Today's post is brought to you by Blue Blood: Tales of Glory of the Indianapolis Colts
ESPN recently took a poll to select a "Flash Point" for every NFL team. The options for the Colts included The Greatest Game (1958 NFL championship), the 1984 move to Indianapolis, and the 1998 selection of Peyton Manning. The idea was to select the singular moment that changed the fate of the franchise.
Voters overwhelmingly selected the selection of Manning in 1998.
This was the right choice.
Paul Kuharksy argues for "the Greatest Game Ever", reasoning that its impact on football as a whole was so great that it has to be the choice. Several readers lament a lack of a 'sense of history' among voters. Such complaints are unfounded. There are at least three reasons why the selection of Manning was the right choice:
1. While the NFL may recognize a continuous history for the Colts franchise stretching back to Baltimore, as I've argued many times, Colts fans should not. The city of Baltimore and ex-Baltimore Colts continue to disrespect Indianapolis and don't recognize the validity of the Colts in Indy. For that reason, fans in Indianapolis choose not to recognize the Baltimore Colts as part of our memory of the franchise. They don't want us. We don't want them. The exploits of the Baltimore Colts are legendary and historic, but any connection between the Baltimore Colts and Indianapolis Colts is purely intellectual.
2. The Greatest Game did alter the trajectory of the NFL, but not of the team itself. The Baltimore Colts won 7 games in 1957, 9 in 1958, and 9 again in 1959, when they again won the Championship game. They finished over .500 in 1957 and went at least .500 every single year until 1971. The Colts were a team in ascendancy in 1958. They went on to two more championships as well as a loss in Super Bowl 3. The Greatest Game may well have radically altered the landscape of the NFL, and was a singular moment for the team, but it did not 'change their fortunes'. Their fortunes were on the rise because they had Unitas. One game didn't decide that.
3. Though it could be argued that the move to Indy in 1984 would be the 'Flash Point', it doesn't fit either. Though I hold a clean break occured emotionally between the Baltimore and Indianapolis Colts, Indianapolis still inherited the crappy players that were in Baltimore. From 1978-1983, the Baltimore Colts went 16-62 (.205). From 1984-1986, the Indianapolis Colts went 12-36 (.250). After the trade for Eric Dickerson, the Colts enjoyed a brief brush with respectability going 33-30 from 1987-1990 before dropping off the table again. Real, lasting prosperity did not come to Indianapolis until Manning arrived in 1998.
From an Indianapolis' perspective the proper order of franchise altering 'Flash Points' is:
1. The selection of Manning in 1998. Manning has been in Indianapolis for 13 years. From 1998-2010, the team has gone 141-67 (.678). From 1984-1997 (13 years as well), Indy went 84-123 (.406). They had one division title and three playoff apperances in the first 13 years. In the past 13 years, the franchise has 8 division titles, 11 playoff appearances, and a Super Bowl. That is the definition of altering the course of history.
2. The arrival of the Colts in Indianapolis. This has to be behind the selection of Manning, because it can be argued the team was in danger of relocating again if Manning had not been selected.
3. The Big Deal for Eric Dickerson. The trade made the Colts national news and brought respectability to Indianapolis.
4. Jim Harbaugh replacing Craig Erickson as starting quarterback in 1995. As I argue in Blue Blood, Harbaugh galvanized Indianapolis and helped create a sense of ownership from the local fans for the first time.
Even if I was forced to consider the Baltimore/Indianapolis eras as one continuous continuity, I would put the selection of Manning and the trade for Unitas as tied for the top spot.
The overtime victory over the Giants was historic and altered the history of the NFL, but when it comes to discussing just the impact of the game on the history of the franchise, it lags behind both of those moments. I believe that the rise of football in the United States was inevitable and had the Colts missed the field goal to send the game into overtime for the first time ever, I still think the franchise would have won multiple titles and the NFL would still be wildly popular today.
For a more comprehensive look at the history of the Indianapolis Colts, buy Blue Blood.