Saturday, March 10, 2012

History, Harbaugh, and #18

"In one sense, this is a sad day for the franchise. A man who has meant a lot to this team, and this community, is leaving."
The words sound familiar. A beloved quarterback let go to pursue other opportunities. A new era for the Indianapolis Colts.

Those exact words were not, however, uttered by Jim Irsay. They were not spoken by general manager Ryan Grigson or new head coach Chuck Pagano.

They don't even refer to Peyton Manning.

It's February of 1998 and I'm 17 years old. In my younger days, the Cincinnati Bengals captured my attention. I pulled for Boomer Esiason, watched Joe Montana break Cincy's heart in 1989, and believed James Brooks was the best running back ever. I wanted to do the Ickey Shuffle. I knew what "Who Dey" meant.

By that time, the Indianapolis Colts had been in Indy for 14 years. Sometimes their games sold out, but you were only guaranteed to see them (usually) when they were on the road. If you were a Colts fan in those days, Bob Lamey was your best friend because odds were that it wouldn't be on TV.

The Colts barely registered for me. Anyone who knows the slightest bit about me will probably be taken aback by that statement. Approximately 75% of the clothing I own has a horseshoe on it.

Jim Harbaugh changed everything. I loved the way Harbaugh played. Smart, efficient, gutsy. He earned the nickname "Captain Comeback" after a series of increasingly unlikely comebacks after it turned out highly-touted new acquisition Craig Erickson was actually highly-ineffective new acquisition Craig Erickson. Harbaugh took over and led the Colts to the playoffs during the 1995-1996 season.

A win in San Diego (Zack Crockett goes absolutely crazy). A win in Kansas City (Lin Elliot is still a curse word in Kansas City). Suddenly, Harbaugh and the Colts were in the AFC Championship Game against the favored and evil Pittsburgh Steelers.

They weren't the most talented team, this group, but their defense played tough and Harbaugh was as tough as they came. He was bruised and battered nearly every week, yet he kept the team in the game. No lead, it seemed, was safe. And with the Colts trailing 20-16 on a cold day at Three Rivers Stadium (Heinz Field wasn't even a glimmer in the franchise's eye yet), Harbaugh got one last throw.

For the game.

For everything.

For the Super Bowl.

It landed on Aaron Bailey's chest, yet the wide receiver couldn't reel it in. I see it in slow motion; Bailey reaching for the ball, but no matter how much I try to will him to catch it, it slips away and hits the turf.

Game over.

The Steelers would go on to lose to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX, thanks to Neil O'Donnell, who mistook Larry Brown for his own receiver not once, but twice.

The next season, Harbaugh and the Colts started out 4-0. Injuries would hit the team hard, and they'd limp to a 9-7 record and lose to the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs. For a franchise with a reputation for lackluster play and local TV blackouts, making two consecutive playoff appearances was quite an accomplishment.

During the 1997-1998 season, the team fell apart. Injuries and a porous offensive line meant Harbaugh took a pounding. He missed four games that year, with backups Kelly Holcomb and Paul Justin taking over (and each getting beat up in turn).

Thanks to a Colts loss to the Minnesota Vikings and a comeback win by the Arizona Cardinals, the Colts landed the top pick in the 1998 NFL Draft (the Cardinals traded the second selection of the draft to San Diego, who chose Ryan Leaf).

An aging roster, cash problems, and a general sense of mediocrity became the underlying theme.

Then, for 17-year-old me, the unthinkable happened. The Colts traded Jim Harbaugh, and the words appearing at the beginning of this piece were spoken by new general manager Bill Polian in a farewell news conference. Not only did the Colts trade Harbaugh so that he could "find better opportunities," they sent him to the Baltimore Ravens, a franchise I never liked.

Harbaugh would go on to play for the Ravens, the San Diego Chargers, and the Carolina Panthers (although in Carolina's case, I use "play" very loosely). To me, he was always a Colt. He was always Captain Comeback.

17-year-old me was heartbroken. I didn't want to see Harbaugh leave, and I certainly didn't want this "anointed" quarterback from the University of Tennessee, some guy named Manning, to take over in his place. I was determined to hate Peyton Manning.

Think about that lunacy for a second.

I was determined to hate Peyton Manning.

14 years later, I sit in front of my computer wearing a Peyton Manning jersey following one of the hardest weeks Colts fans have ever endured. Not only is Peyton Manning no longer a Colt, but Dallas Clark, Gary Brackett, and Joseph Addai are gone. The year Harbaugh left, the big losses were wide receiver Sean Dawkins, defensive end Tony Bennett, and linebacker Stephen Grant.

So, yes, the parallel isn't perfect; no one missed Dawkins or Bennett or Grant the way they'll miss Dallas down the middle, Brackett in pass coverage, or Addai in position to pick up the blitz.

Yet, the Colts dumped their general manager and coaching staff. They parted ways with a beloved quarterback. The next "anointed" one waits in the wings as the team turns the page on a new chapter.

Jim Harbaugh played in Indy for four seasons and captured my heart. Peyton Manning played in Indy for 14 seasons and earned the city's love.

It's incomprehensible to 31-year-old me that it ended like this, just as it was incomprehensible to 17-year-old me that the Colts could trade Jim Harbaugh.

When that new era dawned, Peyton Manning arrived.

And as this new era dawns, Andrew Luck likely awaits.

If we're as lucky as we've been over the last 14 special seasons, history will repeat itself. We can only hope.