CINCINNATI – For the past 13 years, the Colts have been directed by one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
The 2011 season is different after Peyton Manning's streak of 208 consecutive regular-season starts ended on opening day.
Curtis Painter now has started the last three outings, including Sunday's 27-17 loss at Cincinnati. While the scoreboard results have fallen short of the target, Painter keeps growing in the club's attack.
On Sunday during a sun-splashed day at Paul Brown Stadium, Painter hit 23-of-34 passes for 188 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The touchdown came after a Painter-directed field goal drive that cut the Colts' deficit to 10 points with nearly a full quarter to go. His scoring toss to tight end Dallas Clark narrowed the gap to 20-17 with nine minutes to go.
Indianapolis looked poised to continue the comeback as Painter moved the Colts again. He maneuvered Indianapolis to the Cincinnati 34, but kicker Adam Vinatieri had a long field goal blocked after a timing issue with the play. After Cincinnati missed a field goal with 2:36 left, Painter hit wide receiver Pierre Garcon on a five-yard pass, but the Bengals stripped Garcon of the ball and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown. It was 27-17 Bengals with 2:22 left, and Painter threw a subsequent interception to end hopes of a comeback victory.
Still, the club waged a spirited fight against the NFL's top-rated defense. A 13-point road deficit was shaved to three with a chance to inflict more damage. That the outcome did not tip in the Colts' favor did not mean Painter had not made definitive strides once again.
Those strides were evident to Head Coach Jim Caldwell.
"I think you can see him moving along in terms of maturing in the offense. Early on, we did our basic changing of formations and substitutions," said Caldwell. "In the second half we went up-tempo, which is something we have typically done with our offense. He certainly can do those things. I think you can see him coming along, doing some things nicely. He's patient. He's throwing the ball accurately. Overall, you can see week-by-week he is getting better and better. We would have liked to have finished that one. We just didn't get it done."
Painter led a 66-yard first-half drive to knot the game, 7-7. He was four-for-four passing on the drive with a crisp pace, and it led to an 18-yard scoring run by Donald Brown. The club was behind in the second half, 20-7, and Cincinnati had scored 10 third-quarter points when Indianapolis responded again by upping the tempo. It led to two scores and nearly a third, and the attack was one in which Painter was comfortable.
"Sometimes there are teams we look at and have different plans for them. This one in particular we thought we could operate our offense, which was the case," said Caldwell. "We stalled a few times. Up-tempo always is a good change of pace when things get a little stagnant."
Painter was composed throughout the afternoon. Wide receiver Austin Collie, himself a third-year pro, is seeing Painter grow as he gets more experience.
"Curtis you can see is getting better and better each week," said Collie. "He made the checks (at the line of scrimmage), and he is being the leader that he is and that we all know. It's (his maturation) going to continue for Curtis and one of these times we're going to get it over the hump. He knows what he's doing out there (with the quicker pace). He's getting better each week."
Tight end Dallas Clark had six receptions for 53 yards, including an acrobatic one-handed snare of a Painter pass to put the club within three points in the fourth quarter. Clark is enthused with Painter's command and presence in the attack, and he knows the club is benefiting from the quarterback's abilities.
"He's doing a great job," said Clark. "He's putting us in good positions. For what he's been able to improve each week, it's good to see."
Painter saw both good and the chance to do better with his play at Cincinnati. The maturation pace will continue, and he knows there are aspects to enjoy and those that he will work to improve.
"I think we certainly did some things well again today. We're very close," said Painter. "We made some improvements from the last game where we had some success in the second half and really gave ourselves a chance. I will continue to build off the mistakes and continue what we're doing well."
Painter was asked about the club's use of a quickened pace during different parts of the game. He thought the attack was effective is a good augmentation to a regular pace.
"No question it gave us a little bit of tempo. We were able to move the ball well," said Painter. "I thought we did a pretty good job of that all game, with the exception of a couple of series. We had some drives in the first half and in the second half to put us in position. That definitely helped us out. More than anything, it got us in a rhythm. We completed a few balls. It doesn't change our mentality with play-calling. There was an emphasis on going faster. It's a change up, and it's good to have either possibility (up tempo or regular speed)."
Seven of the club's 11 drives started at or inside its 23-yard line. The challenging starting spots made it difficult for the club and half the time the offense was able to move the ball efficiently. Painter was pleased with that and knows it is something the club must do in managing the game.
"We had a few situations there. Any time you are backed up, it makes it more difficult," he said. "I thought on a few occasions we did a good job of getting it out and trying to flip the field. If we didn't have a big drive, we at least were able to do that. It makes it tough, but that's no excuse for our offense. It's our job to move the ball no matter where it is."
Vice Chairman Bill Polian has been an eyewitness to the development of quarterbacks throughout his storied career. Polian like what he sees with Painter.
"He's getting better every week. He's making all the right throws," said Polian. "With one exception today, he made all the right reads. He's getting better each week. Each situation he's in, like today, it adds experience and it's beneficial for him. You'd like for him to get a win because he's played well enough to get one for the last three weeks. These things happen. You have to shrug them off and keep coming, and he's good that way. He has a great temperament along those lines. It's (his maturation) coming."
The club has had a few difficult endings to games this year. Sunday's loss was a 10-point margin that had been closer before the Bengals' last score. The previous four setbacks were by single digits. Despite the tough circumstances and the feeling the club has been down this road too often this year, Painter knows the club will keep fighting.
"We certainly look at it that way. We feel like we've played well in a lot of the last few games here," said Painter. "We've been in position, just have fallen short. We're going to hang on. The fact we're doing some things well…We'll keep improving and keep getting better.
"It's disappointing, not discouraging. We'll keep fighting. We have a lot of veteran leaders on this team. Guys don't make it to this level without being competitive. We're going to keep going."