|Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images|
|Jim Sorgi working with the first-team offense is a strange sight for many Colts.|
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- Nothing is quite the same.
Not the practices. Not the meetings. Not any aspect of the Indianapolis Colts' training camp at Rose-Hullman Institute of Technology.
Without Peyton Manning around, the Colts have a dramatically different look and feel. They do not resemble a perennial Super Bowl contender with one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL. They do not possess the majestic aura that goes with having one of the very best players in the league and one of the most recognizable faces in all of professional sports in their midst.
Without Manning around, they are, well, just a team with blue and white uniforms and horseshoes on their helmets.
"It's awkward," defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "He's been here since I've been here (2002), so we know nothing different than that. You always see 'P' around. You always see Peyton somewhere, doing something -- making the calls (at the line of scrimmage), what have you. He's not there, so you kind of miss that voice."
The Colts miss a whole lot more than Manning's voice. They miss having one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL helping them to prepare for another Super Bowl run. But until he's deemed fully recovered from the July 14 surgery he underwent to remove an infected bursa sac from his left knee, Manning will pretty much stay away from camp, something he had never done since joining the team as the top overall pick of the 1998 draft. The Colts already have played a preseason game -- Sunday night's Pro Football Hall of Fame Game against Washington -- without him, and there is a fairly good chance that will be the case for most if not all of the four remaining contests on their summer schedule.
For the time being, Jim Sorgi has taken over as their starting quarterback. And as hard as his teammates and coaches have tried to keep everything as normal as possible, they know there is nothing normal about the Colts' starting offense going to the line of scrimmage in practice or a game with No. 12, rather than No. 18, at quarterback. Even Sorgi acknowledges the awkwardness of Manning's absence.
"You try to pick up the slack from a leadership standpoint," he said. "You want to go out there and you want everything to be smooth. But it's hard to make it so that nobody knows that he's not there, because he's an icon."
Sorgi, who has never started a regular-season game since joining the Colts as a sixth-round draft pick in 2004, still hasn't gotten used to Manning not being part of the nightly quarterback meeting. Normally, Manning does most of the talking, even though associate head coach Jim Caldwell runs the meeting and offensive coordinator Tom Moore also is in the room. Because Manning has the greatest familiarity with the offensive scheme, he tends to move the session along at a rapid pace and it is up to everyone else to keep up.
"Right now, we're doing things a little slower," Sorgi said. "Peyton will sit there, he'll take notes, he'll talk out loud and he'll explain things and go through things in his mind. I find myself saying more, but I find myself feeling weird that I'm saying something."
There have been Manning sightings on the Rose-Hullman campus, but he has mostly kept himself away from the media and the public. The Colts have set an unofficial target date of Aug. 15 for his return. That is when they are scheduled to break camp and return to their training facility in Indianapolis, where Manning has spent the bulk of his time since the surgery.
It's still uncertain exactly how much on-field work he will be able to do before the Sept. 7 season opener against Chicago.
"You don't want anybody to be hurt and you wish nothing bad to happen to anybody, but there's a sense of urgency," Sorgi said. "I mean, right now, the preseason is four more games, but is (Manning) going to be ready by the first (regular-season) game? Is he going to be ready by our bye week, which is Week 4? In my mind, I'm preparing like it's going to be a long-term deal where I'm going to have to play for a long time. Then, if he comes back, I'll go back to doing what I was doing."
The Colts have other prominent players tentatively returning from surgeries on Aug. 15 -- Freeney (foot), safety Bob Sanders (shoulder), and offensive guard Ryan Lilja (knee).
But nothing has impacted the complexion of their camp, or their psyche, like the gaping hole at quarterback. In some ways, it has been helpful. One, it allows the Colts to experience their worst possible nightmare, under game-like conditions, and theoretically help prepare them to overcome it during the regular season. Everyone gets used to the idea of raising the level of his performance.
"You have to really, mentally, prepare your team for situations like that," coach Tony Dungy said. "When our starters aren't in there, we can still function. And the next guy has to be ready and we have to have confidence in the next guy. Now, obviously, with Peyton, it's different, but you try to tell the team it's the same thing."
Another advantage to Manning's absence is the chance for Sorgi to get extensive work with the Colts' first-unit offense, in practice and games, for the first time since his rookie season. The 30-16 loss to the Redskins marked only his third preseason start, but the first time he was mostly surrounded by starters (except for Lilja and receiver Marvin Harrison).
The Colts' receivers are working on the timing of their routes, in conjunction with the delivery of Sorgi's throws, and are getting used to catching his spirals, which are generally tighter than Manning's. All of the Colts' regular offensive starters, especially the linemen, are working on their in-game communication with Sorgi. And as they discovered in the one solid series he had against the Redskins, he doesn't read defenses as thoroughly or as quickly as Manning, and he doesn't change passes to runs or runs to passes nearly as often as Manning does.
"But that's what Peyton sees," receiver Reggie Wayne said. "Sorgi has to do things how he sees it. Peyton has the ability to see beyond, but that's a gift that he has, a talent that he has."
"I'm not Peyton Manning," Sorgi said. "Is it going to be as pretty as it is when he does it? Who knows? Maybe, maybe not. But the end result's got to be the same. He wins football games. You've got to go in there and win football games, no matter how you get it done, no matter how it looks. You want it to go smooth and efficient, but at the end of the day, all you care about is that you've got one more point than the other guy."
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