Manning leaves hole up middle

A rainy, chilly Sunday in Los Angeles was a perfect day to catch up on the NFL. A fireplace and a TV remote were the perfect tools.

But there was a big void.

Missing was that quarterback, standing in the shotgun formation, dissecting the defense, spotting the openings, then flapping his arms and shouting directions like a traffic cop on a busy corner. Nobody in the NFL has ever tapped the baton on the lectern the way he does.

There are other greatly talented players, calling signals, throwing passes and leading their teams. But the real field general, the George S. Patton of the NFL, was nowhere to be found, except if you caught a highlight segment of Peyton Manning, clipboard in hand along the sidelines of the once proud and now dreadful Indianapolis Colts.


The NFL is not the same NFL without Peyton Manning.

With all due respect to Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, they aren’t Manning. They have their own strengths, their own sensational abilities, their own great successes by which we can measure their excellence. But Manning has had similar or better successes as well as a flair that sets him apart.

It is more than just the hand-waving and play-changing at the line of scrimmage, more than the frequent realization that Manning has spotted a shifting linebacker and completed a pass in the space that shift created.

It is his ability to do all that and also be a huge media star, while laughing at himself and coming across as a regular guy who just happened to win four MVP trophies, lead his Colts to 11 straight playoff appearances and win the Super Bowl in 2007. Sports is entertainment, and if the wittiest, most genuine guy in the room also happens to be the best player, you have the ultimate package.

This isn’t Joe Garagiola or Bob Uecker, parlaying decent baseball careers into stardom in front of the TV cameras. This is Joe DiMaggio, hitting in 56 straight games and getting ready for his close-up.

Manning hosts “Saturday Night Live” and is a hit. Manning appears in commercials that leave other athletes looking like functioning robots and comes off like Jay Leno.

Manning goes to Baltimore a few years ago to face the Ravens and the Colts become the Christians, entering the Colosseum. It is the first time that the Indianapolis Colts have returned to play in the city where they were once the Baltimore Colts, to the fans who once embraced them and were jilted in the middle of the night by owner Bob Irsay, who loaded up the vans and sneaked out of Dodge. The game stirs up the anger anew in Baltimore, and has the feel of an ambush.

Manning, who was 8 years old when Irsay backed up the vans in 1984, somehow directs a narrow victory in the most hostile atmosphere, then tells the media afterward, with all sincerity, “I was scared out there. I thought I was going to get shot.”

Such anti-macho honesty does not play well in the NFL, unless you are Peyton Manning.

Now, of course, Manning is out, probably for the season, because of an injury. He has had three surgeries in 19 months on a bulging disk in his neck and, at age 35, there are questions about whether he will ever be back behind that line of scrimmage, pointing, orchestrating and driving opposing defenses to drink.

His loss has had startling consequences. Before this season’s opener, the last time somebody else had started at quarterback for the Colts was Dec. 21, 1997. That was a guy named Jim Harbaugh, who, rumor has it, has done well in the next phase of his life. From the opener in 1998, until this season’s opener, Manning made 227 consecutive starts.

Manning’s absence has made the hearts of some Colts fans grow fonder; with others, the fickle ones, it has made them look elsewhere. Interestingly, the replacement talk is about a player helped to become special by Harbaugh, who coached probable Heisman Trophy winner Andrew Luck at Stanford the last two years before leaving to become the San Francisco 49ers’ coach.

Without Manning, the always-tough, always-contending Colts are now 0-9. The Miami Dolphins, the other winless NFL team entering the weekend, beat the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, and that put the Colts in the catbird seat for the top pick in the NFL draft, a.k.a. the Andrew Luck Derby.

Lots of things could happen.

Luck, with football skills and a personality that project a future on and off the field comparable to, well, Peyton Manning, might decide to stay for his senior season at Stanford. That wouldn’t happen at most places, but it might at a place that tends to keep them down on the Farm.

Manning might decide the medical risk is not a good one and retire.

The Colts might win a couple of games, not get that first pick and see Luck go elsewhere.

Or -- and we can dream here -- Manning might be well enough to come back and play one more season and Luck might decide there is a humanities class he wants to take and stay one more year. Then the Colts and Luck slip just enough in wins and losses to make him attainable in the draft, maybe with some trading up.

And when they get Luck, Manning stays for a season or two on the coaching staff to tutor the next him in the NFL.

That would mean no more Sunday voids in the NFL for years to come.