Eric Hartz: The days of 49 touchdown passes are long gone, and the running game still seems stuck in low gear. But it's never a good idea to sleep on Peyton Manning and Co., as he's got a lot of talent around him — Joseph Addai, Donald Brown, Dallas Clark and Reggie Wayne were all first-round draft picks — and hasn't shown any noticeable drop-off in skills or dedication. Since the Super Bowl season, the offensive line has been a continual work in progress. If they come together this season, the Colts can be a truly elite offense once again. If they struggle, they've still got Manning, who will keep them in games, much as he did for most of 2008.
Q: How big of an impact can first-round pick Donald Brown make?
EH: I think his role will be more complementary this season, but that's exactly what Joseph Addai needs to be effective. He's never been a full-time feature back and won't be able to hold up in that role. A 60-40 split of carries seems about ideal, with Addai getting a majority and seeing more field time due to his ability in the passing game. But I have seen a few plays from Brown that lead me to believe he could be a special back down the road.
Q: How big of a loss is the injury to starting wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez?
EH: It's significant, as Gonzalez worked tirelessly this offseason to develop the rapport with Manning that Harrison once had. He was certainly in position to become the team's No. 2 or No. 3 receiver and challenge the 80-catch, 1,000-yard plateau. Now, the Colts will have to lean even more heavily on Dallas Clark, as well as second-year tight end Jacob Tamme, in the passing game. Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie will also get their chance to show Manning what they can do. And make no mistake — if they want the ball, they have to prove themselves to No. 18 first and foremost. Gonzalez, Reggie Wayne and Clark have already done that, so to lose one of his "go-to" guys means Manning will be looking for new targets, and it's up to those players to step up.
Q: Why does Reggie Wayne continue to be so effective when every defense knows that's who Peyton Manning is looking for?
EH: It's funny, Wayne isn't one of the biggest or fastest wide receivers in the NFL. Based on his first couple of seasons, you never would have thought he would turn out to be the truly special player he has become. He deserves a lot of credit for realizing that with Peyton Manning throwing him the ball, if he continued to work hard he was going to put up big numbers. He's versatile — he had his best season in 2007, when the Colts' WR corps was ravaged with injury and Wayne was moved all over the field — he's developed great footwork and body control. He still drops his share of balls, but he also seems to catch more tipped passes and takes advantage of blown coverages more than any receiver in the NFL. Long story short, it's not just one thing that makes Wayne great — and the guy throwing him the ball doesn't hurt, either.
Q: Finally, we couldn't talk about the Colts offense without a question about Manning; are you expecting another huge year from him?
EH: I found an interesting stat last week against Jacksonville. In 15 games against the Jaguars before Sunday — nearly a full NFL season — Manning had right around 4,000 yards, with 29 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Those are terrific numbers for any NFL quarterback, and to do so against a team that has been one of the Colts' biggest rivals and toughest beats during his career was particularly impressive. With no noticeable drop-off in his skills, I'd expect about those same numbers this season. The injury to Gonzalez could have a negative effect, and the running game needs to be adequate for him to fully take advantage of play action. The bottom line for Manning seems to be winning, and he'll gladly hand off as much as he needs to if that means a victory, as well.