With the NFL's first work stoppage in nearly 25 years upon us, it is an odd time to discuss how teams can improve for next season and beyond. But I, like many of my colleagues, believe that there will be football next season — there simply is too much at stake for games not to be played. So once the dust finally settles and players like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees can stop being plaintiffs in class-action lawsuits and return to being perennial Pro Bowl QBs, critical decisions must be made by every club in order to contend for a Super Bowl.
For Manning and the Colts, contending for the Lombardi Trophy every year is expected. Look no further than the club making its record-tying ninth consecutive postseason appearance in 2010. That appearance ended sourly, however, with a first-round home loss to the Jets that left critics talking more about Manning's postseason failures than regular-season consistency.
Without getting too bogged down by the numbers, a quick glance at Manning's playoff history reveals a 9-9 record, including seven one-and-dones. His 29-19 touchdown-to-interception ratio and postseason passer rating of 88.4 are incredibly un-Manning-like, as well.
Make no mistake: Manning is without question a first-ballot Hall of Famer. As the league's only four-time MVP, he is on pace to break the record for every major statistical category held by a QB. But fair or not, we all know that quarterbacks are ultimately judged by postseason hardware, and little brother Eli is on equal footing with his big bro in that department.
So as the Colts continue working toward what likely will be Manning's final contract — and what almost certainly will be the most lucrative deal in league history — they also should be prepared to put him in the best position to lead them back to the Super Bowl as many times as possible in the final seasons of his career. Eclipsing his previous career-high in pass attempts each of the past two seasons is not putting Manning and the Colts in the best position possible.
The philosophy of building the offensive line since drafting Manning has been protecting the franchise QB at all costs. That often meant finding quicker, more agile linemen rather than more physical run blockers who can open up holes in the running game. And in the Colts' defense, the club consistently has been at or near the top of the league in fewest sacks allowed — but the running game is consistently among the league's worst. That means keeping Manning upright and in once piece isn't enough anymore. The Colts also must place a greater emphasis on becoming a more physical team that can pound it on the ground. While the attempt last offseason to add bigger, more physical O-linemen failed, it's time to earnestly get back to the drawing board.
Imagine that — the NFL continues to trend toward a passing-oriented league and the team with one of, if not the best, gunslingers is trying to find more balance. It makes sense if you think about it, though. As Manning's 35th birthday rapidly approaches, why not make his life easier by alleviating pressure? We know the Colts don't again want to see him press like he did during the three-game losing streak last season when he threw 11 interceptions, and that was a result of being one-dimensional.
In 13 years with the organization, Bill Polian never has drafted an offensive lineman in the first round. With a deep class of prospects this April, he needs to hit a home run on a left tackle who can step in and play immediately. That kills two birds with one stone, as Charlie Johnson, last year's starter at the OLT spot, would be better at right tackle or guard anyway.
Polian also needs to deviate from his track record and lure in a free-agent O-lineman as he hinted at during the season. Finding a right tackle to replace Ryan Diem would be ideal; Johnson could take over for Kyle DeVan at left guard. The Colts have taken the right approach over the years, drafting well and avoiding free agency, but Manning isn't 25 years old anymore, and more immediate upgrades are needed along the line than the draft offers.
It's not just the offensive line. Joseph Addai is one of the more underrated running backs in the league, but he gets injured too often and does not scare opposing defenses.
Reggie Wayne was an All-Pro last season, but he turns 33 in November and is entering the final year of his contract. The Colts historically do not offer long-term deals for skill-position players in their 30s. Now is the time to start grooming Wayne's eventual replacement, and neither the inconsistent Pierre Garcon nor the injury-prone Austin Collie is that guy.
Manning is the No. 1 reason why the Colts have won more regular-season games than any team over the last decade, but the Colts also have done an excellent job in planning ahead and continuously replenishing the pipeline with talent. As Manning enters the final stage of his career, it never has been more important to alter the approach of stockpiling talent around him to put him and the team in the best position for success.