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Inconvenient truth for Colts: End in sight for Manning Era

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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Peyton Manning is a spectator for the preseason and may not be ready for the regular season. (Getty Images)  
Peyton Manning is a spectator for the preseason and may not be ready for the regular season. (Getty Images)  

The last time Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning was on a team and failed to start was September 1994. Manning was at Tennessee and the starter was a guy named Todd Helton. Todd. Helton.

Now with the Colorado Rockies.

Following Manning's eclipse of Helton came one of the most spectacular and lasting careers of any player in any sport at any time in history. You know all of the statistics and accolades -- the negatives as well -- but this isn't about those things.

This is about the beginning of the end. Manning is 35 years old and coming off major neck surgery. Not an ankle. Not even a shoulder. His neck.

What we're likely seeing now is instead of Manning having five or six years left in football, it might be two or three. Basically, we should all enjoy Manning while we can, because I fear he'll be gone sooner rather than later.

This is Manning's 13th season, and while Brett Favre played football for 862 years, Favre is a freak. No one is like him, and no one ever will be again. Manning doesn't possess the Favre freakiness (in more ways than one, thank God) and the neck injury is the biggest sign that Manning's body is starting to permanently break down.

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I can hear Colts fans now:

Shut the (expletive deleted) up, Dr. Freeman.

These aren't just my thoughts. This is the feeling among some personnel people throughout the sport. Manning's neck injury scares them. It scares the hell out of them. Many of them believe that while Manning will be back this year, the neck injury will have lasting effects beyond this season. Let's put it this way: Some of the Colts' competitors say they can finally see a day when Manning isn't kicking their ass. Hey, it's a cruel sport.

I think it scares the hell out of the Colts as well. This is new territory for that franchise. They've rarely had to experience life without Peyton. His potential absence, I believe, is what led to the insensitive quotes from wide receiver Reggie Wayne when Wayne was asked about Manning replacement Kerry Collins and in the process offered an awkward defense of backup Curtis Painter.

"We don't even know him, we [aren't] vanilla, man, we [aren't any] simple offense," Wayne explained, speaking of Collins. "So for him to can come in here and be the starter, I don't see it. I think that's a step back. Who says Kerry's going to be the starter? Just because we bring him in doesn't mean he's the starter. He's got to learn, too, right? Unless they gave him a playbook months ago, he's got to learn too.

"I don't care who you are, I mean I'm not going to let anyone just come in here and just push someone [like Painter] aside like you're that dog now, you know what I mean?"

Wayne's mini-outburst, I believe, is as much about worry over Manning as it is defense of Painter. I would even say more former than the latter.

This is indeed a scary time not just for the Colts but for the sport. Imagine an NFL without Peyton Manning. It's difficult to do. Manning has had his issues, and truth is he should have at least a few more rings considering the level of talent he had on offense at one point (Marvin Harrison, Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James, offensive line). But few players have had the on-field and off-field cultural impact of Manning. If there were a Mount Rushmore of NFL players, he might be on it.

Let's hope I'm wrong and a healthy Manning plays football for as long as he wants, the neck injury becomes a thing of the past and Manning's last game is in 2020. Let's hope I'm wrong.

But I don't think I am.

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