INDIANAPOLIS –Media speculation about the timing on a possible return for injured quarterback Peyton Manning dominated much of the Colts' 2011 season.
But Manning, despite his high hopes and intense rehabilitation, wound up being sidelined for the year after undergoing off-season neck surgeries. And the Colts, without their four-time league MVP, struggled to a 2-14 record and missed the playoffs for the first time in 10 years.
What the Colts did not do was surrender in the face of a difficult season following a decade of historic NFL success. They did not wring their hands and bow their heads.
They forged on. They did so weekly, and with character and professionalism in the face of extreme adversity.
Head Coach Jim Caldwell, speaking after a season-ending loss at Jacksonville, perhaps summed it up best about the Colts' veterans and their year-long effort.
"We had a great group of individuals who stayed focused," Caldwell said. "They were able to keep a lot of the young guys in line, and they did a great job in terms of representing the organization.
"They did some things," he continued, "that are unusual in this day and age and particularly in this league. When things aren't going well, you usually see the whole team simply implode. But these guys did not do that. They hung in there together. They played for one another. They improved every week. They didn't point fingers. As a result, we were able to hang in there and give ourselves at least an opportunity to win."
Losses in their first 13 games staggered the Colts, but their resolve was intact as they played host to Tennessee in the 14th game.
The Indianapolis defense never let up. Cornerback Jacob Lacey returned an interception for a touchdown against the Titans. Linebacker Pat Angerer intercepted a pass in the end zone to snuff a late Tennessee drive and also made 12 tackles and forced a fumble. The Colts won, 27-13.
"Give credit to our defense," said Colts quarterback Dan Orlovsky. "(It was) one of the better performances I've seen defensively in my career. It was nice to be out on the field to take the knee to end the game."
It was Orlovsky's first victory as a starting quarterback in the NFL. Before the Colts turned to Orlovsky for the final five starts in 2011, Kerry Collins opened three games and Curtis Painter started eight. Orlovsky, in his seventh NFL season, mostly as a backup quarterback, said he was "very humbled" to garner his first starting win with the Colts.
"It's a real good feeling," he said. "It's what I thought I'd always be accustomed to. In my career, I've learned not to take them for granted. It feels great."
Donald Brown played a major role in the victory, too. The Colts running back rushed for a career-high 161 yards, including an 80-yarder in the fourth quarter. Brown's electrifying run tied a franchise record set by Tom Matte in 1964 for the longest rushing play.
Orlovsky provided a key block on Brown's 80-yard run. The Indianapolis quarterback was glad to help. The two players are good friends, and Orlovsky lived rent-free at Brown's house during the season.
"I told him the hip check (block) was the least I could do," Orlovsky said.
It was a satisfying victory for Indianapolis fans who kept Lucas Oil Stadium filled during the 2011 season, and their faith was rewarded again four days later. In a Thursday Night game in Indianapolis, the Colts rallied on the strength of Adam Vinatieri's four field goals and a fourth-quarter touchdown reception by Reggie Wayne to defeat Houston, 19-16.
Wayne's touchdown came with 19 seconds left, capping a 12-play, 78-yard drive. Wayne, who finished with eight catches for 106 yards, also had an important 34-yarder on the winning march.
"We just felt we'd have some one-on-one opportunities (with receivers)," Caldwell said. "And if (Orlovsky) could just get it close, in the neighborhood, then he has the guys out there who could go up and get it for him. Reggie certainly had a spectacular game."
It was another stout effort by the Indianapolis defense. The Colts held Houston to 14 first downs, a one-of-10 conversion rate on third down and only 283 net yards. Safety Antoine Bethea led the defense with nine tackles and a forced fumble. Defensive end Robert Mathis had two sacks.
"I think, certainly, this team is creating its own identity here towards the end of the season," Caldwell said.
"I can just tell you that (it) was pretty special in that locker room this evening. The guys fought like battle-tested individuals. … I'm not certain if I've been around a group of guys, particularly when things haven't gone well for us, that will fight you like this group. They will fight you right down to the last whistle."
The Colts battled earlier in the season, too, in the face of injuries and close calls. After a 34-7 loss at Houston in the opener, they were determined to come back. There seemed an uptick in tight losses to Pittsburgh (23-20), Tampa Bay (24-17) and Kansas City (28-24), but Indianapolis still struggled to find the win column through November. The tough slog continued, and a two-touchdown loss at Baltimore left the Colts at 0-13.
In the December 11 game against the Ravens, Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney reached a major milestone for his 10-year career. Freeney collected his 100th sack with a tackle of Joe Flacco in the second quarter. Freeney, who had another sack in the third quarter, joined a list of 27 other players in NFL history with 100 or more.
"Dwight is a guy who works extremely hard," Caldwell said. "He's been blessed with speed and power and tenacity. He's a tough guy to handle. … He works at it. It's important to him."
The Colts, as a group, showed that same kind of pride and resolve as the season wound to a conclusion. But when the final loss at Jacksonville by a 19-13 count kept the team from finishing with three straight victories, Caldwell expressed his disappointment.
"We hoped to end it on a positive note so these guys could have a good taste in their mouth after these last three games," Caldwell said. "But we didn't play well enough to get that done. They fought and fought hard and gave themselves an opportunity to win, but we just couldn't get it done."
A few days after the season, changes took place in the Colts' front office and on the coaching staff. Owner and CEO Jim Irsay brought in Ryan Grigson as general manager on January 11. Grigson, a former standout offensive lineman at Purdue, spent eight years in scouting and player personnel with the Philadelphia Eagles after holding scouting positions with the St. Louis Rams from 1999 to 2003.
"He is a bright and gifted administrator who is the right fit for our organization," Irsay said about Grigson. "He is the right person for the challenges of his new role, and I am confident he can help us continue the winning tradition we have enjoyed, and that our fans have appreciated through the years."
On January 25, 2012, the Colts selected Chuck Pagano as their new head coach. Pagano, with 28 years of coaching experience, including 10 in the NFL, left his position as defensive coordinator of the Ravens to take the Indianapolis job.
RECAPPING THE 2011 SEASON
Memorable moment: A sellout crowd of 64,271 in Lucas Oil Stadium saw the Colts gain their first victory of 2011 with a 27-13 outcome over Tennessee on December 18. The game was close throughout, but running back Donald Brown bolted to an 80-yard touchdown with 3:26 left to give the Colts breathing room. Here is how Head Coach Jim Caldwell saw it: "What it really boiled down to was the end of the game. Who was going to make plays at the end? Donald was able to pop out of there and take one home, which was huge."
*Best seasonal performance, defense: *Second-year linebacker Pat Angerer proved to be versatile and skilled in 2011. The former second-rounder from Iowa opened the season at outside linebacker but moved inside when Gary Brackett was injured in the first game. Angerer led the team with 146 tackles.
Best seasonal performance, offense: Three players deserve credit here. Quarterback Dan Orlovsky started the last five games and led the Colts to a pair of victories. He completed 63.2 percent of his passes in 2011 for 1,201 yards and six touchdowns with four interceptions. Orlovsky got a lot of help from receivers Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon. Wayne caught 75 passes for a 12.8-yard average and four touchdowns. Garcon snared 70 for a 13.5 average and six scores.
Comeback player: Injuries sidelined wide receiver Austin Collie for all but nine games in 2010. But, in 2011, the third-year player from Brigham Young battled back to catch 54 passes for 514 yards and a touchdown. He competed the entire season with no affects from the two concussions he suffered in 2010.