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With Peyton Manning under center, Colts rarely tap reserves
The Los Angeles Times gives a history of Manning's backups and what they have had to say about their "unusual" position.
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
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."
Not surprisingly, humility is near the top of the list when the Colts are looking for an understudy to Manning. That player does most of his work watching video and assisting the four-time NFL most valuable player in compiling information about opponents.
"The No. 2 quarterback is like a wingman," Caldwell said. "He's the copilot. We're looking for a guy who understands what serving is all about."
Polian concedes the job isn't for everyone, even if there are players who are physically and mentally qualified.
"It's hard to get free-agent quarterbacks to come here," he said. "They just don't want to. They just figure, 'I don't have a chance.' ... That's the way they think, and it's the way their agents think. So you pretty much have to get used to the thought that if you're going to get a younger player, you're going to have to draft him."
As enticing as it is to learn behind one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, not everyone is happy dialing back his ambition over the long haul. Holcomb wasn't. Although he still counts Manning among his close friends, he wasn't interested in sticking around in Indianapolis after playing behind him for three seasons, from 1998 to 2000.
"I knew that if I wanted to play, I had to leave," said Holcomb, who went on to start in Cleveland and briefly in Buffalo before resuming backup roles in Philadelphia and Minnesota.
The wake-up-and-smell-the-clipboard moment for Holcomb came at Philadelphia in 1999, when the Colts blew out the Eagles, 44-17.
"We were up 44-3 and I was like [to myself], 'Dude, can you come out just for a few snaps so I can take some?' " Holcomb said. "But he wants to take them all, and that's why he is who he is. We're all competitors like that, and we all want to finish what we've started.
"But I knew at that point, man, if I want to do anything, I've got to get out of here."