INDIANAPOLIS – The “process’’ provided the desired results. And then some.
Will history repeat itself?
It was 25 years ago Tuesday when everything changed for the Indianapolis Colts and their position as a major player in the city’s professional sports landscape.
At The Theater in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, owner Jim Irsay walked to the stage and handed a card to commissioner Paul Tagliabue that bore the results of months of exhaustive work – the aforementioned process – done by general manager Bill Polian and his personnel staff leading up to the 1998 NFL draft.
With the first pick in the draft, the Indianapolis Colts select quarterback, University of Tennessee, Peyton Manning.
Manning, who turned 22 a month earlier and looked the part of a young prospect, hugged brother Cooper, agent Tom Condon and parents Olivia and Archie. He then pulled on a Colts’ hat and grabbed a blue No. 18 jersey before joining Tagliabue on stage.
It was the launch point for a rare era in Indy, which had earned the No. 1 overall pick in the draft by finishing 3-13 the previous season. The Colts desperately needed stability at quarterback. They needed a catalyst. They needed hope.
“We knew we had the right guy from the get-go,’’ Polian said. “That was not the issue. But special, generational, if you will?’’
He paused and laughed.
No one – not Polian, not Irsay, not offensive coordinator Tom Moore – realized the power of the fuel injector that had been added to Moore’s offense, and what was to come.
Not a 13-year stretch of excellence that included 11 seasons with at least 10 wins, eight AFC South titles, 11 playoff appearances, two trips to the Super Bowl and a signature 29-17 win over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI on that rainy Feb. 4, 2007 night in South Florida.
Not Manning being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the Class of 2021.
“I’d like to be able to say we did (see it coming), but the answer is we didn’t,’’ Polian said. “No one can.
“You knew you had the right guy in the first instance, then during his rookie year we knew, ‘This guy is pretty special.’ Then it’s, ‘How far can we go?’’’
Twenty-five years later – “What’s shocking is that it’s 25 years ago. Where does the time go?’’ Polian said – the Colts find themselves at another crossroads.
They’re coming off a dysfunctional 4-12-1 season and desperately need stability at quarterback. They’re had five different primary starters in each of the past five seasons – Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan – and that’s no way to grow as a franchise.
They’ve failed to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons and in six of the last eight.
The Colts desperately need a young prospect to lead them into the future. They need hope.
And that’s what the April 27 draft offers.
“It’s whatever you want to call it: right place, right time; karma, fate,’’ Polian said.
General manager Chris Ballard holds the No. 4 overall pick, and analysts agree there are five intriguing prospects: Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Kentucky’s Will Levis, Florida’s Anthony Richardson and Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker.
“We know the importance of the position,’’ Ballard said. “If you don’t feel like you have one that can absolutely change the franchise in terms of leading you every year, I think you’re always going to feel some pressure to get that player.
“Now whether we need to take one at 4, if the right one’s there for us that we feel good about, then we’ll do it.’’
Polian has done enough homework on this year’s quarterback class to believe a viable candidate will be on the board when the Colts are on the clock.
“There are five really good prospects who are physically and mentally and emotionally and athletically worthy of being considered bona-fide prospects,’’ he said. “There are five guys who have shown the capacity to play in the National Football League.
“Now, which one is for you is what everybody is kind of agonizing over.’’
It isn’t hyperbole to insist the Colts must find their quarterback of the future next week. The timing and situation – top-4 pick, multiple prospects at a position of serious need – seems ideal.
Ballard long has stressed the importance of building a solid top-to-bottom roster and not place an inordinate value on quarterback.
“It will never be about one guy,’’ he said during his introductory press conference in 2017.
But that one guy – Manning, Luck or Bert Jones, who was the No. 2 overall pick in 1973 – can do so much to lift an entire franchise.
Polian was the architect of Buffalo’s four consecutive Super Bowl appearances (1990-93) as well as the expansion Carolina Panthers in 1995. The latter involved trading the No. 1 overall pick to the Cincinnati Bengals and selecting Kerry Collins with the No. 5 pick. In ’96, the Panthers were in the NFC Championship game.
When Polian took over the Colts in ’98, they were “at a low ebb.’’
Making the right decision in the draft – Manning over Ryan Leaf – “was critical,’’ he said.
The Colts had young stars on offense – Marvin Harrison, Marshall Faulk, Tarik Glenn, Adam Meadows, Ken Dilger, Marcus Pollard – but needed an upgrade over 34-year-old quarterback Jim Harbaugh.
Polian, a member of the team’s Ring of Honor and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2015, notices similarities with then and now.
“Oh yeah,’’ he said. “As Tony (Dungy) used to say, there’s perception and there’s reality. The perception is the Colts are not a good team. The reality is that they are.
“They’re not as good as they will be or can be, but there’s plenty there to work with.’’
The roster features Jonathan Taylor, led the NFL in rushing two years ago with a franchise-record 1,811 yards; Michael Pittman Jr., Alec Pierce, Quenton Nelson, Braden Smith, DeForest Buckner, Shaquille Leonard, Kwity Paye and a handful of others.
A top-4 pick could be – must be – a franchise-changer.
“This pick is pivotal because the quarterback is the force-multiplier,’’ Polian said. “If this is the right guy, then they’re going to have a chance to be pretty good quickly, within a couple of years.’’
The overriding question is whether the Colts stay at No. 4 or pay the price to acquire the No. 3 pick from Arizona.
“That’s a tough call for Chris,’’ Polian said. “You’re talking about one player sort of changing the whole equation, one way or the other.’’
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