Jim Irsay's office is a monument to music, philosophy and optimism. A picture of Martin Luther King Jr. hangs in the entryway. A Neil Young box set rests behind his desk. Irsay, the owner of the Colts, takes to Twitter frequently, whether to post a picture of himself in a throwback Colts uniform ("Happy Halloween!"), offer up prizes for trivia ("How does a head of lettuce become a bed of lettuce?") or simply send out good vibes ("I'm at the factory this morning, creating rainbows, dreams n sunrises").
"You have to be relentlessly positive," Irsay explains. "I believe in that energy."
Through his office windows on a Thursday afternoon Irsay sees the onset of autumn, a gray mist shrouding rows of rust-colored trees. This has long been the Colts' time of year, when the annual march to the playoffs begins in earnest. But not this season.
In three days Irsay's Colts will suffer a 31--7 loss to the Falcons that will leave them at 0--9, the last NFL team without a victory. Indy will turn the ball over on its second play from scrimmage, a fumble on a run up the middle. By midway through the third quarter Lucas Oil Stadium will begin to empty. A column in The Indianapolis Star on the morning of the game will take aim at the front office for poor personnel decisions, painting G.M. Chris Polian as "a toxic force who has brought this franchise to its knees for reasons other than Peyton Manning's injury."
After the game Polian's father, Bill, the team's vice chairman, will go on the Colts' radio network and defend the family name, declaring that "some people are just rats who lie about people."
Who can stay positive in this kind of environment? "It sucks, man," veteran receiver Reggie Wayne will say in a nearly deserted locker room after the loss. "It's rough."
Minutes after Bill Polian's radio interview, Irsay will take to his Twitter feed once more, his sunny disposition finally giving way to encroaching darkness: "We will never accept this kind of chronic losing ... it's an unwelcome visitor, that we will not tolerate."
FROM 2000 THROUGH 2009 the Colts won 115 games, more than any other NFL franchise. Manning punched the clock week after week, weaving together the kinds of seasons that established him as one of the best quarterbacks the game has ever seen and made Indianapolis a hub of the sports world. But in early September he underwent his third neck surgery in 19 months, related to a bulging disc, and the timetable for his return to football remains unclear. His absence has left the Colts flat-footed and a city searching for equilibrium.
"There is disappointment, but we're not to the point where people are wearing bags," says former Colts offensive lineman Joe Staysniak, who hosts a sports talk show on WIBC radio in Indianapolis. "But you do see the editorials, the cartoons where the kids are trick-or-treating and they're walking away from a house saying, 'Oh, no. More Colts tickets.'"
The team's complete lack of competitiveness (Indy has been outscored 120--24 in its last three games) and Manning's slow recovery haven't just sunk the mood in the city, which will host Super Bowl XLVI in February, it has also created a potential dilemma. Indy could end up with the first pick in the 2012 draft, setting up a scenario that seemed inconceivable only months ago: Would the Colts draft Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the consensus No. 1 and a player some view as the best QB to come out of college in years? If so, where would that leave Manning? Unless the Colts turn things around—and that prospect does not look very likely—the questions will hang over the franchise, promising a winter of scenarios endlessly talked out: Manning playing Brett Favre to Luck's Aaron Rodgers; or, following the Joe Montana path, traded to another team at the end of his career; or set on the road to retirement.
"If [the Colts] get the first pick, you have to take Andrew Luck," says Tony Dungy, the former Indy coach who is now an analyst for NBC. "You never pass on a great player."
Some fans have started wearing Luck jerseys to games, an acceptance of the fate of the current squad and the trajectory of a proud but fading franchise. Though loyal and exceedingly polite (hardly a boo was heard at Lucas Oil on Sunday), the Indy faithful watched 12 offensive possessions that went fumble, interception, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, end of game. (The Colts' only score came in the second quarter on a Jerraud Powers interception return.) Curtis Painter, the unready backup with the unruly locks, passed for 98 yards before giving way to Dan Orlovsky, who added 20 more. If fans had wondered what life without Manning would be like, they are experiencing it in frightening, vivid hues.
"You have the one faction that says, We owe Peyton—he's the reason we have Lucas Oil Stadium," Staysniak says. "The other says, You don't mortgage the future of the franchise when Peyton may not be able to play. If it means letting him go or if he can't play, boy, we're sad, but we're willing to sit through a year of disappointment for the promise of another 10 years of great football."
Irsay is looking at various heavily wooded paths, roads that lead to losing in the short term and uncertainty in the long term. "It's speculative to say, 'Would you sign a quarterback if you had [the] Luck [pick], or would you have him wait like Aaron Rodgers and have Peyton play?' " Irsay says. "You're looking at every scenario—and I'm always looking three or four years ahead—but in talking to the doctors, the strong belief is that [Manning] should be able to come back, being 36 years old going into next year and not 40. But until that happens, there is going to be speculation on exactly what he will be able to do."
The five-year, $90 million contract Manning signed over the summer is essentially a one-year deal with team options beyond that. In March, when the Colts will have a better grasp of his health, they can either pick up Manning's 2012 option for a reported $28 million or let him become a free agent. "This injury is one that is a little bit unpredictable," Manning told reporters last Thursday. Asked if he would entertain a mentoring role for a player like Luck, he said such talk was premature. "I don't think that's fair to the players that are playing, to speculate on what draft choice the Colts will have," he said. "[Veteran center] Jeff Saturday and Reggie Wayne, these guys are out there fighting, trying to win every game."
Early in the second quarter, with the Colts already trailing 14--0, the jumbotron focused on Falcons cornerback Kelvin Hayden, the former Colt who was integral to Indy's Super Bowl XLI win over Chicago and was released during the off-season. thanks for the memories, read the caption on the screen. Hayden, who earlier intercepted a Painter pass, raised his hand as the crowd cheered.
The previous night he'd met up with Colts safety Antoine Bethea at a downtown steak house. "We tried to stay away from football," Hayden said. "People ask me about those guys [struggling]. I don't have an answer."
Neither does All-Pro Indy defensive end Dwight Freeney, who says he never would have envisioned this season. "We've been winning. That's what we do, is win."
That's what they did.
"We've had success and greatness for such a long period of time, you want to be able to sustain that forever," Irsay says, "but you realize that isn't a possibility."
Outside his office windows, for the first time in days, the rain had begun to fall.
"THE STRONG BELIEF," SAYS IRSAY, "IS THAT [MANNING] SHOULD BE BACK, BEING 36 NEXT YEAR AND NOT 40."
Photograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO
AMERICAN IDLE Manning, recovering from his third neck surgery in 19 months, watched Sunday's dismal 31--7 loss to the Falcons, in which Indy turned the ball over on its first two possessions, then punted nine times.
[See caption above]
ANDREW HANCOCK (FANS)
UNCERTAIN SIGNS Manning (in cap, with Painter) started 227 straight regular-season games; neither he nor anyone else can say when—or even if—the Colts' great will see the field again for Indy.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
[See caption above]