With a stunning report that Peyton Manning could be done for the season coming out today, I am downgrading one team from contender into its own category.
The San Antionio Spurs were consistently near the top of the NBA standings in the 1990's. It was in no small part because they had a franchise center, David Robinson. The 1996-97 season saw Robinson and Sean Elliott, the second best player on the roster, miss almost the entire season injured. The Spurs became one of the worst teams in the league and ended up with the top pick. It ended up working out because they picked the right year to be bad. They ended up getting another franchise center, Tim Duncan, with the first pick. Duncan has led the Spurs to four NBA Championships.
There could be a similar outcome this season in Indianapolis. Manning is essentially a one man team. There is some talent, but Bill Polian has done a miserable job recently bringing in talent. His recent Drafts have been abominable. Good free agent signings have been few and far between. Manning has been carrying the Colts and covering up a lot of weaknesses. Without him, the Colts might end up with the top pick. It is totally realistic.
Losing a franchise quarterback is terrible for a team, but smart front offices that surround their teams with talent across the roster and good coaching can survive. The Patriots were 11-5 in 2008 without Tom Brady. The Steelers were a minute away from being 4-0 last year without Ben Roethlisberger. Put Kerry Collins in New England or Pittsburgh with a good supporting cast, and you can survive it. Manning carries too much of the load in Indianapolis. They have had a suspect run game, offensive line, and defense as Polian's failure to build a team around Manning in recent years has allowed. Manning might have been the only quarterback in the league who could have carried so much of the load on his own. People are finally going to realize how good he really was.
What is the silver lining here? If the Colts get the top pick, there will be another once in a generation talent at quarterback waiting for them, Andrew Luck. Luck is probably the highest rated quarterback prospect since Manning. I watch a lot of college football. He is as good as the hype. The Colts could take Luck, have him sit and learn from arguably the best ever for two or three years, flip Manning off for potentially multiple first round picks to a team looking for lightning in a bottle, and insert Luck to contend for the next ten to fifteen years. A bad year could give the Colts an excuse to clean house, get rid of Polian and the overmatched Jim Caldwell, and get a Cowher/Gruden type for a very attractive situation.
The Packers prepared for Brett Favre's departure by taking Aaron Rodgers. They are the defending champions. The Dolphins never prepared for Dan Marino's departure. Over a decade later, they still have not found an answer at quarterback. A bad year in Indianapolis could lead to a passing of the torch.
Of course, if the reports are false, and Manning comes back in September, consider them a contender because of Manning, and their biggest weakness still being a one man team.