(CNN) -- As it slowly became clear that quarterback Peyton Manning would not be healthy enough to play for the Indianapolis Colts this season, his teammates embraced the following rallying cry:
"We're not just a one-man team,'' they would say defensively. "We've still got Pro Bowl players here. We can still win games.''
Most of us bought in. Why wouldn't we? There was a culture of winning -- a Super Bowl title, another Super Bowl appearance, 12-win seasons as a matter of habit -- and lots of players remaining who were an integral part of establishing that culture. Look at the remaining roster: Top receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark. Defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Top-tier center Jeff Saturday.
And then they lost their first 13 games of the 2011 football season, and have a chance to become just the third team in the National Football League's modern history to finish the year without a win or a tie. Not a one-man team?
Now we know better.
Manning, the Hall of Fame-worthy 35-year-old quarterback, firmly established himself as the most irreplaceable player in the game this season, and did it without taking a single snap. Some have even suggested he deserves Most Valuable Player consideration: With him, the Colts are a perennial Super Bowl contender, without him they're a laughingstock.
One player can have this kind of understandable impact in the NBA, where a LeBron James can leave Cleveland Cavaliers and reduce them from a 60-win team to the worst team in the league. In the NBA, you're talking about five players on the court at a time.
Nobody could have imagined this would happen in football, where Manning is one of 11 players, and doesn't play defense or special teams.
When the New England Patriots lost Tom Brady for the 2008 season, they still went 11-5.
The Colts, who two years ago were in the middle of a debate over whether an undefeated season was possible, are now wondering if they will win a single game. We've always known Manning is the face of the franchise (and, to a certain extent, the entire NFL). Now we're finding out he's the heart, the soul, the brains ... everything.
The Colts aren't just losing this season; they're barely competitive, enduring a season that included a nationally televised, 62-7 shellacking by the Saints in New Orleans.
"I'm shocked,'' Colts guard Ryan Diem said recently. "How can you not be?''
The Colts entered the season believing that Manning, coming off his second neck surgery, would become available sometime within the first month of the season. But the pain and weakness persisted in Manning's shoulder and arm. It was then determined Manning should undergo his third neck surgery in 19 months, a single-level anterior fusion.
"That offense has evolved around a special guy,'' Kerry Collins, a veteran quarterback the Colts signed to replace Manning, told the New York Times. "Peyton has a football IQ that is off the charts and a physical gift as well. There is no way to go in there and run the offense like he does.''
The bottom line is this: The Colts were built around Manning. For more than a decade, that was an understandable approach. The Colts were beacons of enduring excellence, one of the best franchises in the NFL and all of sports.
But when the foundation is removed, the entire structure crumbles. All the Colts' best players are reliant on Manning. The receivers, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie and Wayne. The tight end, Clark. The two pass rushers, Freeney and Mathis, do their best work when their team has a lead, and the Colts aren't doing that.
Meanwhile, nobody's quite sure when and if Manning will return. He announced two weeks ago that the neck fusion was progressing and he could increase the intensity of his rehabilitation. It remains highly unlikely, though, that he will practice with the team the remaining three weeks of the season.
So now it gets weirdly interesting.
Turns out the Colts picked the perfect year to stink.
If they get the first pick in the draft -- and they have a two-game lead on Minnesota and St. Louis with three games remaining -- they will be in position to pick Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck , by most accounts the best quarterback prospect to come out of college since Hall of Famer John Elway left Stanford and joined the Denver Broncos in 1983.
Not a bad deal: The Colts get 13 years of elite quarterbacking from Manning, suffer for one season, then get Luck for another decade or more of elite quarterbacking. But then the question becomes, what do the Colts do with Luck and Manning?
Last week, Manning's father, former NFL quarterback Archie Manning, told two different radio shows that Luck and Peyton would not be able to play on the same team. The argument was that both would want to play right away and should play right away. Manning expects to be healthy, and Luck is viewed as the most NFL-ready quarterback to come out of college in years. (Archie backtracked on those comments one day later).
Here's the rub: The Colts have to decide whether to give Manning a $28 million option bonus in early March.
The simplest option would be to let Manning leave as a free agent -- although it's never simple when emotions are involved and it involves a transcendent civic icon.
The other option is to pay the money and then figure things out.
But it's not as simple as paying the cash and then trading him. The bonus is due in early March. The league year, which would be the first opportunity for the Colts to make a trade, begins March 15. If the Colts wanted to trade Manning, it would cost them $28 million, plus they would take a $38 million cap hit (NFL teams have a maximum amount to spend each year on player salaries and bonuses). That's an enormous number and would not allow them to field a competitive team.
Indianapolis fans would like to keep Manning for a couple of years and then transition to Luck. But that's a tough call, too. Luck has not yet addressed the situation, but there's reason to believe he would have no interest in sitting behind Manning for two or three years. As a first pick, he would have leverage, and could force the Colts to trade his pick, as was the case with Elway and Eli Manning.
Let's say the Colts keep Manning for a year and then deal him: It's a $28 million cap hit, still enormous, leaving them short of cap money to surround Luck with talented players.
"We aren't close to making any decisions,'' Colts vice chairman Bill Polian said.
More and more, it looks like the Colts will have to make a clean break and move into the Luck Era. The more immediate concern, though, is this:
They just want to win a game.