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With Peyton Manning under center, Colts rarely tap reserves

An Indianapolis backup quarterback should enjoy watching Manning play, because chances are that is all he will get to do.

August 04, 2011|By Sam Farmer
  • Colts starting quarterback Peyton Manning talks to backup quarterback Curtis Painter during a game against the New York Jets last season.
Colts starting quarterback Peyton Manning talks to backup quarterback… (Michael Conroy / Associated…)

Reporting from Anderson, Ind. — No one rooting for the Indianapolis Colts wants to see you. Or talk about you. Or entertain the thought of you stepping onto the field.

If you're the backup to quarterback Peyton Manning, you're the worst-case scenario, the embodiment of a raised white flag.

There's a saying around the NFL that the No. 2 quarterback is the most popular guy in town, the player everyone wants to see at the starter's slightest stumble.

Not in Indianapolis.

Said Bill Polian, the Colts' vice chairman: "The backup here needs to realize that if and when he gets in the game, people aren't happy. By definition."

At the moment, there's no choice. With Manning recovering from the neck surgery he underwent in May, the Colts have turned to No. 2 quarterback Curtis Painter to run the first-string offense in training camp. It's the rarest of circumstances, considering Manning virtually never misses a snap during the season or in the summer.

"This is definitely an interesting camp, especially with all the free-agent guys that aren't allowed to practice until the weekend," Painter said after splitting snaps with Nate Davis this week. "Just a couple quarterbacks going through the first couple days. I think it's good, you're getting a lot of reps. I'm just embracing the opportunity."

That opportunity might be fleeting. Manning was getting physical therapy and did not watch practice Tuesday, but he was spotted off to the side Wednesday doing some throwing and light running.

Counting training camp and the regular season, 41 quarterbacks have been listed beneath Manning on the depth chart since the Colts made him the No. 1 overall pick in 1998. Only five of those players took a regular-season snap for the franchise.

In his 13 seasons, Manning has missed one snap because of an injury — and that came in 2001, when Miami's Lorenzo Bromell broke his jaw with a hit that cost the defensive lineman a $15,500 fine.

Confirming the darkest fears of Colts fans, backup Mark Rypien fumbled a handoff on the next play, setting up the winning touchdown in a 27-24 Dolphins victory.

The situation was even worse for Painter in the 2009 season, when the 14-0 Colts opted to protect their stars for the playoffs rather than aim for an unblemished record. He replaced Manning in a home game against the New York Jets, with Indianapolis leading, 15-10, in the third quarter but deep in its own territory.

Painter's first series ended with a sack and a fumble, returned for a Jets touchdown. To thundering boos, the Colts wound up losing, 29-15.

"I was worried about him," Polian said of Painter. "The Jets experience could have cracked him. A lesser man would have folded under those circumstances or at least have wanted out.

"But Jim [Caldwell, the Colts' coach] did exactly the right thing when Curtis came off the field after that sack-fumble. Jim said to him, 'It's not your fault. Just relax, you'll be fine. Go play the game.' "

Even Rypien, who had two Super Bowl rings and was more seasoned than any other Manning backup, understands the difficulty of coming in cold with the No. 1 offense. He called the job of playing behind Manning "probably the best and worst" assignment in the NFL.

"You know you're never going to see the field, but you're going to get a paycheck," he said. "If you want to be a competitor and you're a young kid waiting in the wings, it would be hard.

"For an old guy like me who was just there as an insurance policy, it was great. I got a chance to be around a lot of young kids and had an opportunity to be in an organization that was heading in the right direction."

That said, it wasn't easy to learn the finer points of the Indianapolis offense, even though the playbook isn't inordinately thick.

"You really couldn't learn the offense quite like Peyton does because you're only going to get a small percentage of what he has in his head," Rypien said. "And most of the things he has in his head, you'll never be able to learn."

A reverence for Manning and his total command of the offense is the thread that runs through all of his backups over the years: Kelly Holcomb, Steve Walsh, Rypien, Brock Huard, Jim Sorgi and Painter.

"The guy is not only immensely bright and gifted, he also works harder than anybody else in the room," Huard said of Manning. "That's why he's the best on the planet."

That alone is enough to take the steam out of normally self-confident teammates. Huard remembers holding a clipboard for Manning in 2003, and he specifically recalls watching him throw for 401 yards in an outstanding performance against the New York Jets.

"I remember sitting there thinking, 'Man, I hope he doesn't get hurt,' " Huard said. "Because as competitive as I am, there was no way in the world I could possibly come close to what I saw. He really is that good. It's almost humbling."

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