Colts quarterback Curtis Painter spent the past week talking about football — not the circus-like atmosphere swirling around him.
Instead of responding to fans’ complaints, speculation about being replaced by Brett Favre or the eventual signing of Kerry Collins, Painter turned his attention this week to the one thing under his control: Leading the Colts’ offense Friday night against defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay.
“I think more than anything it’s just to kind of show improvement,” Painter said when asked about this week’s goals. “I think to be able to transfer camp over to the game would be big, so yeah, I don’t think we need to add any more pressure on it.”
Sounds great, but Painter is in a fight for his job.
He’s been the primary backup to Peyton Manning the past two seasons and with the four-time league MVP still recovering from offseason neck surgery, Painter has been taking most of the snaps with the Colts’ starters for the first time in his career.
The problem? He’s still struggling.
In two preseason games, Painter is just 8 of 16 for 95 yards with one interception and no touchdowns. He managed only one first down and couldn’t get Indy past its own 29-yard line in the first half last week, and he still hasn’t produced a touchdown drive.
On Friday, he’ll have to contend with anxious fans and one of the league’s most aggressive defense — all on national television.
“Whoever they come out with, we’re going to play them and play them hard,” Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop said.
Coach Jim Caldwell hasn’t said when Manning will return to practice, but Indy’s No. 1 quarterback has already said he won’t play the final two games as he waits for a surgically repaired nerve to heal. And there’s growing trepidation he could miss the start of the season.
Those concerns grew exponentially when team owner Jim Irsay wrote Saturday on Twitter that the Colts must be prepared to start the season without Manning, then followed that post with another asking fans who the Colts should sign as a veteran free agent.
On Sunday, when Irsay wrote he was in Hattiesburg, Miss., speculation began that Favre could join Indy in time for Friday’s game against his former team. Instead, the Colts signed Collins, a move fans lauded and some of Painter’s teammates questioned.
“I guarantee you that was a punch in the back of the head to Painter, but it’s like a punch in the back of the head to me, too. I guess that’s because I’m biased, I don’t know. I’m a Curtis Painter fan,” five-time Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne said Wednesday. “I talk to Curtis every day, every day. I tell him, `Curtis I got your back’ every day and if he throws it in a mile’s radius, I tell him `I’ll make it shake for you.”‘
Wayne missed last week’s game as he celebrated the birth of his baby boy and said after watching the tape he felt partially responsible for Painter’s troubles. This week, he hopes to make amends by giving Painter a second chance.
The cards appear to be stacked against Painter, too.
Indy has lost eight straight preseason games, dating to a 16-9 victory at Atlanta on Aug. 16, 2009.
Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers and the rest of Green Bay’s offensive starters are expected to play the entire first half and may tinker again with a no-huddle offense that has produced both of the first team’s preseason touchdown drives. Rookie receiver Randall Cobb, a second-round draft pick, is expected to miss the game with bruised knees. Pro Bowl receiver Greg Jennings also could sit out with a bruised knee.
And while Green Bay may be without defensive linemen Mike Neal (knee) and C.J. Wilson (concussion), linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring) is expected to see his most extensive playing time of the preseason.
It’s a simple plan.
“You always hope that you can go out there and put together a good half, where guys get a little feel for playing with each other and the communication aspect of things,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
Caldwell will take a similar approach with Indianapoliis.
He plans to use the starters into the third quarter.
But the bigger question is what the Colts, and particularly Painter, do during that time. With Collins trying to learn Indy’s playbook, Manning coaching from the sideline and Wayne vowing to do whatever he can, this could be Painter’s last best chance to prove he can play in the NFL.
Even if the third-year quarterback doesn’t quite look at it that way.
“It’s kind of like it has been,” Painter said. “It’s been a steady competition and you’re never completely satisfied with where you’re at, so it doesn’t change much in my mind. You’ve just got to go out and be prepared for whatever you need to do.”