NASHVILLE -- His healthy teammates having just fallen to 0-8 after a 27-10 loss to the Tennessee Titans at LP Field, injured Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning attempted to toss his gray Colts ball cap to a fan in the stands.
Like most everything else surrounding the Horseshoes' sad season, the throw came up short, the hat falling the ground.
But Peyton being Peyton, he smiled, said "Oops," retrieved the cap and tossed it a second time to Nashville native Preston Penn, who was already wearing a No. 18 Colts jersey that Manning had signed earlier in the day.
"Oh, my gosh," said Penn when the hat hit him between the numbers. "Wow. I'm keeping this forever."
In a strange way, the Colts' catastrophic season should forever cement Manning's place among the very best quarterbacks in NFL history -- guys answering to Unitas, Starr, Montana, Elway and Bradshaw.
For proof, merely turn to the history of the Colts-Titans series within the AFC South.
Prior to Sunday, Manning almost always at the helm, Indy had won five straight and 13 of 16 dating back to 2003.
But with Peyton sidelined with a neck injury for the entirety of this season to date, the Colts are not only winless, but in serious danger of becoming only the second NFL team in history to go 0-16 since the league went to the 16-game format in 1978. The other was Detroit in 2008.
How much does Peyton mean to this team? With Manning at the helm the Colts have consistently been among the top five or six offenses in the NFL. Without him they rank 29th among 32 teams in scoring, 30th in yards per game, 31st in time of possession and 27th in passing yards.
How much easier is life for the Titans defense when it's facing Indy quarterback Curtis Painter instead of Peyton?
"There were several plays where Peyton would have put us in a lot of trouble," said Tennessee defensive back Cortland Finnegan, "You're sorry he's hurt and Painter has talent; he's going to be a good quarterback in this league. But there were definitely a couple of times today when we were lucky Peyton wasn't on the field."
Some wonder if the former University of Tennessee star will ever return to the field. Neck injuries are always tricky things. And for all his brilliance -- in addition to the 2006 Super Bowl championship season the Colts' playoff streak reached nine last season -- Manning is now 35.
This isn't to say a guy his age can't fully recover from a level one cervical neck fusion -- which Manning had done in September -- but he's the father of twins now, he's got all the money he could ever need and there's surely some small part of him that's thinking it might be a good time to walk away while he still can, head to the broadcast booth and enjoy watching his kids grow up.
And if that thought's not rattling around somewhere in his fertile mind, perhaps it should be.
Beyond that, if the Colts continue to lose, they're well on their way to landing Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick of the 2012 NFL Draft.
Peyton just inked a contract valued at $90 million for five years, and if he retired he'd likely lose a good portion of that. Or maybe the Colts would honor most of the money as a lifetime achievement award.
He might also be asked to stick around and tutor Luck for a couple of seasons to earn the majority of the contract.
After all, Painter has certainly enjoyed picking Peyton's brain, saying Sunday, "The coaches obviously do a great job, but to have a guy like Peyton on the sidelines who's been in the system, who's been on the field ... at times that helps a ton."
Of course, it would help the Colts far more for Manning to be back on the field, adding to his NFL record haul of four MVP trophies.
Not that he necessarily shouldn't be considered for MVP this season, too.
"Hey, Peyton's always the MVP," said Finnegan. "He's the definition of Hall of Fame quarterback. Just look at the record. When he's out there the Colts almost always win. Without him, they're 0-8. If that's not an MVP, what is?"
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...