With Manning, no fear Colts: It was thought the young quarterback might 'do the Elway thing' and decline to join the troubled team, but passing on challenges isn't in his nature.

August 17, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

ANDERSON, Ind. -- There were enough warning signs to scare off less secure quarterbacks than Peyton Manning. There was reason to wonder whether coming to Indianapolis to revive the comatose Colts was a good idea at any price.

All you had to do was listen to the echoes of the past.

There was the club's wretched history of taking quarterbacks high in the draft, starting with Art Schlichter in 1982. The John Elway saga followed a year later, and in 1990, the Colts tried again with Jeff George.

There was the ghostly aura of instability. Since moving from Baltimore in 1984, the Colts have employed eight head coaches and 16 starting quarterbacks. The result? Three playoff seasons in 14 years.

There was the sieve-like offensive line. In the past 48 games, it had given up 154 sacks, an average of three a game. That includes a franchise-record 62 in 1997.

Certainly, a less confident person could have been persuaded by that preponderance of damning evidence. The echoes came through loud and clear.

"He had a lot of people with knowledge and experience in the NFL, people who told him he shouldn't come to Indianapolis," said Manning's famous father, Archie Manning, once a New Orleans Saints quarterback. "They said, 'Do the Elway thing.' But he didn't want to do it."

Elway said he'd play baseball for George Steinbrenner before he'd play football for Frank Kush, a threat that won him a trade to the Denver Broncos and, ultimately, a trip to the Hall of Fame.

Manning seemed to apply his own brand of logic to the dilemma: The greater the risk, the greater the reward. His initial dividend was a six-year contract that could be worth as much as $48 million. Manning's $11.6 million signing bonus more than doubled his father's total earnings from a 14-year NFL career.

"A challenge is how you become a better player," Peyton Manning said. "If you go to a team that's the defending Super Bowl champ, how much will you really help that team? I'm coming to a Colts organization that's struggled a little in the past. You can be part of a turnaround and it's more exciting and you work even harder."

Manning is one element, albeit a vital one, in a total makeover at Indianapolis. Under Jim Irsay, who is the youngest owner in the league at 39, the new regime includes Bill Polian as president and Jim Mora as coach.

The elder Manning agrees with his 22-year-old son that this is the right time and place to launch a career with the Colts, who went 3-13 a year ago.

"It's a start-over," Archie, 49, said. "Coming in and getting handed the [starting] position from Day One will help him. Even though there are experienced people here, no one has experience with Jim Mora and [offensive coordinator] Tom Moore. That's a plus.

"It's a quality city. I think they're hungry for the team to build a solid foundation like Jim Irsay, Bill Polian and Jim Mora want to do. I hope Peyton is a block in that foundation. It's a good fit."

The rebuilding of the Colts goes slowly in this sleepy college town north of Indianapolis. In Manning's 12th training camp practice last week -- he lost the first eight to contract negotiations -- he appeared tentative in his reads and struggled to find a rhythm with his receivers. More than one pass on this day was dropped by uncertain hands.

"I'm trying to do the best I can every single time," said Manning, who faces the Cincinnati Bengals in his second exhibition game tonight. "I realize the fans and the team want great things to happen. I do, too. But experience is the best teacher. I need all these preseason games, all these practices to get ready for Miami [in the season opener]. I think I will be learning the entire season."

Polian, who chose Manning over Ryan Leaf with the first pick in the 1998 draft, said he anticipates tough times. Asked how much he expects from Manning this season and at what speed he anticipates progress, Polian was succinct.

"Very little and slow," he said. "No matter how talented he is, he's a rookie. Once the hype ends, they all become rookies and they struggle. It's part of the growth process."

Still, Polian had no reservations about trading veteran quarterback Jim Harbaugh to the Ravens to pave the way for Manning to play immediately.

"Yes, it was an easy decision because not to force-feed [Manning] would have been postponing the inevitable," he said. "They all have growing pains."

Mora said he is most impressed by the dedication Manning brings to his job.

"We have to go at a speed he can handle," Mora said. "As we get to know Peyton, we'll adjust to him. So far, we haven't had to slow down. He has a tremendous work ethic. Football is extremely important to him, but he's got his priorities in the right place."

Veteran running back Marshall Faulk, who will be expected to protect Manning in the running game, doesn't think the rookie quarterback will have a problem with leadership.

"It's hard for a rookie, but we have a young team," Faulk said. "That's good because guys will be able to take criticism from him and understand he's our guy. He won't have to do a lot of hooray-hooray, just focus on things he has to do for the game."

In the locker room as on the field, Manning is still feeling his way.

"I'm treated like anyone else," he said. "I haven't tried to rush it. I keep quiet in the locker room and try to be patient."

His new-found wealth won't sway his focus, either, his father said.

"Peyton has grown so much," Archie Manning said. "When he signed that contract, he did a 4.3 [sprint] up here. He never mentioned a word about it. He wants to live up to his billing. He wants to be a solid player."

In Indianapolis, that's all the Colts can ask.

Pub Date: 8/17/98

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