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Team owner Jim Irsay fired team vice chairman Bill Polian and his son, Chris, the Colts’ general manager on Monday. He said there was a good chance coach Jim Caldwell will be back next season, but his evaluation was not over.
He also must still decide whether a healthy Peyton Manning and a new quarterback can co-exist in the same locker room, and which veteran free agents come back next year, if any.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a year in the NFL where a team went 2-14 and there’s not been changes,” defensive captain Gary Brackett said Monday, less than 24 hours after a season-ending loss at Jacksonville.
Outsiders had expected the first order of business to be the firing of Caldwell, who won 14 straight games and advanced to the Super Bowl in his first season as Colts coach. Caldwell said he simply went about his business Monday, speaking with Irsay following the 19-13 loss at Jacksonville and with both Polians on Monday, part of his usual routine.
“You lose as many games as we lost in a year, there’s a problem, there’s an issue,” Caldwell said. “But when we were 14-2, the way you guys put it, my job was in limbo then, right?”
The elder Polian had constructed Super Bowl teams in Buffalo and Indy, and an NFC title contender at Carolina.
But troubling signs emerged this season as the Colts lost time and time again — 13 straight at one point — with Manning sidelined to recover from Sept. 8 neck surgery. And it was Manning who suggested he and Bill Polian were not on the same page.
Polian said on one of his weekly radio shows that he and the four-time league MVP had discussed the possibility of establishing a transition plan at quarterback and that Manning was OK with it. Manning later said the two had never discussed the 2012 draft plans, which include the No. 1 pick amid speculation that the Colts will take Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck to groom as Manning’s successor.
Then, just before Christmas, Polian told local reporters that Manning would fail his exit physical, a move that would actually help the Colts because it would allow him to continue working out at the team complex during the offseason.
“That was kind of news to me,” Manning told reporters Sunday, then said he probably could pass the physical.
Fans have been clamoring for the ouster of Caldwell and both Polians. Irsay, a frequent poster on Twitter, has been listening.
“I want 2 thank all ColtsFans..here,throughout the country n abroad,4ur tremendous,loyal support all year long. Ur feedback is heard n noted,” he tweeted Monday morning.
For their part, players offered support for Caldwell, who just wrapped his third year as head coach in Indy.
“One thing about Jim is that he’s a stand-up guy, and guys respect that,” cornerback Jerraud Powers said. “He’s a great coach, a good guy, and it was unfortunate situation this year. But he never lost the locker room.”
The longer and, perhaps, more critical debate is how to rebuild this team and what to do at quarterback.
Manning never played after undergoing his third neck surgery in 19 months, a fusion of two vertebrae.
He did, however, start throwing to teammates in mid-December and received good reviews from both Bill Polian, who was watching, and running back Joseph Addai, who was catching balls. Doctors familiar with the procedure who did not treat Manning say he should return to a high level of play now that the fusion has healed.
If he is healthy, Irsay has promised to bring back Manning regardless of the $28 million bonus he is owed in March.
But after posting the NFL’s worst record without Manning, the Colts also have won the Luck sweepstakes, potentially putting two franchise quarterbacks on the same roster.
“I think I can co-exist with any player I’ve ever played with,” Manning said Sunday. “I think I’ve always been a good teammate in that way.”
If Manning returns, Irsay might be more likely to bring back former Pro Bowlers Robert Mathis, Jeff Saturday and Reggie Wayne, all of whom are now in their 30s, and keep other key high-priced cogs in the Colts’ success such as Brackett and safety Melvin Bullitt.
“I think when you’re playing, you’re so entrenched with the people you go to work with every day,” Saturday said. “It’s different for us to go out and think like an owner. But whatever decisions, we’ve got to take it as a community and move on.”
He’d clearly had enough of the Polians, though.
Bill Polian drew the wrath of fans in 2009 when he pulled the starters in the third quarter against the New York Jets, costing the Colts a chance at a perfect season after going 14-0. At the time, Polian told listeners that the team’s goal was to win the Super Bowl, not go undefeated. Indy wound up losing the Super Bowl, too.
When Manning went down this season, Polian came under fire for not having a capable backup in place, signing Kerry Collins out of retirement and fueling speculation that the team was interested in Brett Favre. He told radio listeners that he accepted the blame.