Whether you’re a good loser or a bad loser, the problem is you still go down as a loser.
There has never been a more sympathetic figure in defeat than Indianapolis Colt Coach Tony Dungy after his team ran out of chances against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. But his quarterback, Peyton Manning, lost points by his willingness to point fingers everywhere but at himself.
Different vibes, same unavoidable conclusion. They didn’t get it done in the playoffs. Again.
Manning has spent the last seven years as one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL, yet he has an out-of-whack ratio of Pro Bowl spots to Super Bowl trips: six to none. Dungy has shared Manning’s frustration in Indianapolis for the last four years, and his inability to get a playoff team to the Super Bowl reaches back to the previous five years in Tampa Bay.
This year the Colts’ path to Super Bowl glory seemed as wide open as the road in a car commercial. All they had to do was win two games in the RCA Dome. Another dome awaited them in Detroit.
As an added bonus their arch-nemesis, New England, had been eliminated the day before in Denver.
Yet even on a day when the Colts kept receiving more chances than they deserved, they could not capitalize. They caught a break when an apparent Troy Polamalu interception was somehow ruled an incompletion after review. Then Jerome Bettis coughed up the ball at the one-yard line on his way to an apparent game-clinching touchdown in the final 80 seconds. But Mike Vanderjagt missed badly on a game-tying field goal from 46 yards and the Steelers prevailed, 21-18.
Manning said the Colts needed to “try to make peace with the football gods.”
In that case, Manning should start by offering himself on the altar.
The one consistency in the Colts’ recent playoff losses has been Manning’s subpar performance. This time the numbers read 22 for 38 for 290 yards and a touchdown. And yet I haven’t heard him accept his equal share of the blame, or offer a satisfactory explanation for why he is not at his best when the Colts need him the most.
He let Vanderjagt, the erstwhile “idiot kicker,” off the hook, saying, “It’s one play. It’s not the reason the Colts didn’t win this game.”
But he sold out his offensive line in his response to a question about Pittsburgh’s pass rush that pressured him all day and sacked him five times.
“I’m trying to be a good teammate here,” Manning said, choosing his words carefully. “Let’s just say we had some problems in protection. I’ll give Pittsburgh credit for the blitzes and their rush. Those guys rushed. But we did have some protection problems.”
Leave that to the linemen. They were more than willing to fess up.
“Up front, we didn’t do a very good job to begin the game,” center Jeff Saturday said.
See? Why couldn’t Manning say something similar about his two-for-six start in the first quarter?
Oh, Manning quickly took credit for drawing up what he called a “dirt play” that resulted in a two-point conversion pass to Reggie Wayne that brought the Colts to within three points.
But tell me if this sounds like an acceptable mea culpa for his playoff shortcomings:
“Certainly it has not been for a lack of effort due to my part,” Manning said. “I’ve never stepped onto the field or walked off the field saying I could have done more to prepare for this game. There’s certainly throws I’d like to have back or series you’d like to have back, or games I wish I would have played better.”
Dungy’s team was out of sync on offense in the first quarter and couldn’t stop the Steelers on defense, when the visitors quickly lowered the decibel level in the RCA Dome by jumping to a 14-0 lead. The Colts were penalized nine times for 67 yards, including a false start that moved them back from third and goal at the Pittsburgh one.
You almost didn’t want to see Dungy go through the usual playoff-loss grilling after what he endured last month, when his 18-year-old son, James, died of an apparent suicide.
Dungy displayed the same poise and grace Sunday that he had in his first public comments after his son’s death. And it was easy to see why even a playoff loss this bitter didn’t seem so devastating to him.
“Personally, a couple of big disappointments,” Dungy said. “Obviously, this one doesn’t rank anywhere close to the last ones. From my standpoint, it’s disappointing. My job is to get this team to play well and we didn’t quite do that today. But I know we’ll bounce back.”
He didn’t use the rust from the bye week, or even the extraordinary circumstances of the leg wound cornerback Nick Harper suffered when his wife allegedly stabbed him Saturday, as excuses.
He did salute the team’s fight-to-the-end mentality, which was evident in the season’s first loss to San Diego in December and again when Gary Brackett forced the Bettis fumble near the end Sunday.
Yes, these Colts had heart. And Dungy’s a great coach, Manning’s a great quarterback.
But you don’t get credit for those qualities in the playoffs. All you can say is Dungy and Manning lost.
It’s becoming as much a part of the postseason as a Don Cheadle ad.
J.A. Adande can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more by Adande, go to latimes.com/adandeblog.