The Legacy of the Position: Colts, Quarterback
While the needs vary each year, the NFL Draft brings hope and optimism to every single franchise. Many view this hope as being for the fortunes of the franchise and in a lot of ways they are correct. New faces to the organization can spark championship dreams. But there is another kind of hope that needs to be discussed. The hope that that player lives up to the standards set before him by those who once stood in his shoes for the franchise. According to numerous reports, including Pro Football Focus, the Indianapolis Colts desperately need a long-term solution at quarterback. Let's take a look at their illustrious history of the position and the standards that have already been set.
A Starstruck Discovery
To much of the NFL world, the Colts' history begins with Johnny Unitas. And in many ways this is true. In the years before he joined the franchise, the Colts stumbled through losing seasons behind the inaccurate arms of quarterbacks with names such as Enke, Kerkorian and Shaw.
The team was going nowhere with those signal callers under center and by the middle of the decade it was clear that they needed a savior. That savior came in 1956 in the form of a rail-thin, flat top-sporting quarterback from Western Pennsylvania. Even though he finished the 1956 season with a losing record, coach Weeb Ewbank and his staff knew that they had someone special. They saw beyond his above-average completion percentage. They saw his cool demeanor in the huddle in tense moments of the game and how he would lift his teammates up when they stumbled at critical times.
Two years later, Unitas led the Colts to their first NFL Championship and the nation saw what the Colts had seen all along. They saw the cool demeanor in the huddle and his laser-sharp accuracy amidst a terrifying pass rush. When Alan Ameche dove over the endzone to give the Colts the world title, the NFL saw what it had been looking for in its ideal passer. While the forward pass had been around for decades at that time, it hadn't yet been embraced as a legitimate weapon.
After winning a second consecutive NFL championship the following year, Jonny Unitas cemented his legacy in the city of Baltimore. That's what happens when a quarterback brings a championship home. The same can't be said for any other position on the field. The quarterback is the face of the franchise and all that it stands for. For the next decade, as Johnny U continued to build his indomitable legacy as a Colt, the franchise's expectations for its quarterbacks began to take root in the fabric of the organization.
So when Unitas went down prior to the start of the 1968 season, everyone on the team expected his backup Earl Morrall to carry his legacy and bring Baltimore another NFL championship. It was only fitting that he did exactly that, even earning the league's MVP, but that's when he began to stumble. Just after beating the Browns for the NFL championship, Earl Morrall led the Colts to a stunning loss versus the upstart Jets in Super Bowl III.
Still, the franchise's expectations for the position persisted. Two years later, Morrall and Unitas combined to exorcise their Super Bowl demons and beat the Cowboys in Super Bowl V.
Times began to change rapidly for the Baltimore Colts after that glorious season. Unitas began to show significant deterioration and was ultimately traded to the Chargers in 1972. Meanwhile, Earl Morrall seemed to be ageless and was lured away to Miami in 1972, leading the Dolphins through a significant portion of their historic undefeated season.
The Colts were quickly running out of options and turned to a quick solution: Marty Domres. Hailing from Columbia University and having been drafted in the first round of the 1969 NFL Draft, he was both smart and athletically promising. But in his three years with the Chargers, he never threw more touchdowns than interceptions and by 1972, the team had grown weary of waiting for his talent to blossom.
He stepped into an impossible situation in Baltimore. The team had just gotten rid of the two quarterbacks that had delivered the team its only championships. After two losing seasons, the Colts turned to a first-round pick from 1973, Bert Jones.
The good-ole-boy from Louisiana was a bit unorthodox for the Colts as he enjoyed the outdoors and frequently hunted during the season. However, once he was on the field, he was everything that the Colts had hoped he would be, at least physically. After a rough first year as the starter in 1974, Jones took the league by storm the next three years, always completing more than half of his passes and never throwing more interceptions than touchdowns.
He was phenomenal in 1976, completing 60.3% of his passes for 3,104 yards and 24 touchdowns against just nine interceptions. NFL writers were impressed enough to award him the league MVP that year. Unfortunately, his MVP trophy couldn't help him play any better as his Colts lost to the Steelers at home in the first round of the playoffs.
After another strong season in 1977, Bert Jones' career was curtailed with a litany of injuries and he spent much of the remainder of his time as a Colt watching from the sidelines, wondering what could have been.
When Bert Jones went down with a shoulder injury in the last game of the 1977 Preseason, the Colts became stuck in quarterback purgatory for the next 18 years. They suffered through the growing pains of Bill Troup in 1978 and the last gasp of mediocrity from Greg Landry in 1979. Mike Pagel was thrown to the wolves as the team went winless in a strike-shortened 1982 and moved to Indiana two years later.
The franchise's fortunes began to change in the late 1980s but it had nothing to do with who was under center. After a midseason trade for Eric Dickerson in 1987, the franchise relied solely on the ground, not through the air. To them, it didn't matter that Jack Trudeau and a young Chris Chandler, as long as Dickerson was fed the ball many, many times and the defense stepped up when it was necessary.
The strategy brought mixed results as the team made the playoffs just once during the Dickerson era, losing to the Browns in 1987. In 1990, the Colts finagled a trade to obtain the first overall pick in the draft, selecting Illinois quarterback Jeff George. A local hero from nearby Warren Central High School, George had received the very first Gatorade National Player of the Year award back in 1985 after leading his team to back-to-back state titles.
But success as a prep never translates to NFL stardom as the crowds get bigger, the contracts and expectations swell and with money often comes trouble. While George ended up sticking around the league for 17 years, he never adhered himself to his teammates, once refusing to report to training camp until he was threatened with a heft fine. Still, he did lead the team to a rare playoff appearance in 1992 but looks can be deceiving as he only appeared in 10 games and threw more than twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. It would be his only winning season and he was released following the 1993 season.
The Colts didn't know what to expect when they got Jim Harbaugh off of the free-agent scrap pile in 1994. Up until that point, he had never been viewed as a classic prototypical quarterback. He was just a bit too short and a few pounds too light to take seriously. But what no one could tell on the surface was that Harbaugh had a competitive fire within his belly that was impossible to extinguish. While the team wasn't much to look at in 1994, Harbaugh brought the team to life the following year, fighting and scrapping his way to victory after victory.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, he had passed for 2,575 yards and 17 touchdowns, earning a Pro Bowl invitation and the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year honors. The team surprised many in the postseason, squeaking by the first two rounds and coming within a Hail Mary pass from reaching the Super Bowl.
A New Standard
Alas, Jim Harbaugh failed to muster any more magic in the next two years as the team slid down to the depths of the league. By the end of 1997, they owned the first overall pick in the Draft. The Colts had a dilemma. They could either choose Ryan Leaf, a well-polished quarterback from Washington State who had all of the intangibles to be great, or the Colts could choose Peyton Manning, a Tennessee legend who came from pro football royalty. The Colts chose Manning and the lives of the two men quickly became diverged.
As a child, Manning had enjoyed watching his father, Archie, both star and struggle with the lowly Saints. He was unfazed by the unglamorous side of professional football, with the booing fans and the constant risk of injury. Peyton Manning wanted to be a quarterback and dreamed of the day that he would command the huddle, speaking a language that only his teammates could understand and leading his team to victory after sweet victory. He had always been exceptionally prepared in all that he did and thus, Peyton Manning was known to be a straight arrow, completely terrified of verging off the carefully constructed path to greatness.
For the next dozen years, as Manning earned four league MVP awards and twice led his team to the Super Bowl (winning it all in 2006), Ryan Leaf's time in the NFL proved to be vastly different. His immaturity hastened his exit from San Diego by 2001 and from the NFL by 2004. By the time Peyton Manning had settled in Denver in 2012, Leaf's life was spiraling out of control and he was sentenced to prison for various drug offenses.
Looking back on it, the Colts made the right decision. Peyton Manning was great because of his preparation and work ethic, never leaving a stone unturned. Ryan Leaf was the complete opposite, coming to the NFL Combine overweight and not even showing up for his interview with the CInolts, having determined that they would pick Manning. But it was Manning's attitude that proved to be the biggest difference.
When he kept on losing to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, Manning never gave up, failing until he succeeded in 2005 and 2006. It was that attitude, that will to win that became the cornerstone of the franchise. Of course, having Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne lined up wide with Edgerrin James lined up right behind him proved to be useful as the Colts routinely led the league in total offense.
But by 2011, Peyton Manning went down with multiple neck surgeries and was sidelined for the year. In his mid-30s and with an arm that would never be the same, the Colts decided to release him and start anew. It was a dark day in Indianapolis when their beloved quarterback left for greener pastures in Denver. Here was the man who had given the city their only Super Bowl title and had given them a lifetime supply of great memories. Here was the man who was so very much responsible for the franchise having the ability to build a new stadium. When it opened in 2008, Lucas Oil Stadium was quickly dubbed "the House that Peyton Built". Little did the fans know just how quickly their fortunes would change.
When Peyton Manning sat out the year, the Colts finished 2011 with the league's worst record, giving them the first overall pick in the Draft. Standing front and center before their eyes was another Stanford product: Andrew Luck. Well-built, with nimble feet and an accurate arm, Andrew Luck was the total package. He too came from NFL stock. In fact, his father, Oliver, had been Archie Manning's backup in Houston back in the mid-1980s. Oliver had even babysat Peyton and his brother Cooper.
Luck's rookie season was quite a roller-coaster. Early in the year, it was announced that their coach, Chuck Pagano, had been diagnosed with Leukemia and would have to step away for much of the season. Led by interim head coach Bruce Arians and a rag-tag group of rookies and veterans, Luck willed the Colts into the playoffs. By the time they lost to the Ravens in the Wild Card, Chuck Pagano had been declared cancer free.
The next few years played out almost exactly as the Colts had dreamed it would as their young, precocious quarterback led them deeper and deeper into the playoffs, even sparking an epic 28-point comeback against the Chiefs in the 2013 Wild Card. His career peaked in 2014 when he led the league with 40 touchdown passes and brought the team all the way to the AFC Championship Game where they would ultimately lose badly to the Patriots, a team Luck would never beat. But by 2015, Andrew Luck's body began to fail him in ways that Peyton Manning's never did while with the team.
Andrew Luck missed half of 2015 with various injuries including a shoulder injury and a lacerated kidney. He returned to prominence in 2016, passing for more than 4,000 yards, but the team struggled and missed the playoffs for the second straight year. The Colts missed him dearly in 2017 as he spent the year healing from much-needed shoulder surgery while the team stumbled to a 4-12 finish with former Patriot Jacoby Brissett under center.
Refreshed from a year away, Andrew Luck set out to prove himself in 2018. It was a magical year as he passed for 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns while completing 67.3% of his passes, earning his fourth Pro Bowl invitation and NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors. As he entered 2019, his body began to fail him once again as he suffered an injured calf and a high ankle sprain in training camp. As the injuries piled up, he realized that his love for the game was no longer there. What was the point of continuing to put his body at further risk when he could easily get into the corporate world, especially with his architecture degree in hand?
He wasn't supposed to announce his retirement until the following day, but the era of social media can be a fickle beast. While he stood on the sidelines in his street clothes in "The House that Peyton Built" during a Colts' preseason game, the fans booed their former savior. After all of the good that had come out of their relationship, this was not how it was supposed to end. Where were the Lombardi Trophies that were promised just seven years earlier? Having been jilted by Luck, Indianapolis has been in quarterback purgatory ever since.
The legendary investor Warren Buffet likes to describe a lot of the stocks that he buys as"cigar butts", businesses that won't give you a tremendous profit, but still have enough life in them for one last puff. In a way, this is how the Colts have ultimately treated their quarterback situation since Andrew Luck abruptly retired at the tender age of 29. After trying and failing once again with Jacoby Brissett in 2019, the team turned to an aging Philip Rivers. While he was on his last leg as a player, Rivers still knew how to win a game in the way that a crafty old veteran does. Indeed, he did lead the team to their last playoff appearance in 20202, losing to the Bills by a field goal.
Unsurprisingly, Philip Rivers retired after the year and the team quickly filled his shoes with Carson Wentz. Once an MVP candidate, Carson Wentz's career spiraled downward after he tore his ACL in 2017. Despite a strong performance from rookie running back Jonathan Taylor, the Colts failed to make the playoffs in 2021 after losing to the last-place Jaguars. Wentz was released after the season and the team picked up an aging Matt Ryan as his replacement. figuring that the 2016 league MVP had juice left in the tank, the Colts were unpleasantly surprised that he failed to match expectations. The team stumbled through a season that ended with Peyton Manning's old center Jeff Saturday serving as the team's interim coach.
Every quarterback that comes through the Colts organization carries with him the burden of expectation. But while the Colts would never look for an exact replica of Peyton Manning (among others), they expect their quarterbacks to have the same kind of work ethic and dedication to his craft. Does Will Levis have that sort of work ethic? Or does C.J. Stroud? Unfortunately, many of the bad qualities of players won't show up until after a team drafts them. Only time will tell if the Colts made the right or wrong pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.