First of a Position-by-Position Series on the Colts' Roster
INDIANAPOLIS – As Jim Caldwell saw it, the Colts' quarterback situation in 2008 was nothing short of remarkable.
The reason was obvious:
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.
But while Manning, a nine-time Pro Bowl selection, has given the Colts remarkable quarterbacking since being the No. 1 overall selection of the 1998 NFL Draft, Caldwell – entering his first season as the Colts' head coach – said the season Manning turned in in 2008 was remarkable on new, memorable fronts.
He faced adversity. He overcame it. And with or without the injury, he had one of the best quarterbacking seasons in recent memory. Maybe ever.
"He did it in a way that showed you a whole lot about his character," Caldwell said recently during an interview for this story on the team's quarterback position, the first of a position-by-position series scheduled to run on Colts.com this month.
"To come from a season where you begin injured and hurt and end up with the MVP (the Associated Press' Most Valuable Player honor) and Pro Bowl and all the accolades that go along with those individual accomplishments tells you something about him."
Quickly, a look at Manning's honors this past season:
---AP NFL MVP
---AFC Pro Bowl starter
---Three-time AFC Offensive Player-of-the-Week
---AP NFL All-Pro (First-Team)
---Kansas City Committee of 101 AFC Offensive Player-of-the-Year
---PFW/PFWA NFL Most Valuable Player
---PFW/PFWA NFL Offensive Player-of-the-Year
---PFW/PFWA All-NFL Team
---PFW/PFWA All-AFC Team
---NFL Alumni Association Quarterback-of-the-Year
---SIllustrated NFL Most Valuable Player
But Manning's story went beyond honors, and went beyond his usual consistent, productive level. After overcoming offseason knee surgery, Colts President Bill Polian said late in the year Manning's season compared with any by any quarterback in NFL history.
"I don't remember anybody playing as well in terms of since he has been back – from Game 5 on," Polian said in December. "I don't know that anybody has played as well as he has."
Manning missed training camp and preseason after undergoing knee surgery in July, then began the season by throwing 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions in the first seven games. At the time, the Colts were 3-4, were under .500 after seven games for the first time since 1998, and had just lost back-to-back road games by double digits for the first time since Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy's 2002 arrival. The second loss was a 31-21 setback at Tennessee that all-but ended Indianapolis' hopes for a sixth consecutive divisional title.
Had the season ended in late October, the Colts would have missed the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
In nine games thereafter, Manning completed 209 of 290 passes for 2,153 yards and 17 touchdowns with three interceptions. The Colts won all nine games, beating three division champions – Pittsburgh, San Diego and Tennessee – and also beating New England, which finished 11-5 to become the first team in 23 years to win 11 games and not qualify for the postseason.
In the first seven games of the season, Manning had two games with a passer rating exceeding 90.0. In the last nine games, he had eight such games and in December, he completed 90 of 110 passes for 1,054 yards and eight touchdowns with no interceptions.
"It was so unique," Caldwell said of the season, "because of the fact that he's always been a very healthy guy. In the early part of the year, he was coming off an injury, and really didn't know what to expect. He missed all of preseason and he has the kind of drive and dedication that his standards are very, very high. To kind of watch him battle through that was special. I think that was what was unique about the year as well – how he battled through trying to get back to his normal pace, his normal feel. He did it in a way that showed you a whole lot about him in terms of his character."
Not that it was easy. Caldwell, who worked closely with Manning from 2002-08 first as quarterbacks coach, then as assistant head coach/quarterbacks and last season as associate head coach, said early on Manning had concerns about the pace of his recovery.
"One of the things I recall was when he was going through the process with the surgery, he was a little concerned about the time that it all happened with how quickly he was going to be able to get back and perform," Caldwell said. "I said to him, 'I know one thing. You'll approach this exactly the same way you approach everything else.'
"He's very diligent. He's very committed. He does it with an intensity that's unsurpassed.' I said, 'If there's anybody who will be ready for that first ballgame, you can do it.' He certainly did it."
Caldwell also said while returning to start the opener against the Chicago Bears in Lucas Oil Stadium was an accomplishment, the key to Manning's season was continuing to work into shape in the following weeks.
"He worked the same way to get himself back to the point where he was performing without any inhibitions whatsoever," Caldwell said. "When he did turn it around, when he did get to the point where he was really operating on all cylinders like he typically does, what a great year he had.
"Often, you find guys who come back from injuries who don't nearly measure up to the same level of consistency they've had in previous years. Maybe there's a lull when you come back, but he surpassed the year he had before, which is incredible."
Caldwell said Manning was one, obvious reason the Colts liked their quarterback situation this past season. The other was backup quarterback Jim Sorgi.
Sorgi, the Colts' backup since 2004, played just one game last season, and that was in relief of Manning after the first series of the Colts' 23-0 season-ending victory over Tennessee. Sorgi in that game completed 22 of 30 passes for 178 yards and no touchdowns with no interceptions.
The Colts against Tennessee produced 390 total yards – 121 rushing and 269 passing – with 295 of the yards coming after Sorgi entered the game in relief of Manning.
"Obviously, in the Tennessee game he demonstrated not only to our team but those within our organization that he does have a good command of the offense," Caldwell said. "Not only does he know it, he can also apply it as well. That was great to see. We've always believed in him, and I think you can see the team believes in what he's capable of doing."
Sorgi's most extended playing time has come late in seasons with the Colts having clinched their playoff positioning. The Colts are 2-3 in those games, losing at Denver in 2004, at Seattle in 2005 and to Tennessee last season and beating Arizona in the 2005 regular-season finale before beating Tennessee this past season.
For Sorgi, his playing time against Tennessee in 2008 ended the longest inactive streak of his NFL career. He has played in 14 games in four seasons. The least he has played in a regular season was 2006, when he played in one game early in the season without throwing a pass, but until this past season, he never had gone the first 15 games without entering a game.
With Manning out after offseason knee surgery, Sorgi worked with the first-team offense during training camp and started the first three games of the preseason. But he missed the last two preseason games, and including those games, hadn't played in 18 weeks.
"He has certainly been in the system a long time," Caldwell said of Sorgi. "He has a very good grasp of the system. He has not had an opportunity to play a significant amount. This last preseason would have been an opportunity for him to play a lot more than normal, but then he was injured at the end, then he missed a couple of games. I think he has been able to demonstrate what he was capable of doing.
"Not only that, he's certainly been a great aid to Peyton in the meeting rooms. He's a guy Peyton leans on to ask him questions about certain situations. He gets his thoughts about how he may approach a particular coverage or front.
"Sorg has been a great sounding board for him and not only that, he works extremely hard making sure all of us have the kind of information we need from day to day as we prepare for teams."
This past season, as has been the case since Sorgi's arrival, the Colts kept just two quarterbacks on the active roster. Many NFL teams carry three quarterbacks, although more teams in recent seasons have opted for two. How the Colts approach that issue in coming seasons will depend on the same factors as previous seasons, Caldwell said.
"It varies," Caldwell said. "It depends on what's needed. There have been years we've had three. There have been a number of years we've gone in with two. It just varies. A lot of it depends on the health of the team, and I would assume this year's going to be pretty much the same way."