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Manning injury raises temp for AFC South hot-seat coaches

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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Matt Schaub, Gary Kubiak and the Texans probably won't get a better shot to win the AFC South. (US Presswire)  
Matt Schaub, Gary Kubiak and the Texans probably won't get a better shot to win the AFC South. (US Presswire)  

With only about two weeks remaining before the Sept. 11 opener at Houston, the rehabilitating Peyton Manning is quickly running out of time to get physically ready to begin his 14th consecutive campaign in the Indianapolis starting lineup.

Coincidentally, two coaches in the Indianapolis Colts' division may be running out of time, as well.

And definitely out of excuses.

While various angles of Manning's continuing recovery from offseason neck surgery have been analyzed and scrutinized the past several days, here is one potential ramification that really hasn't garnered much publicity: the effect that it may eventually have on the futures of coaches Gary Kubiak of the Houston Texans and Jack Del Rio of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The logic might be a bit convoluted but, rest assured, Manning's pain in the neck could conceivably put the heads of Del Rio and Kubiak on the chopping block. The trickle-down effect of the Manning situation, or at least their teams' abilities to benefit from it, could have dire results for the employment outlooks of the coaches.

Beyond the fact that both men have contracts that run through 2012, and each is widely considered to have only tenuous job security entering this season, the veteran coaches have a lot in common as regards Manning and the Colts. Both have losing records -- Del Rio at 5-11 and Kubiak 2-8 -- vs. the Colts during their respective AFC South tenures. Neither coach has ever won a division championship.

Indianapolis, on the other hand, has claimed eight of nine AFC South titles, and has been to the playoffs nine straight times. Kubiak, who assumed the Houston reins in 2006, has carved out only one winning season in five years and the Texans have never even advanced to the playoffs in his stewardship.

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The possible absence of Manning, who might be significantly less than 100 percent even if he beats the odds and is ready to start the season, figures in theory to provide the Texans and Jaguars a huge edge in the division. Even winning an AFC South title with the Colts undermanned by Manning's absence could earn Kubiak or Del Rio an additional year.

Manning has a 96.5 passer rating against the Jaguars in the period Del Rio has been the Jacksonville coach. Against the Kubiak-led Texans, it is 107.3.

The other coach in the AFC South, Mike Munchak of Tennessee, is a rookie, having succeeded Jeff Fisher, and he is pretty much assured of not being fired. But for Kubiak and Del Rio, who some have suggested are living on borrowed time anyway, the possible Manning idleness, even for the first month or so of the season, leaves the door ajar. And if their teams can't get through the generous opening and take full advantage of the situation, then Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver and counterpart Bob McNair of Houston may decide it's time to slam the door on their coaches.

"Certainly [the Manning injury] more than levels the playing field in the division," said a general manager of an AFC team outside the division, in discussing the implications. "He is the most dominant force [in the division]. Arguably in the entire league. Take him out of the equation and it's another story and a far different division. It's an equalizer. Manning is maybe the biggest difference-maker in the league, and if the Colts don't have him, they become a lot more vulnerable. No one can [use the excuse], 'Yeah, they've got Peyton.' That kind of rationalization is gone."

And so, too, could be Del Rio and Kubiak if they don't make hay with Manning on the sideline, even for a few weeks.

The Texans, as noted earlier, get the Colts right out of the chute, and at home. Houston defeated Indianapolis at Reliant Stadium in the season opener a year ago 34-24 yet still finished four games in arrears in the division. Jacksonville split with the Colts but, after a late-season fade, were two games behind Indianapolis when the year concluded. In Del Rio's eight seasons, the Jaguars have never finished within fewer than two games of the Colts. Since he took over the Jags in 2003, the average differential between the clubs has been four games.

Noted the AFC general manager: "The Manning thing, if he can't play, gives everyone a big break."

Houston's second matchup with the Colts isn't until Dec. 22, the penultimate game on the schedule for both franchises. The Jaguars don't face the Colts until Nov. 13, then in the season finale. Even by the most pessimistic timeframes, Manning figures to have returned for those three games. But in addition to Houston, the Colts face the Browns, Steelers and Bucs in the first four weeks. They could struggle to be even .500 vs. that quartet if Manning is idled.

In the nine seasons since realignment created the AFC South in 2002, Indianapolis has averaged 12.1 victories. It has taken an average of 11 wins to capture the division title. Minus Manning for a stretch, the Colts could be hard-pressed to approximate those kinds of numbers.

Jacksonville and Houston also have tough first-month schedules -- the Texans must play New Orleans and Pittsburgh, while the Jaguars get the Saints and New York Jets -- but the teams need to put some meaningful distance between themselves and the Colts if Manning is not available. If they don't, McNair and Weaver could conclude they may never win the division until perhaps Manning retires for good.

Despite having been a chic playoff-caliber choice of the pundits for the past few years, Houston is only 37-43 with Kubiak at the controls. The Texans are once again chosen by many experts to earn their first-ever postseason berth in '11. Creating a cushion against the potentially Manning-less Colts would be a start. The Jaguars have had some successes against the Colts under Del Rio, but are only 66-65 overall, including playoffs, in his eight seasons. There is a suspicion in some quarters that the lockout helped each man to retain his job for 2011.

But if Manning is knocked out of action by his neck problems, Kubiak and Del Rio need to take big advantage of his absence. Failure to do so could mean Manning's surgery might have painful consequences on some other AFC South precincts.

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