I suppose it's possible not to read anything into the fact the Indianapolis Colts surrounded quarterback Kerry Collins with second-string weapons in his debut. But what fun would that be?
Collins' debut in the Colts' 17-13 preseason win over the Bengals in Cincinnati on Thursday was an exercise in adequacy. He threw the ball like a 16-year veteran, completed half of his 10 passes for 45 yards and fumbled once on a blind-side hit. He also spent a lot of time on the sidelines listening to Peyton Manning. He later watched Dan Orlovsky win the game.
Here's what I'm reading into Collins' surrounding cast, or lack thereof: The Colts aren't sold on the idea Collins will start opening day. I still suspect they expect Manning back in the huddle.
Why else would Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon and Joseph Addai not play in the final preseason game? Collins would have benefited from time with them, no question. Were Taj Smith, David Gilreath and Chris Brooks really going to give Collins the necessary preparation? I like Smith and Gilreath, and they both may have earned roster spots, but they aren't Wayne and Garcon.
It's impossible to prove, but I have a strong suspicion Wayne or Garcon would have pulled in the deep pass Brooks bobbled and ultimately caught out of bounds.
I'm also making a small leap here, intimating that Manning will play opening day. But the hints are there. He's back at practice, saying this was his preferred timetable all along. He's animated in his interaction with the media, carrying the usual confidence. And I believe the decision not to play the top skill-position starters with Collins is another clue.
Now the Colts aren't going to endorse that line of thinking. No one, Manning included, is willing to say definitively that Manning will start.
Of course, there are always Colts owner Jim Irsay's tweets to interpret. He sounded positive Thursday.
“#5 (Collins) looked good 2nite,” Irsay tweeted. “Gonna help us if #18 needs a few more weeks getting ready…but Peyton is improving rapidly…steady progress.”
“Improving rapidly.” I'm guessing – just guessing – that's code for “right on track.”
Collins gives the team some breathing room, certainly, and the knowledge there is a competent quarterback just in case. In that regard, I guess Collins' play against the Bengals showed enough glimpses to give the Colts coaches a decent feeling of comfort. His first pass was a long strike to Gilreath, which resulted in a big gain due to pass interference.
“(Collins) threw a couple where we had an opportunity and we didn't make some catches for him,” Colts coach Jim Caldwell said in a broadcast interview. “Overall, I thought he managed things decently and got his feet wet. I wish he could have gotten a couple more plays.”
Clark felt Collins was still able to take another step forward by playing. The first-team offensive line was on the field, protecting him (sporadically) through the first half. Collins did not play in the second half.
“He's doing a great job picking (the offense) up and feeling more comfortable each day,” Clark said in a sideline television interview. “This game was big bonus for him.”
I don't know what to make of the fact Curtis Painter didn't play in the game. Orlovsky looked sharp, finding a rapport with Smith (eight catches, 140 yards). Orlovsky completed 10 of 18 passes for 178 yards and the winning touchdown pass to Smith. The play snapped a nine-game preseason losing streak for the Colts. But whether that earns Orlovsky the No. 3 quarterback spot or merely gives him some nice film to add to his resume will be revealed when the initial 53-man roster is released Saturday.
It's possible Painter didn't play because the Colts have already come to a decision on how he can or cannot contribute. The fact of the matter is having Collins on board negates any real necessity for Painter or Orlovsky.
Colts officials say predicting whether Manning will play opening day is an exercise in futility. They argue that Manning doesn't even know for sure, pending doctors' approval.
That may be so, but I still suspect the absence of Wayne, Clark, Garcon and Addai on Thursday said more about the situation than any words we've heard yet.