While talking to a reporter about the Colts last week, one NFL general manager suddenly stopped in mid-sentence, almost as if he couldn't believe what he was about to say. "It seems like they've lost some of their mojo," he continued. "There used to be a mystique about them. You felt like even if they had injuries and players were out, they were going to find a way to get it done regardless of who was in there. That's not the case now."
Indianapolis coach Jim Caldwell listened patiently as the comment was repeated to him last Friday. His battered team had lost two games in a row and three of the previous four. "All it takes is one game to change that perception," he replied, an amused smile creasing his face.
A 38--35 loss to the Cowboys at Lucas Oil Stadium was not that game. One of the big reasons for Indy's slide is that Peyton Manning, arguably the greatest quarterback of his generation, is in the midst of one of the worst stretches of his career. He completed 36 of 48 passes for 365 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday, but he also threw four interceptions, two of which the Cowboys returned for touchdowns.
Manning's 2010 struggles had previously been written off to a banged-up receiving corps, ineffective or injured running backs and a porous line. But a clear sign that the problems run deeper is that Manning himself is now questioning his own decision making, for years one of the best parts of his game. "I threw four interceptions to guys who were covered," he says. "I've either got to throw it away or throw it to somebody else. That's basic football."
Manning, who hasn't thrown more than 16 interceptions in a season since 2002 has now thrown 11 in his last three games. Four of his picks have been returned for touchdowns, all in the last two weeks. Manning says that he's not pressing, but the numbers don't lie. He always has been a master at finding the mismatches and one-on-ones in any coverage scheme. But he threw his first interception on Sunday when he tried to hit Reggie Wayne down the left seam, even though Dallas safety Alan Ball, playing deep, was waiting on the ball. On the second Manning tried to force a short pass into the left flat to wideout Blair White on a comeback route, but cornerback Orlando Scandrick, playing zone coverage, simply stepped in front of the ball and returned it 40 yards for Dallas's second touchdown.
Manning likely just didn't see linebacker Sean Lee on his third interception, which Lee returned 31 yards for a score, but the four-time MVP admitted to forcing the ball to tight end Jacob Tamme on a short route down the left sideline in overtime. Cowboys cornerback Mike Jenkins leaped into the air to tip the ball, which fell into Lee's hands, setting up the decisive field goal.
"I had Reggie underneath, open," Manning said. "He probably runs for 25, 30 yards, but I threw it in there to Tamme. Just a poor read and a poor decision."
The line between aggressive and reckless can be fiber-optic thin in the NFL—just ask Jay Cutler (box)—but Manning has to take chances. The Colts have no running game; they were 31st in the league in rushing in 2008 and 32nd last season. This year they again rank last, with an average of 79.1 yards a game. Starting running back Joseph Addai has missed the last six games with a neck injury, and there's no firm timetable for his return. Backups Mike Hart and Javarris James have also been dinged up at various times this year.
Meanwhile, Manning's receiving corps has been decimated by injury: Tight end Dallas Clark (wrist) and wideout Anthony Gonzalez (knee) are out for the year. Second-year receiver Austin Collie (concussions) has missed four of the last six games, and Pierre Garcon (hamstring), a breakout star in 2009, missed two games early and is just beginning to find his rhythm. Those four, along with Wayne, were supposed to be Manning's security blanket, but the only game in which they've been on the field together was the season opener.
The lack of continuity is a nightmare for a quarterback who is obsessive about details. In practice it's not uncommon for Manning to stop a receiver in the middle of a play and instruct him on the proper way to run his route. When Gonzalez couldn't participate in off-season workouts as a rookie in 2007 because Ohio State had not yet held graduation ceremonies, Manning drove to Columbus to throw to him and develop a rapport. "I don't use [all the injuries] as an excuse or crutch for not doing my job well enough," he says. "We've got 11 guys on the field, and we are capable of scoring points when we execute our offense—and I don't turn the ball over." (The man has a point; after putting his team in a deep first-half hole, Manning led the Colts' offense to three second-half touchdowns to force overtime.)
Indy's problems in the passing game have been magnified by inconsistent play up front. General manager Bill Polian was critical of the line after last season's loss to New Orleans in the Super Bowl, but little has been done to upgrade the unit. In fact, it is arguably weaker this year following the release last March of guard Ryan Lilja, whose injury issues had scared management into believing that the then fifth-year veteran had topped out. Instead he has been the best lineman for the AFC West--leading Chiefs. "That was a position where we felt like maybe we had some younger players who could step up and play pretty well," Polian said on his radio show last week. "That hasn't been the case."
In place of Lilja on the right side, the Colts have, at times, started a former Arena2 player (Kyle DeVan) and an undrafted rookie (Jeff Linkenbach). During one play on Sunday, Dallas nosetackle Jay Ratliff blew past right guard David Pollak and nearly dropped Manning before he could make a handoff. Indianapolis is also still trying to find a capable replacement at left tackle for Tarik Glenn, who retired three years ago.
When Manning stepped onto the stage for his postgame press conference on Sunday, the sole of one of his brown lace-ups slipped on some debris. He caught himself before falling. Next week against the Titans, he will try to do the same with the 6--6 Colts. Despite trailing Jacksonville by one game in the AFC South, Indianapolis can still earn its ninth straight playoff berth by winning its final four games.
"When you get on a little turnover stretch, the easy thing to do is become gun-shy and just stop throwing it," says Manning, who is averaging 44.5 passes a game and is on pace to break Drew Bledsoe's NFL-record 691 attempts. "I can assure you I won't do that, I haven't done that, and we'll continue to throw. I just need to make better decisions and better throws."
The Colts will win or lose this year with their passing game. If Manning's decisions improve, it's hard to believe that the mojo and the mystique, both the team's and the quarterback's, won't be far behind.
Now on SI.com
Peter King forecasts the full slate of games in the Weekend Pickoff, Fridays at SI.com/nfl
Bullish on the Bears
Chicago is red-hot thanks to a flawless Jay Cutler
A 24--20 victory over the Lions was significant to Bears QB Jay Cutler for several reasons: It kept Chicago (9--3) one game ahead of Green Bay in the NFC North; it assured him of his first winning season as a full-time starter since he was a senior in high school; and it marked the first time since the Broncos traded him to the Bears in 2009 that he had gone back-to-back games without throwing a pick. Cutler led the NFL with 26 interceptions last season but has only 10 so far this year, and he finally appears comfortable with new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's up-tempo system. When coach Lovie Smith declared in the preseason that this team was more talented than his 2006 Super Bowl squad, many around the league thought it was just wishful thinking. But if Cutler continues to play this well, Chicago will be formidable come the playoffs.
Photograph by AJ MAST/AP
PRESSING ISSUE Manning forced this pass to Blair White (15), and Scandrick took it the other way for six.
JOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES (MANNING)
MICHAEL CONROY/AP (MANNING AND WHITE)
TALKING IT OUT Injuries to Manning's receiving corps have pushed White, a rookie, into a starting role.
DAVID E. KLUTHO (CUTLER)