Former Indianapolis Colts kingmaker Bill Polian says he’s haunted by the 2011 draft because he didn’t draft Andy Dalton to back up Peyton Manning. Polian says that if he’d drafted Dalton (instead of offensive lineman Anthony Castonzo), then he wouldn’t have been fired, Peyton would still be in Indianapolis and the entire league would be thrust into this alternate universe reminiscent of Back to the Future II. But would that world be a terrible dystopia of graffiti and casinos? It’s the sort of scenario that puts longtime Colts fans at the point of an awkward love triangle, like Bella Swan whining, “Please don’t make me choose.” If given the opportunity to change history and keep Peyton in Indianapolis for his entire career, would your average Colts fan do it?
I don’t enjoy the league from the angle of salary caps and long-term franchise viability. I work with novels, so I approach the league from the perspective of storytelling, pacing and plot twists. Peyton was (and is) a transcendent figure in Indianapolis, and part of the reason why fans loved him so much was that he made it clear that he wanted to be there. That can’t be underestimated in a “small market” city, especially given the history of the team when he arrived. His departure still rubs raw.
On the other hand, Luck won me over as a fan before the Colts even drafted him, not because of his talent or stats, but by of how he conducted himself during the “Suck for Luck” campaign. The exact moment I knew he was The One was when contractually obligated to visit Indianapolis during the week of Super Bowl XLVI, he was in and out before we even knew he hit the ground. He was thoroughly classy and aware of the optics of his situation. And he’s been beyond perfect in every aspect ever since. No part of me wants to let Luck go somewhere else (theory says he’d be with the St. Louis Rams if Polian’s scenario had played out). But if I could hop in the DeLorean and give Peyton the one thing he wanted, to have his entire career in Indy, I’d think about it a long, long time.
And what about Dalton, the redheaded axis around which the entire league apparently orbits? Polian believes he would have been enough to prevent things from falling apart. In my imagination, he’d have become a version of Matt Cassel, who first gained attention with the New England Patriots after Tom Brady tore his ACL in 2008. Dalton probably would have been traded to a new team this offseason, maybe the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who just signed Josh McCown. The Cincinnati Bengals took Dalton one pick ahead of Colin Kaepernick, so how would Kap look in orange stripes? And to really throw fuel on this fire, if Peyton hadn’t signed with the Denver Broncos on Mar. 20, 2012, would they have traded Tim Tebow to the New York Jets on Mar. 22 or might Tebow still be on their roster under the tutelage of John Elway?
This might be one of the great “what ifs” in sports history. If I were in charge of the ripples of time, would I choose Dalton for that terrible 2011 season or would I hold true to the Curtis Painter era? (Note: you can enjoy Painter’s triumphant return to Lucas Oil Stadium as Eli Manning‘s backup this Saturday.) My experience with time travel stories tells me that whenever someone monkeys with the past, something terrible and unexpected happens. I wouldn’t change things to give Peyton the one thing he wanted. But I’d feel pretty crummy about it for awhile.