era Miami Dolphins what they would have given to get just one. Heck, ask the Ford family what it would give just to see the Detroit Lions actually play in a Super Bowl. Ditto for the Cleveland Browns. So winning one might feel like enough for outsiders. But heavily involved owners like Irsay need to have maximized their opportunities. They don't get the in-game payoffs that others in the game do. Players get stats. Coaches and front offices get wins. Owners get money. And once they have enough of that, they get the trophy case.

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Irsay is looking at his Lombardi and feeling like it's lonely. And he's looking at Luck and seeing the next great window of opportunity to add some company. Which is how you get Irsay laying down the gauntlet like he did in May, when he said the Luck-era should include "at least two world championships."

"When you look at that, we look at how do we build this roster over the next three years to really be able to go on a run where you can win two Super Bowls in a row, when you can really be dominant," Irsay told reporters.

Jim Irsay (AP)
Jim Irsay (AP)

A 3-4 start wasn't what Irsay had in mind when he made that statement. Or the team being 1-4 in Luck's games this year. This is why fingers are getting pointed in all directions now, from Pagano's coaching to Grigson's roster management – and even to Irsay's decision to offer Pagano only a one-year contract extension.

Does everyone have a hand in the blame? Surely. Pagano and his offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton have made some significantly questionable calls this season. Some of Grigson's roster additions haven't panned out. And Luck, well, he's right when he says he's not playing good football. There's no denying he has pressed and created a multitude of problems. Maybe he's injured. Maybe he's got more growth left than anyone realized.

Of all those worthy of blame, only two are absolutely certain to be here if it all ends in a lost season: the owner and the budding quarterback. Those are the guys who are almost always on the outside of the fallout radius when a Super Bowl-worthy team melts down.

If this season gets worse, patience won't be a part of the cleanup process, either. If Irsay leans on his Manning-era mistakes, don't expect him to wait on Pagano, who doesn't seem to have confidence since the limited extension offer. Don't expect Irsay to double down on his faith in Grigson, either. In the event Pagano is fired, I'd expect the next coach to be someone who demands a tougher line of discipline and a firm grasp on personnel. Maybe that would be a Nick Saban or a Sean Payton.

Whatever shuffling takes place, the bottom line has long been cemented in Indianapolis: The perceived mistakes of the Peyton Manning era can't be repeated. The best opportunities with Luck have to be realized, and it's not just about turning around a 3-4 start. This is about Super Bowls – in the plural.

Irsay has already been down that other road. He's a believer that one Lombardi is the loneliest number. He's demanding some company in the trophy case. And he's not going to be convinced that anything less is reasonable.

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