The Indianapolis Colts' embarrassing loss to the New Orleans Saints marked the beginning of the end of this Colts era.
That's true if Colts owner Jim Irsay makes some needed drastic changes at season's end. And it's also true if Irsay does nothing but play guitar and sing Beatles songs. Either way, a glorious run has played out, and the future is now.
The first option – cleaning house – would set Indy up for another run of success. The second – maintaining the status quo – would guarantee plenty of available seats at Lucas Oil Stadium in the near future.
I'm siding with an extreme makeover.
Irsay should thank Bill Polian, Chris Polian, Jim Caldwell, most of the coaching staff and maybe a couple of veteran free agents and retool the operation. It's not personal. It's business. A severe jolt is what the franchise needs.
The Colts are 0-7 and surrendered more points Sunday than they ever had and more than any NFL team since 1985. The current roster is the weakest in years. That's the Polians' fault, even with injuries to Peyton Manning, Gary Brackett and Melvin Bullitt. The game-day play in New Orleans was undisciplined and confused. That's the coaches' fault.
Some kind of change is needed. That's not up for debate.
Popular consensus seems to favor the Colts building for the future with a healthy Manning mentoring his replacement, possibly Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.
The Colts, if they have that top pick, should consider either trading the pick before the draft, drafting Luck and then trading him, switching to Luck and shopping Manning or developing the eventual quarterback transition.
The idea of trading Manning sounds like sacrilege until you remember San Francisco 49ers fans watched Joe Montana leave and play for the Kansas City Chiefs. Now, the 49ers had Steve Young to plug in when Montana left. The Colts don't yet have a similar replacement. Maybe there's a Young in this year's draft. Maybe it's Luck.
I don't believe Irsay has the stomach or heart to trade Manning, assuming Manning doesn't retire from his neck issues. Manning's return to the field can't be assumed, however, which makes this coming offseason even more important.
Irsay wants Manning to retire as a Colt, which is why he signed him to the gigantic new contract. It's a nice sentiment, but sentiment doesn't win games or keep teams among the elite in the NFL.
There are teams out there who would be willing to pay a nice price for a healthy Manning. I'm thinking Washington Redskins, for starters. And that price has to be higher than the first-round picks the Oakland Raiders traded for Carson Palmer.
The downside to that idea, and it's a big one, is that Manning might then lead another team to a Super Bowl title while the Colts miss the playoffs again in the process of rebuilding.
I'm not advocating trading Manning. The ideal would have him playing well for three more years, mentoring his successor and maybe eventually moving into a coordinator's role. I'm just saying everything should be on the table in considering how to fix the Colts.
If the Colts stand still, hoping the return of Manning changes everything, they'll be wrong. More moves are necessary to build beyond the next couple seasons. Manning might have guided this team to 3-4 or 4-3 at this point. But he'll be 36 next season and he doesn't play cornerback or tackle anyone.
Can a healthy Manning still lead a team to the Super Bowl? Yes, if that team has the rest of its game (defense, special teams) in order. I feel good about the Colts' punting and field-goal kicking right now. Not so much everything else.
At the very least, the 62-7 loss to the Saints revealed the time is approaching for fresh leadership. Caldwell was hired because he offered a smooth transition from Tony Dungy, similar in style and approach. That worked short term. Yet where are the decisions, game-day or otherwise, that serve as an example of Caldwell's unique strengths as a coach?
Right or wrong, Caldwell is best known for pulling his starters rather than shooting for the perfect season in 2009. He's a good man and he has his players' respect. But pro coaching is a bottom-line job and it's unacceptable to be 0-7 and the worst team in football.
The Colts could use a fresh voice who challenges veterans, ditches ineffective schemes and players and hires assistant coaches who are innovative and adept at adjusting their game plans on the fly. One of Dungy's strengths was how his teams regrouped at halftime and played better in the third quarter. That hasn't happened with regularity recently.
Manning's absence caught everyone off guard, and accelerated the arrival at the crossroads where the Colts are standing. But they can no longer deny the locale.
The Colts of 2002-2010 ranked with the Patriots and Steelers as the NFL's best.
Yesterday, all their troubles seemed so far away. Now it looks as though they're here to stay, unless Irsay makes the tough calls and shakes things up to build a contender again.