Column: Colts season continues to unravel

October 2, 2011 - 6:35 PM

The first time he played in the NFL, Curtis Painter cost the Indianapolis Colts a shot at an undefeated season.

Maybe that's why the Colts have seemed determined ever since to keep him off the field at all costs.

He didn't take a single snap all last year. When it became clear that Peyton Manning wasn't going to be able to start this season, management hastily grabbed a quarterback out of a retirement home rather than give the ball to the third-year pro.

But now Painter is going to start a game behind center for the Colts. On Monday night at Tampa Bay, with the entire nation watching.

Well, almost the entire nation. Those in Indianapolis might be better served averting their eyes.

A season gone bad is about to get even worse.

It's not really Painter's fault, because he's replacing someone who can't be replaced. Indy's stumbling start is evidence enough — as if any was really needed — that Manning is the one player in the NFL who is most indispensable to his team.

With the Colts in desperate need of a win, though, you might think they would at least fake some enthusiasm for Painter in the first start of his NFL career. Rally around him, maybe give him a few pats on the back.

Limited expectations are one thing. No expectations are another.

"We just told our team, Peyton's not here and whomever we have at quarterback is not going to be able to do the same things he's able to do," Colts coach Jim Caldwell said.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Painter, who is getting the start only because Kerry Collins has concussion-like symptoms. The reality, though, is that no backup quarterback is going to be able to run the offense that Manning conducted so brilliantly.

Manning started 227 straight games, leading the Colts to a Super Bowl victory and picking up four MVP awards along the way. The sight of him behind center barking orders, gesturing to teammates, shifting plays is a familiar one to even the most casual NFL fan.

Now he's hurting, and there's a good chance he could be out for the season. The Colts seem lost without him, even as he prowls the sideline giving encouragement to his teammates.

"When you think about it, it's a guy who's been in this system his entire career, knows it like the back of his hand," Caldwell said. "Then when you couple it with the fact that he's literally brilliant, there's not going to be too many people who can do exactly what he does within this system. It's grown and developed around him, so we've had to take a little different path."

That path until now had largely circumvented Painter, whose lot in life in the NFL seemed destined to be holding a clipboard on the sideline for Manning. Painter was so lightly regarded by the Colts that owner Jim Irsay sent out tweets just before the season asking fans for suggestions about signing a veteran free agent to run the team's offense while Manning recuperated from neck surgery.

Irsay shouldn't have bothered. The Colts' offense is so intertwined with Manning that no quarterback was going to come in at the last minute and run it with any real precision. Tom Brady would struggle to replace Manning, much less the 38-year-old Collins.

Then there's Painter, a third-year pro who had a career quarterback rating of 9.8 before being called to sub for the injured Collins in the fourth quarter last week against Pittsburgh. Painter, who seemed like the most surprised person at Lucas Oil Stadium to have his name called, recovered to play adequately enough to lead Indy to a touchdown and nearly an upset win.

It wasn't exactly enough to make Colts fans forget Manning, but it beat Painter's last big game. That came in 2009 when the Colts had won 14 straight and were leading the Jets in game No. 15 when Manning was taken out as a precaution against being injured for the playoffs.

Painter came in and immediately coughed up a fumble that was taken in for a touchdown. The Jets went on to spoil Indy's unbeaten hopes.

"Sometimes," Painter said later by way of explanation, "your name gets called."

Don't blame Colts fans — at least those who can bring themselves to watch — if they have mixed emotions about Painter's starting debut against the Buccaneers. With the 35-year-old Manning suddenly vulnerable, many have already written off this season, with some calling radio talk shows and suggesting that the Colts try to lose every game so they can get Stanford's Andrew Luck with the first pick of next year's draft.

Indeed, there will be a day when the Colts are going to have to face life without Manning. They'll have to develop somebody for the quarterback spot, because no career lasts forever.

Hopefully they'll have a better backup plan when that day comes than sending out tweets for names to replace him.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg