INDIANAPOLIS — Reggie Wayne believes Sunday’s game at Houston will be just like any other Colts’ season opener.
He’s excited to play some meaningful football, even if his old pal, Peyton Manning, isn’t throwing him the dang ball.
“The next guy is going to have to step up,” he said Friday. “And everybody is going to have to rally around that guy.”
Next man up has been a mantra Indianapolis players have embraced for nearly a decade. But until now Tony Dungy’s three-word phrase never applied to an Indianapolis quarterback.
Manning’s streak of 227 consecutive starts including the playoffs will end Sunday in Houston, three days after his latest neck surgery. He’s expected to be out at least two months and perhaps for the entire season, temporarily leaving Kerry Collins in charge of the team Manning has run since September 1998.
Team officials did not provide any additional medical updates Friday.
Under Manning’s leadership, Indianapolis has become an annual Super Bowl contender.
Without him, most of the so-called experts say the Colts are an average to below average team and that the NFL world is about to see just how many mistakes Manning covered up. Many say Indianapolis is headed for a doomed season that will end its record-tying run of nine straight playoff appearances.
Inside the locker room, players don’t buy it.
Veteran leaders such as Wayne and Dwight Freeney have long proclaimed that while Manning is the engineer of Indy’s success, it’s never been just a one-man show.
“What can you do about it? There’s nothing you can do,” Wayne said of the dire predictions. “Either let it go on deaf ears or you let it bother you. I think everyone in this locker room has dealt with it the same way and that’s to not let it bother us at all. We don’t feel like we have to prove anything to anybody, and we’re going to go out there and it’s going to be the same mentalit y.”
Of course, the Colts have won without Manning playing his best ball.
— In 2006, the Colts won the Super Bowl with Manning throwing seven interceptions and only three touchdowns in four postseason games. And the Colts wouldn’t have reached the big game without Adam Vinatieri making five field goals in a 15-6 second-round win at Baltimore.
— Indy’s best seasons have typically come when the speedy defense has played at its best.
— Even the Texans have seen the Colts’ defense win games. In 2008, the Colts forced three turnovers in the final five minutes, producing an incredible 21-point rally to give Indy a 31-27 victory.
While Manning got the accolades then, those around him always knew the four-time MVP wasn’t doing it by himself. Neither can Collins, the new next man up.
“Peyton’s so unique in the things he does, and I don’t think anybody expects me to go out there and run the offense like Peyton Manning,” said Collins, who has had 16 days to learn the system. “That’s a whole other ballgame that we’re talking about. But I know that I’m very comfortable with what we’re doing.”
Clearly, things will be different Sunday.
Offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen acknowledged the Colts are likely to huddle up more often and make fewer calls at the line of scrimmage — a trademark of the Manning era. They also may run more often with two former first-round draft picks, Joseph Addai and Donald Brown, in the backfield.
Collins will find himself surrounded by arguably the deepest group of receivers he’s ever played with. Besides Wayne, he can throw to 2009 playoff star Pierre Garcon, Pro Bowl tight end Dallas Clark and last year’s breakout tight end, Jacob Tamme. Receivers Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez are listed as questionable, but did practice all week.
It’s not just the offense that fans worry about.
“I guess that would imply that when the offense is at full speed, we say, ‘Oh well, the offense, they have it,”’ Freeney said when asked Wednesday if the defense has to do more with Manning out. “That’s not our mentality. We go out, no matter who’s out there and no matter what they’re doing on the offensive side, it’s the same mentality on the defense. We are going to try to stop them every down, try to get them off the field, try to get our offense the ball back, and that’s pretty much what it is.”
The Colts have a roster stocked with talent.
Even without Manning, eight of the 22 other starters, including Collins, have played in a Pro Bowl. They’ve added three former first-round picks to the defense: linemen Jamaal Anderson and Tyler Brayton and linebacker Ernie Sims. Collins gives them a quarterback on the verge of passing Joe Montana on the career yardage list.
Dungy, the Colts’ Super Bowl-winning coach and now an NBC analyst, told viewers Thursday night he believed Colts players do have something to prove — a sentiment that came through loud and clear throughout the locker room Friday.
Opponents are heeding the warning.
“I think they’re a different team without him (Manning), of course. I think all in all they’re still an NFL team,” Tennessee linebacker Will Witherspoon said. “They’re still a team that can surprise you and do things every Sunday.”
And the Colts are out to prove they can keep winning — with or without Manning.
“You’re here to do your job. We weren’t brought here to be second fiddle to anybody. You’ve just got to do your job,” Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Mathis said. “His (Manning’s) resume speaks for itself. But we’re not going to lay down for anybody. So if you want to count us out, go ahead and do that.”