Peyton Manning looks ahead during the Colts Thursday night game in Tennesee. (AJ Mast | AP Photo)

Colts fans have watched in horror as a team that entered the season as one of the most talented groups Indianapolis has put together in quarterback Peyton Manning’s career has fallen into mediocrity and failed to continue an NFL record streak of consecutive 12-win seasons. Many expected the stretch of games against the Eagles, Patriots, Chargers, and Cowboys would be difficult, but dropping all four games is not something Colts teams have done in the past.

This uncharacteristic run of losses has understandably caused Colts fans to panic. The blame game is in full force, and fans are scrambling to find answers to resolve the issues in Indianapolis before the 2011 season begins.

The primary reason behind high expectations and pressure for immediate success? Fear of the end of Peyton Manning’s career.

Many are disappointed that Indianapolis has only one Super Bowl victory — and with Manning about to sign what will likely be his final contract, there is no time to waste. Realistically, the window closes when he retires, so fans expect the team to play lights out now, no matter the circumstances.

The assumed culprits for the team’s struggles have ranged from Manning’s age and accuracy, to a phantom injury, to the failure of Colts President Bill Polian to acquire talent — or the coaching staff to prepare that talent. Other fans think the struggles are primarily due to a failing offensive line and a rash of team injuries. These differences in opinion have caused a great deal of consternation between Colts fans.

The right answer is a combination of guilty parties and factors. Some like to pretend that one man or one decision should bear the greatest burden, while at the same time downplaying or refusing to accept other situations that have greatly impacted this team’s success. When blame shifts too heavily to one party or another, irrational thoughts, ideas, and claims make their way into conversations for widespread systematic, organizational, or personnel changes that are either wrong, short-sighted, or unlikely to achieve the desired short-term results.

Take a look at Colts President Bill Polian. No man has been ridiculed and attacked more for the team’s struggles in 2010. Some claim that his recent drafts and personnel decisions have doomed the Colts season, that he has lost his edge, and that the best move the Colts could make is to oust Polian for a new personnel manager.

The problem with these arguments is that they do not follow along with the other facts many who make this suggestion will also acknowledge. As mentioned, this team entered the season as quite possibly the most talented roster in Manning’s career, save 2005. A lot of Colts blogs and mainstream media outlets acknowledged this, predicting that the Colts were the highest rated team entering the season, had the highest likelihood of all NFL teams to get into the Super Bowl, and were the favorites to win it.

On this site alone, we discussed a positive outlook and depth of talent at safety and wide receiver that was unrivaled in the NFL. Entering the season the cornerbacks were the biggest defensive concern. At this point, the cornerbacks appear loaded with young capable talent, and the future of the position looks as deep as any position on defense. Fans were relatively comfortable at linebacker but they could not have projected that even with important injuries, including missing starters Gary Brackett and Clint Session for stretches of the year and having two primary backups go to the injured reserve, Indianapolis would have six players who can be interchanged for different situations without a great deal of drop-off. Even along the defensive line Fili Moala has started all year and shown a great deal of improvement.

On offense, Anthony Gonzalez suffered another season-ending injury, Austin Collie suffered a nasty concussion after he started the year as Peyton Manning’s favorite and most reliable target, and Dallas Clark’s season ended early. In the place of these players has stepped undrafted free agent rookie wide receiver Blair White and former fourth round draft pick Jacob Tamme. Tamme spent his first two years molding himself into a special teams coverage demon. Since taking over as the starter he has been the most productive tight end in the NFL. White entered the season by getting cut and placed on the practice squad. In the last four weeks he has 20 receptions for 160 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Running backs Joseph Addai, Donald Brown, and Mike Hart have all missed time and have been hampered by a collection of injuries. The Colts primary kick returner and backup running back Devin Moore’s season ended very early. Now undrafted free agent Javarris James has been inserted and has managed 45 carries for 112 yards and 6 touchdowns, along with 9 receptions for 63 yards in 7 games. Both Addai and Hart were having outstanding performances while they were the primary running backs — Donald Brown has struggled but is a former first round pick who is running behind an offensive line not built to provide him with the kind of lanes he had in college. Devin Moore showed spunk early in the year and in preseason, and now Javarris James is showing a great deal of potential and gaining support from the Indy fan base.

This leaves Peyton Manning and the offensive line. Much has been made of Manning’s recent struggles. He has not been as disciplined with the ball, made some wrong decisions, and thrown more interceptions in a three-game span than he has at any other time in his career. That so many of those interceptions were returned for touchdowns made what would have already been considered a difficult job for a banged up team too much to overcome. How long has it been since Manning has legitimately deserved a bulk of the blame for team losses in consecutive games?

This brings us to the offensive line. Four unfortunate things have happened in the last few years that have left the offensive line in a state of disarray and lacking talent — at least at the right positions. First, Tarik Glenn’s early retirement forced 2007 second round selection Tony Ugoh onto the field as a rookie. He never played up to expectations, as the Colts traded away their 2008 first round pick to select him, leaving Indianapolis with a weakness at left tackle since 2006.

Second, when Ryan Lilja and Jake Scott both came up for new contracts prior to the 2008 season Bill Polian and the front office made a mistake — they rejected Scott’s demands and allowed him to enter the market, in hopes that if anyone else would meet Scott’s terms that they could beat the competitor’s offer. The gamble failed, Scott left for Tennessee, and the team needed a new right guard. Third, Polian made an educated decision to release Lilja after the Colts loss in Super Bowl XLIV, worried that the knee issues that held him out of the 2008 season would resurface and make it unreasonable to carry him at such a high contract price. Given the struggles of the offensive line in his absence, along with Lilja’s healthy play all year in Kansas City (and their powerful running game), the Colts would have been better off keeping him.

Finally, right tackle Ryan Diem’s performance has dropped off noticeably in the last two years. This has made him a liability, allowed more pressure on Manning from his side, and exposed the weaknesses at right guard.

It is completely fair to say that Bill Polian and the Colts front office has failed to appropriately manage the offensive line since the 2007 NFL Draft. The three players the Colts drafted in 2008, all college centers, who Indianapolis hoped would represent the team’s future on the interior of the offensive line, have not worked out as planned. Second round pick Mike Pollak has been unable to hold on to a starting position at right guard for two straight seasons. Sixth round pick Steve Justice failed to remain on the team after his rookie season. Seventh round pick Jamey Richard has played at center and guard, so has been valuable, but does not look like the future answer at either position. Add Ugoh not living up to expectations or hopes and the current offensive line is the result.

This list of talent and surprises in Indianapolis at numerous positions creates a problem of mutual exclusion in the primary arguments made against Bill Polian. The first, if Polian is at fault for failing to draft or otherwise acquire enough talent to keep the Colts competitive in recent years, the string of 12-win seasons from 2007-2009 seems either unlikely or impossible. Additionally, if it was widely agreed by nearly everyone entering the season that the franchise was as talented as it has been at anytime other than 2005, it does not follow that Polian has failed to supply the team with talent.

Finally, many of those who advance this argument are unwilling to listen to fans who wish to point out injuries as an “excuse” for the team’s struggles in 2010. This is the biggest logical fallacy of all. If it is true that injuries are not to blame, than it must also be true that the team is talented enough that they should win games against elite competition without their best players. Otherwise, injuries would have to have an impact because the players behind the former starters are incapable of winning.

Ultimately, the reasons behind the team’s struggles in 2010 are many. Bill Polian’s failure to appropriately manage the offensive line has left Manning and the Colts offense both one-dimensional — no running game — and susceptible to pressure without a lot of blitzing. Manning’s uncharacteristic pressing and bad decisions over a three-game losing stretch made it very difficult for Indianapolis to overcome their toughest adversaries. The team’s injuries have affected the ability to have access to the entire offensive playbook, have hurt timing and familiarity with route patterns, and have caused some growing pains with young players filling unfamiliar roles. The new starters on offense and defense have also affected the special teams coverage units, at least until Taj Smith’s recent run of success. Uncharacteristic drops by veteran Reggie Wayne have hurt the team’s ability to take advantage of positive offensive plays at critical times in recent games.

Seriously arguing that losing players like Joseph Addai, Dallas Clark, Bob Sanders, Melvin Bullitt, Anthony Gonzalez, and Jerraud Powers has not had a meaningful impact on the season is ridiculous on its face. Losing players like Gary Brackett, Clint Session, Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon, Jacob Lacey, Justin Tryon, and Kavell Conner is likewise guaranteed to make winning football games more difficult. One could go even further back to losing important players like Devin Moore, Jamie Silva, and Tom Santi as legitimately impacting the talent and depth of the football team.

In the face of all of this, the Colts are in control of their playoff destiny, may be getting healthy as the push into the playoffs approaches, and have a winning record — even with Manning playing poorly for a stretch of at least three games. This makes suggestions of widespread and major overhauls by firing Bill Polian, Jim Caldwell, or position coaches seem rather ridiculous. Even with all of the injuries the Colts are a competitive football team.

Fix the offensive line prior to 2011 and Indianapolis will be on top of the league once again. Most of the pieces are already there, but out of position. Linkenbach could be moved to left tackle right now, Johnson to right tackle, Diem to right guard and I believe the offensive line would improve noticeably. Before next season the Colts need to get a legitimate left tackle, even if they have to go to free agency to do so, and they can move Linkenbach to right tackle, have Johnson and Diem or Johnson and DeVan at guard, and groom Saturday’s replacement for much of the season.

Yes, the Colts have struggled to continue their string of NFL dominance in 2010. Yes, there are a lot of responsible parties, and many of those parties are ones fans would rather not see making mistakes. Still, Polian, Caldwell, Manning and the Colts are dangerously close to having a dominant football team right now, as is, with the injuries. A few reasoned changes and acquisitions will solve a lot of problems and get the team moving in the right direction as Manning’s career nears its end.