Who’s Manning the ship?

After watching their season end off of a kick from the right foot of Jets kicker Nick Folk in the AFC wild card weekend last year, Colts’ fans looked ahead to the 2011 season with the same optimism they have every year. Perennial Super Bowl contenders — riddled with Pro Bowl talent — the team could ride another season on the right shoulder of their decorated quarterback Peyton Manning.

What would become painfully apparent to the Indy faithful was that the quarterback they relied on desperately needed neck surgery. What initially seemed like a routine surgery back in May became a recurrent problem that led to another neck procedure for Manning in September. The Colts were left without their tenured QB for the first time in more than a decade.

Fast forward to the heart of this season. The Colts currently dwell near the bottom of the NFL ranks with a winless 0-8 record, and are in better contention for the first-overall pick in the 2012 draft than a division title. After failing with Kerry Collins early in the season, the Colts are being led by third-year quarterback Curtis Painter and his flowing golden locks.

Painter has played well enough, but the Colts haven’t exactly been competitive in many of their games. What has been coming to light is that Peyton Manning may be not only one of the best QB’s of our time, but one of the biggest band aids in NFL history. Peyton’s talent may have covered up a lot of holes in what has been praised as one of the “best run” organizations in the leagues recent past. There is no question Manning’s talents have elevated any player he takes the field with, but perhaps his talent created a lot out of something that would otherwise not be there.

The 2011 season has all but become a wash for Indianapolis fans, the majority hoping to simply catch a glimpse of No. 18 on the field before season’s end. The question becomes: what is the next step for the Colts?

Peyton’s health is far from a sure thing, a troubling fact considering the 35-year-old just signed a five-year US$90 million contract prior to the season. Do the Colts draft a young QB that they can build their team around in the future, or do they surround Manning with young talent, much like Denver did with John Elway near the end of his career? The latter of the two possibilities is assuming Manning gets healthy enough to play again, but how long can the Colt’s wait on him?

It is evident by this season that the waiting game they are playing is painful for Indy fans and the entire NFL to watch. Whether it is a healthy Peyton Manning, Curtis Painter or a top draft prospect this year, the Colts need to restructure in order to create a sustainable organization — one that can function with the loss of a single player . . . even if that player is Peyton Manning.