INDIANAPOLIS – This past week held two personnel moves for the Colts.
Defensive end Robert Mathis agreed on contract terms and the club applied the franchise tag to him as a procedural matter until the deal is completed. Quarterback Peyton Manning and the Colts parted ways after 14 memorable seasons.
Manning missed the entire 2011 season with a neck injury that involved multiple surgeries since the end of the 2009 season, a year the Colts advanced to Super Bowl XLIV.
Colts Owner and CEO Jim Irsay is a faithful steward of the franchise, and he always has employed a long-range vision for the health and future of the team. A combination of injuries, roster maturation, salary cap issues and having the first pick in the draft has triggered a time of change on a pace that is much more accelerated than anyone could have planned even in the past year.
Indianapolis is in a rebuilding stage, a depiction used earlier this off-season by new General Manager Ryan Grigson, and one that Irsay used again this week.
"I think that it's always a difficult process," said Irsay, who has managed the club shrewdly during his 15 years as the organizational leader. "It's not like I sat there a year and a half ago and said, 'We really want to rebuild, we're looking forward to rebuilding.' It didn't work that way.
"I think with injuries, the erosion of time on the roster and different things and circumstances dictated that. I think people lose track of the salary cap and where we are really at there. Just to sign our draft picks, we're going to have to make more roster moves."
Under Irsay's thumb, the Colts had a run of extended success that pushed boundaries of performance ever seen in the NFL's 92-year run. The team won the most games (115) ever in a decade (2000-09), while winning multiple division and conference championships. Nine straight playoff seasons tied the league record, while seven straight years with 12 or more victories (2003-09) was unprecedented. Those achievements were made with the efforts of many people, and Irsay cited that this week.
"Obviously, it's something where you know to duplicate what we've done over the last 12-plus years, that's very, very difficult to do," said Irsay. "Peyton and I talked about it, how hard it is to win in this league. It's going to be a process for us. We'll continue to slowly build and find our stride. The hope and plan was that it (structuring the team) would be a slow continuity. That we would slowly go into it and there wouldn't be such jagged edges to all of the sudden rebuilding being upon you. But, it forced itself upon us. It's something that's a challenge."
Already the cast of performers from the club's 2009 Super Bowl season has diminished. It is the true nature of the business. More change may occur as the coming days ensue.
Veteran players not under contract who can become unrestricted free agents on Tuesday are
defensive end Jamaal Anderson, linebacker Kevin Bentley, defensive end Tyler Brayton, quarterback Kerry Collins, offensive guard Ryan Diem, fullback Jerome Felton, defensive tackle Eric Foster, wide receiver Pierre Garcon, wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez, offensive tackle Quinn Ojinnaka, quarterback Dan Orlovsky, offensive guard Mike Pollak, offensive guard Jamey Richard, center Jeff Saturday, linebacker Ernie Sims, tight end Jacob Tamme, wide receiver Reggie Wayne and linebacker Philip Wheeler. Unrestricted free agents may sign with another team without Indianapolis receiving compensation.
Veteran players not under contract who can become restricted free agents on March 13 are tight end Anthony Hill and defensive back Jacob Lacey. If tendered a contract by that date, the Colts could receive compensation for the loss of a restricted free agent. Defensive back Stevie Brown is an exclusive rights free agent.
Irsay acknowledged that circumstances have merged to create the moment for Indianapolis. As he has seen poignant times in the past end, he always is excited about the future.
"Less than two years ago, cleaning off the confetti from the turf in Lucas Oil Stadium, it has been a very sharp decline," said Irsay. "Certainly, even (in 2010) when we were getting ready to play our playoff game at 10-6 and division champs, if someone would have said, 'You're going to be having the number one pick in the draft, you're going to lose 13 games in a row and (finish) 2-14.' No one could possibly believe it. In this business that is what makes it unpredictable, exciting, all those sorts of things and difficult sometimes when you see a decline or a change that happens very quickly.
"We're up for the challenge, but we're a ways away. It's a challenge. I know we'll continue to work at it as we go through each day."
Indianapolis has the top pick in the draft that runs from April 26-28. The Colts own the first selection in rounds one, three, five and seven, and they will select second overall in rounds two, four and six.