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Colts' challenges get tougher without Polian

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP)

The firings of Bill and Chris Polian have thrown another complication into Indy's already murky offseason.

Jim Caldwell and his staff are now working in limbo as the team looks for a new general manager. There's no more clarity about Peyton Manning's health, and team owner Jim Irsay has finally acknowledged the Colts are in full-fledged rebuilding mode.

The decisions over the next few months will likely shape the future of the Colts' organization for years, but what happens next is anybody's guess.

''There is no sugar-coating the fact that there are areas of talent that we need,'' Irsay said. ''The decisions that are coming up are crucial, and obviously, when you're looking at a general manager, a head coach, having the No. 1 pick in the draft and knowing that you're rebuilding in some areas, that is about as massive as it gets.''

As usual, all things in Indy start with Manning.

Irsay must decide whether to pay the four-time league MVP a $28 million bonus in March, allow him to walk away as a free agent or redo the five-year, $90 million contract to make it more salary-cap friendly.

Manning missed the entire season after having his latest neck surgery Sept. 8 -- a procedure that has clouded his future in Indianapolis. Without him, the Colts collapsed, missing the playoffs for the first time in a decade and winning the Andrew Luck sweepstakes with a 2-14 mark.

Though Manning has started throwing with teammates and players believe Manning is improving, Irsay must determine whether it's worth taking a significant cap hit to rebuild around a 35-year-old quarterback who has had neck surgery three times in less than 24 months. If he is healthy, a big if, Irsay has promised to bring back Manning and make another Super Bowl run.

''I think the key thing for me has always been, and particularly since the fusion, is it safe for him to go on the field? Is it something where he is healthy enough to resume his career, to go on the field and play at a high level but also to be in harm's way in the physical game that we have?'' Irsay said. ''What he means to the franchise, what he means to the Colts and to the league, (his health) to me always has been the most important decision.''

Irsay said he plans to meet with Manning within the next week, and those answers could dictate which direction the Colts go in 2012.

Manning has good reasons to want Caldwell back. Aside from the franchise quarterback, Caldwell and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen understand this offense better than anyone, and Caldwell helped Manning achieve his greatest successes. Before Caldwell became quarterbacks coach in 2002, Manning was an elite player with a losing record in the playoffs. With Caldwell, Manning won all four of his MVP awards, two AFC crowns and his only Super Bowl ring.

But there's no assurance any of the coaches will be back next season. Receiver Pierre Garcon summed up the uncertainty best on Twitter when he posted this: ''So what happens now?''

For Caldwell and the coaches, it's business as usual.

''I'm moving forward. I'm working,'' Caldwell said in his season-ending news conference. ''There are a lot of things I could have done better. We're 2-14, OK? And I consider myself to be responsible for every single one of those losses.''

The timing is tricky, too.

A lengthy delay in finding a new GM could make it more difficult for Irsay to land a splashy, high-profile coach.

By waiting, however, Irsay could go after a coach or a front office man from one of the Super Bowl teams.

Baltimore's Eric DeCosta and Green Bay's Reggie McKenzie are two names that have been rumored as possible replacements for Chris Polian.

Whoever takes the Colts' GM job will be busy.

Besides Manning, Caldwell and the assistants, the Colts also must make decisions about a trio of 30-something former Pro Bowlers -- Robert Mathis, Jeff Saturday and Reggie Wayne. All are set to become unrestricted free agents and Wayne removed his name plate Friday from his locker, an indication he doesn't expect to play for the Colts again.

If Indy goes into full rebuilding mode, the new GM will have to consider releasing high-priced veterans such as defensive captains Gary Brackett and Melvin Bullitt. Salary cap concerns will likely force the Colts to redo the contract of perennial Pro Bowler Dwight Freeney, who is scheduled to make a base salary of $14 million and count $19 million against the cap in 2012.

It could prompt Irsay to take a longer look at someone familiar with finding creative ways to deal with the salary cap.

''We have some serious salary cap issues, there is no question about that,'' Irsay said. ''So there is a lot of work to be done. You never know how eras end, how they begin and you can't really say exactly what constitutes that era beginning or ending. But clearly we are in a rebuilding stage.''

Leaving the Colts with only one clear path to success: get it right.

''When you see something that you know is going to have greatness with your franchise, you go after it. That is always the way I've been,'' Irsay said. ''When I've talked about pillars of a franchise, quarterback, general manager and head coach, if you have a chance to get a great one, you get it, because there are not a lot of great ones. So you do what you have to do to try to get some of those pillars in place.''

Tagged: Colts, Reggie Wayne, Peyton Manning

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