INDIANAPOLIS — Peyton Manning has a simple slump-busting plan.
Play like he usually does.
After throwing 11 interceptions in three weeks and having four returned for touchdowns, the four-time league MVP insists he won’t change how he plays. Other than, of course, executing plays better.
“Aggressive discipline, that’s kind of how I’ve always been taught to play,” he said Tuesday. “What does that mean? That means throw it to the guy if he’s open and don’t throw it if he’s covered. I just haven’t been executing that philosophy well because I’ve been throwing to some guys that have been covered.”
It sounds like a simple solution.
But over the past three weeks, Manning has been doing the opposite.
He’s thrown into traffic more often and stared down receivers — uncustomary mistakes for a 13-year NFL veteran, particularly one with the reputation of being, well, Perfect Peyton.
For the first time in his pro career, he’s had back-to-back four-interception games. He’s thrown a career-high total for any three-week span, and he’s repeatedly shouldered the blame for the Colts’ woes by acknowledging he’s made poor throws and poor decisions.
And it’s taking a toll on the franchise player.
As Manning was peppered with questions about what’s wrong Tuesday, the tension showed.
“We’ve lost three games, guys. I don’t know what ‘anything like this’ means,” Manning said when asked if he’d endured any similar slumps in high school or college. “It’s a tough stretch. It’s a three-game losing streak. I know you guys probably aren’t used to having to ask these questions, but it’s football and that’s the way it is.”
Manning isn’t the only one seeking solutions, though everyone is backing the franchise quarterback.
Players such as longtime center Jeff Saturday, one of Manning’s closest friends, and young receiver Pierre Garcon believe everyone can improve their play and that would help Manning.
Twice this week, coach Jim Caldwell has tried to explain the widespread problems reflected in the interception totals. He blamed route-running, pass protection, the inability to run the football, even the ability of the defense to force turnovers for the Colts’ struggles.
On Monday night’s radio show, Colts President Bill Polian acknowledged the combination may be forcing Manning into trying to do too much.
“We’re not doing a good job in the running game and we’re speeding up the clock in Peyton’s head by about a half a second,” Polian told listeners. “When you do that, you make mistakes.”
But when you have a player who has been as consistently good as Manning, teammates aren’t sure they can do anything to help.
“He’s been around a long time and he knows what he’s got to do as the quarterback,” Saturday said. “And I’m not the one to give him advice on that (playing quarterback).”
Even Caldwell, Manning’s position coach until last season, is willing to let Manning work things out on his own.
Manning’s solution: Practice the same way, study the same way and revert to being his old self on the field.
“As a quarterback, I’ve tried to prepare hard to do my job better. That’s something that I certainly need to do,” he said. “I think everybody feels a sense of urgency, there is no question there is a sense of urgency, feels the challenge, and hopefully we can respond.”
In past seasons, nobody has been better at responding to adversity than Manning.
Whether it was the trademark game-winning drives, the uncanny accuracy or the ability to almost carry a team to victory, Manning has always had an answer.
Now, the Colts need it. With four games left and three against division foes, the Colts (6-6) can win another AFC South title if they can pull off a sweep. The run starts Thursday night at Tennessee — a team that hasn’t had an interception in three weeks.
But the questions are all about Peyton.
Suddenly, each errant throw is being dissected on highlight shows, fans are wondering whether Manning is hurt and some have even asked whether this is the start of a natural decline for the 34-year-old Manning.
Caldwell isn’t buying it.
“He still works as hard as he always works. He is just as diligent (with) every single aspect of his routine and his preparation,” he said. “I have been around him a little while now and it hasn’t changed. He is still doing the same things he has always done, practicing extremely well and I think you will see that he will play well.”
And Caldwell isn’t about to ask Manning to change anything about his routine.
“That’s part of his preparation,” he said. “His state of readiness is different than the normal individual. That is part of his DNA and that’s how he works and that’s why he has been a great performer.”
So can Manning get things straightened out by himself?
The Colts will find out in the next four weeks.
“Every interception has a story, nobody wants to hear it, and the simple fact is just turnovers can be extremely difficult to overcome,” Manning said. “We almost overcame some in a couple games, but at the end of the day it sure does put your team in a tough position. It’s something we have to do a better job of.”