INDIANAPOLIS | Jim Irsay has only two regrets about the way Peyton Manning left town.
He wanted his star quarterback to throw his final pass as a Colt, and he wanted Manning to depart with more than one Super Bowl ring.
All those memorable postseason stumbles gave Indianapolis' team owner a chance to revise his philosophy for the next generation of Colts. Instead of relying on the high-charged offense Manning directed, Irsay now believes the team's future February celebrations will come more frequently if the Colts run a more balanced offense and divide the budget more evenly between the offensive and defensive players.
"My goal going into this new era was to have the opportunity to win more than one," Irsay told The Associated Press just a few days before Indianapolis players report to training camp at nearby Anderson University. "I think that the disappointment of not winning more than one with some of the things we did -- out of 11 (playoff) chances, seven times out after the first playoff game -- that's really disappointing and we had some great teams."
Irsay has always wanted more for Colts fans, even now after a decade of unprecedented success.
From 2000 to 2009, Indy set league records for regular-season wins in a decade (115), consecutive 12-win seasons (seven) and most consecutive regular-season wins (23). It took Manning only six seasons to pocket more league MVP awards (four) than any player in league history. Without Manning, Irsay also realizes it's unlikely the Colts would have hosted or won two AFC title games or gotten a stadium deal that allowed Indy to host its first Super Bowl, all during a five-year run from 2007-12.
For those reasons, Irsay will always hold Manning and his teammates in reverence.
But throughout Indiana, the complaint was always that the Colts, like the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s, should have won more titles. Irsay agrees.
The 2005 and 2009 teams were both unbeaten in December, yet failed to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. When the Colts started rolling through the 2003 playoffs, without punting in victories over Denver and Kansas City, Manning threw four interceptions in a snowy AFC title game at New England -- the first of three straight playoff-eliminating losses to eventual world champs (New England after the 2003 and 2004 seasons, Pittsburgh after 2005).
So when the Colts were forced into rebuilding mode a year ago, Irsay took a different tack than he did with Manning.
After releasing a bunch of high-priced veterans that included Manning, running back Joseph Addai, safety Melvin Bullitt, linebacker Gary Brackett and tight end Dallas Clark, the Colts somehow thrived with a group of rookies, a few remaining veterans, a handful of predominantly bargain-priced free agents and a group of castoffs from other teams and other leagues. Irsay refers to last season as "one of the most incredible in the history of the league."
With millions to spend under the new $123 million salary cap, Irsay wasted no time in showing how committed he was to the new approach. He went on a spending spree that he said put the Colts millions of real dollars over the cap, spending some money to get offensive linemen Gosder Cherilus and Donald Thomas, receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey and running back Ahmad Bradshaw but the bulk of it to give Andrew Luck something Manning rarely had -- an equally good defense and strong special teams unit.
"We love the excitement of offense, we love the 49 touchdown passes and those sorts of things, but in the end, what we love most is Lombardi trophies," Irsay said. "There was a conscious effort to make sure we had more balance and tighten the special teams up. It was really a strong theme that I thought was important as Andrew came in and as we started this new era. When we can add that component (a tough ground game and a tough defense) to the Andrew Lucks of the world, I think you really have a chance to win more than one."
Of course, that's much easier to do today than it was in 1998 when Manning was entering the league.
Back then, Irsay agreed to a rookie deal worth a record price of nearly $48 million to get Manning to camp. The next season, Indy took running back Edgerrin James at No. 5 overall and doled out another $49 million. From that point, former team president and vice chairman Bill Polian often said, the Colts had no choice other than to protect Manning from harm, provide him with weapons to score points and use most of the remaining money on offense.
Today, with a rookie salary cap in place, it's easier to avoid that trap.
Luck, the No. 1 overall pick last year, signed a four-year deal worth $22.1 million last summer. This year's top pick, Bjoern Werner agreed to a deal Wednesday that was expected to cost the Colts slightly more than the $7.8 million last year's 24th overall selection (David DeCastro) received from Pittsburgh. It's allowed the Colts to bring in more veteran defensive players who can plug holes in coach Chuck Pagano's 3-4 defense.
"I look for the defense to start emerging and start playing the way Chuck envisioned here," Irsay said. "I hope that the defense starts emerging as really being formidable."
If so, perhaps the new Colts will wind up having more postseason success than the Manning version -- and it won't be all because of Luck.
"When Peyton came in, it was six years until we won that first playoff game," Irsay said. "I think that's something we want to take advantage of and learn from and in the end it will give us a chance to win multiple championships."