ANDERSON, Ind. – Curtis Painter spent his first two NFL training camps serving as the Colts' apprentice quarterback.
Now he's ready to go out on his own.
With Peyton Manning still recuperating from neck surgery, the not-so-familiar backup is getting a chance to play the role of starter, albeit temporarily, and that's just fine with the Indiana native and Purdue grad who is living out his dream.
"It's such a great opportunity," Painter said after leading the Colts through their first practice Monday morning. "It's a chance to get reps and prove myself, to show what I've learned and show people where I'm at."
Painter didn't get an opportunity to show much during the light, one-hour walkthrough.
A crowd of about 1,000 watched Painter hand off more than he threw. The regimen changed in the two-hour afternoon workout where players were in shorts and helmets: Painter threw a nifty pass that Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne along the sideline, drawing cheers from fans attending the workout at Anderson University, 40 miles northeast of the team complex, cheered loudly.
And obviously, fans are anxious about life without Manning.
Behind Manning, the Colts have gone from perennial also-ran to perennial Super Bowl contender. Without him, nobody knows what to expect.
Manning has started 227 consecutive regular-season and playoff game since entering the NFL in 1998, the league's second-longest streak among quarterbacks. While his durability has been good for the Colts, that's not necessarily the case for his backups who have rarely gotten a chance to prove themselves, on Sundays or in practice.
Painter is one of the lucky ones.
The problem: He hasn't come close to playing at Manning's level.
Painter's NFL debut, in December 2009, is best remembered for the home crowd's boos following a sack-fumble that the Jets returned for a touchdown. New York eventually rallied for a 29-15 victory, ruining the Colts' shot at a perfect season. The next week at Buffalo, Painter relieved Manning again and wasn't any better in a 30-7 loss.
He hasn't played in a meaningful game since, leaving his career stat line a dismal 8 of 28 for 83 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and a quarterback rating of 9.8.
That's caused consternation among Colts fans who think the team needs a veteran quarterback in case Manning isn't ready for the Sept. 11 regular-season opener at Houston.
Painter's teammates disagree.
"He's taken a lot of hits from the media and spectators the last few years," Wayne said. "I'm a big fan of his. I'm kind of eager to get out there and get some reps with him. Hopefully, we can make something look good."
Now in his third NFL season, Painter insists he has a better understanding of the Colts' system and he appears more confident about what he's capable of doing on and off the field. Painter has even changed his look, ditching the short, curly hair he has worn since his college days for straighter, shoulder-length locks.
And now Painter will be taking the majority of the snaps.
The Colts put Manning and receiver Blair White on the physically unable to perform list Monday. It's uncertain when Manning will be activated and the only other quarterbacks on the roster are veteran free agents Nate Davis and Dan Orlovsky, neither of whom can practice until at least Thursday, and undrafted rookie Mike Hartline — who has barely had time to learn his teammates' names, much less the playbook.
It's not the first time, Manning has needed a camp fill-in. In 2008, Jim Sorgi took most of the snaps when Manning missed training camp after having surgery for an infected bursa sac in his left knee. Manning also missed one week of training camp in 1998 when he was still negotiating his rookie contract.
Finding replacements is something the Colts have traditionally done well. The list of success stories includes names like Dominic Rhodes, Melvin Bullitt, Jacob Tamme and White. Painter could be next.
"We're just looking for consistency and to get him an opportunity to run the offense," Pro Bowl tight end Dallas Clark said. "Sorgi had this opportunity a couple of years ago. Curtis is ready. He knows the system, he knows the guys and he has a strong arm. But that (finding replacements) is what this game is about."
And Painter is out to show everyone that he can succeed, too.
"I really wasn't sure this was going to happen until about the same time you guys all knew, so I've spent the last few weeks getting ready to take a lot of reps," Painter said. "You know, each year in the system, you just get more familiar with it and each year, your confidence grows. Hopefully, I can show that."