Another early exit puts Colts in offseason mode

Peyton Manning helped the Colts overcome injuries, struggles and his own slump this season.

Now team owner Jim Irsay will have to pay him for what he's done.

One day after the defending AFC champs were eliminated from the playoffs with a 17-16 loss to the Jets, the Colts tried to turn their attention from another early exit to the uncertainty of this offseason.

It won't be easy.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't shocked. I really thought we'd be getting ready for Pittsburgh today," said center Jeff Saturday, who will have a key role in labor negotiations. "I think Peyton summed it up best when he said it stings."

Sting or not, the Colts (10-7) can't afford to waste time looking back.

Their biggest priority this offseason, of course, is re-signing the only four-time MVP in league history. Irsay has repeatedly said he will make Manning the NFL's highest-paid player, a stance Manning likely cemented with his big numbers in the most trying of seasons.

Despite losing All-Pro tight end Dallas Clark in Week 6 with a season-ending wrist injury and receiver Austin Collie for most of the season's second half because of concussions, Manning still led the Colts to a record-tying ninth straight playoff appearance.

Turns out, that was the easy part.

What Irsay and Colts President Bill Polian must do now is figure out how to make a deal that gives them enough wiggle room to improve the team without using a collective bargaining agreement — or salary cap — to guide them.

Manning was not available to reporters in the locker room Sunday.

"To be honest with you, I'm not sure how that works with the GMs," said Saturday, the Colts' union rep. "I assume they'll sign guys according to what the agreement is in now. Everybody's in the same boat."

But it's the size of the boats that vary.

In Indy, Manning's contract probably will have to be finalized before they can do anything else.

Who else will they have to deal with?

The list of potential free agents includes Joseph Addai, the team's best blocking back and most productive runner; Adam Vinatieri, the best clutch kicker in league history; Charlie Johnson, Manning's blind-side protector; Melvin Bullitt, a key backup at safety who is ready to start in the NFL; starting linebacker Clint Session and starting defensive tackle Dan Muir.

"There are a lot of things that go into it and there has got to be a want on the other side, too," Vinatieri said, expressing his desire to return. "But there's not another place I'd want to be."

Pro Bowlers Robert Mathis and Reggie Wayne also want new deals, though they have one year left on their contracts.

And it's Manning, as usual, that will be the key.

With Manning in charge, the Colts have gone from also-ran to perennial Super Bowl contender. Besides the four MVP awards, Manning has taken the Colts to two Super Bowls and won one.

Statistically, the 34-year-old Manning was as productive as he's ever been.

He helped the Colts win a seventh division title in eight years, set a career high in yards (4,700), threw 33 TDs, 17 interceptions and broke the NFL record for completions in a season (450) though he had to throw a career-high 679 times to do all of it.

Because Indy couldn't run the ball until December, the offensive line struggled and 18 players wound up on injured reserve, Manning also had to carry a larger burden than usual and still helped the Colts become the third team since 2000 to lose a Super Bowl and make the playoffs the following season.

But on Saturday night, all those shortfalls finally caught up to them.

The Jets ran for 169 yards, controlled the clock for most of the second half, kept Manning out of the end zone for the final 30 minutes and took advantage of a mishmash of special teams players with Antonio Cromartie's 47-yard kickoff return.

That return helped set up Nick Folk's last-second 32-yard field goal to win it, and sent Indy home without a playoff win for the third time in four seasons.

"We don't like this taste in our mouth," Addai said Saturday night. "I know the only thing to do, and it's kind of hard to do this, but move forward."

Moving on means figuring out how to get better.

Coach Jim Caldwell said Sunday he planned to take a break before he and his staff start evaluating players and preparing for the draft.

The biggest area of need is the offensive line, which Polian criticized after last season's Super Bowl loss.

But the most important move going forward will be Manning's contract.

"It's probably unlike any other group that I've ever seen, had probably more adversity to deal with through the course of the season than most teams," Caldwell said. "They did it, I think, in grand fashion. They were able to stare it right in the eye. They didn't weep and complain. They didn't implode. They didn't point fingers. What they did is went to work and certainly did everything they possibly could to put us in position to win. We're not satisfied with where we ended up, but I think the guys did a heck of a job."