INDIANAPOLIS –First it was offensive captain Peyton Manning missing his first start in his 13-year NFL career. Manning underwent an off-season neck procedure and still is in rehabilitation.
Linebacker Gary Brackett was felled in the opener at Houston on an interception return, and special teams co-captain Melvin Bullitt was placed on injured reserve three weeks into the season.
Out to date is the Colts' four-time NFL MVP. Gone is the mainstay in the middle of the Colts defense for the last six seasons. Gone is a special teams force and an emerging leader in what was going to be his first full season starting at safety.
Those losses, all long-term, have received some of the headlines through the first eight games of the season. The other end of the spectrum, key rookies, have been affected, too.
In April's draft, the Colts made a clear emphasis to infuse young talent on both sides of the line. The emphasis came with using the first three picks. For the first time since 1997, the Colts not only took an offensive tackle in the first round but did so with their next pick as well.
Offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo started the first four games of the season before an ankle injury sidelined him the past four weeks. Hope for a return in week nine against Atlanta took a turn in the right direction Wednesday when Castonzo practiced. The status of whether or not he will play come Sunday is still unknown, but Head Coach Jim Caldwell is hopeful.
"I am (optimistic) in terms of he's going to practice. We'll see," said Caldwell. "Oftentimes you have to wait to the end of the week to really get a sense of guys that haven't been practicing and all the sudden they start practicing. Sometimes they may not come along as quickly as we like. Sometimes the next day is an issue because of soreness. You just don't know. We're certainly optimistic."
When Castonzo went down on that Monday Night against Tampa Bay, second-round pick Ben Ijalana's number was called. Seeing his first extensive offensive action, Ijalana suffered a knee injury in the fourth quarter. The severity of the injury landed him on injured reserve, ending his season.
Losses along the offensive line have forced the Colts into a number of different options through the first half of the season, and the possible return of Castonzo would give a bit of stability to the unit.
"There's a number of different things we're kind of balancing around. It looks like (Mike) Pollak may have an opportunity to work his way back," said Caldwell. "We're not real sure, but we'll have a little bit better idea a little later in the week. There are some options if he (Castonzo) does. He'll slide back in there and we have other options at the guard position. It could be (Mike) Tepper. It could be Jamey (Richard). It could be other guys."
On a night when the Colts were losing players at Tampa Bay, third-round pick Drake Nevis became the fourth lineman (veteran defensive tackle Eric Foster also suffered a season-ending injury to his ankle and leg) to leave the game due to injury. The rookie defensive tackle had at least three tackles in each of his four games and had established himself in the middle of the front four.
Just four games into the season and the Colts were down three of their four captains and their top three draft choices.
In the back of the Colts defense was sixth-year veteran Antoine Bethea. The Pro Bowl safety has started each of his six seasons in the NFL and knew it was time for him to lead by example.
"At that point, we turned really young in the back seven real quick when those two guys (Brackett and Bullitt) went down," Bethea said. "It was kind of my job to really step up. My job is to do it by my play. Let the young guys see how you play, see how you approach the game and when something needs to be said, then say it. For the most part, (you) just go out there and play your style of ball and, hopefully, the young guys can piggyback on that and you can build something."
The most tenured player on the Colts defense is Dwight Freeney. The all-time sacks leader in franchise history and six-time Pro Bowler said anticipating something like what has transpired in 2011 is unforeseen, but it is only a matter of time before the team gets over the hump.
"You can never see something like this happening, especially (to) an organization like us," Freeney said. "We've been winning and that's what we do is win. Those close games that we were winning last year now we are losing those games. We could easily have four wins right now. We are still trying to work and win a game.
"(You have to) have tunnel vision. This is your craft. You have to keep hammering, keep grinding, keep going. You've got to think eventually that rock or boulder is going to crack, or that ice is going to break and things are going to turn around. You figure it has to at some point, as long as you are doing what you can do and not doing too much."
Replacing the contribution of Manning is almost impossible but under the circumstances, Curtis Painter has performed admirably in five starts.
Maybe the most important part of Painter's success has been the leadership the quarterback has leaned on from those in the locker room.
"I just kind of look for support from the guys in this room, guys in this building," Painter said. "(I) don't really pay much attention to any outside pressure. I don't like to add anything else, so (I) just really focus on that and go from there."
Throughout training camp, Painter took first-team reps and despite not having the normal off-season programs, the third-year quarterback pointed to those reps in helping him this season.
"Game number one that was really the first real experience I've had in a while, so I think just getting in there kind of getting comfortable with the guys kind of working with a new group (was key)," Painter said. "Even training camp was good for me just getting re-familiar with guys and learning the offense. There really is no substitution for getting in there and getting game-time reps."
Painter has impressed Caldwell with how he has handled the opportunity.
"I think he's probably one of those guys that's got real good focus, real level-headed, doesn't get rattled and is a real hard-worker," said Caldwell. "He cares about it passionately. You can see it in the meeting rooms. You can see it in terms of the language of how he carries himself out on the field. I think you will see it just continue to carry over during the course of the season, because he didn't get down when he wasn't starting. He worked, he helped whoever was in the position as the starter, Kerry (Collins) at that particular time. He's been a very patient individual that I think has taken advantage of the opportunity that he has."
The club will keep working through the setbacks. There is no other choice. The possible return of those who can do so could bolster the team. Until then, veteran players will keep providing direction and younger players on the roster will grow in playing time opportunities.