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Big Ten rivals battle to be Peyton Mannings’s backup

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Associated Press
September 2, 2009
— Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jim Sorgi heads to Cincinnati as the reigning champ.

He has served as Peyton Manning’s right-hand man since 2004, the longest tenure of any No. 2 quarterback in the Manning era. The former Wisconsin quarterback has thrown more passes than all Colts combined over the past 11 seasons, except for the three-time league MVP himself, and even filled in as the starter when Manning was injured last August.


In the other corner is challenger Curtis Painter. A rookie out of Purdue, Painter has shown promise in the Colts first three preseason games, completing 30 of 50 passes for 338 yards and improving with each passing week.


Welcome to Thursday night’s feature attraction: The Battle To Be Peyton’s Backup.


“Cincinnati offers a lot of looks, a lot of blitzes, a lot of coverages to make you feel like you’re playing football and to figure out how to beat it (the defense),” Sorgi said Tuesday.


“It will be a little bit of an audible game, which will be good.”


If that’s the case, it should favor Sorgi, who has spent the past six seasons running the Colts system and primarily in these types of situations.


The Michigan native and University of Wisconsin alum is accustomed to the extensive preseason work, following Manning’s early exits, and mop-up duty late in the regular-season when the Colts have wrapped up a playoff spot and don’t want to risk injury to their franchise player.


But this preseason has been different for Sorgi.


After pulling his right hamstring at training camp 3½ weeks ago, Sorgi didn’t return to practice until last week and still has not taken a snap in the preseason. It gave Painter a chance to showcase what he learned over the summer.


On Thursday, things are expected to change.


Though new coach Jim Caldwell has not said how long, or if, the starters will play Thursday night, Manning has traditionally played a series or less in Indy’s preseason finale. Either way, Sorgi expects to play at least a half.


“This is the week I’m going to play,” he said with a sense of relief. “I think I’ll get a good dose of it. I would expect to be playing going into the third quarter, though I don’t know that for sure. When you’re not playing, you feel kind of like an outsider, and I want to be accountable for a win or a loss.”


In Sorgi’s absence, Painter has done the Colts’ dirty work.


He replaced Manning in each of the three previous preseason games and has actually thrown more than half of the Colts’ 86 passes.


Painter also has a strong local fan base after starting for three seasons with the Boilermakers and playing prep ball in Vincennes, Ind.


Yet Painter understands he still has something to prove to the Colts.


“I’ve definitely gotten better each game and corrected things I’ve messed up in the prior games,” Painter said. “There’s still room for improvement.”


Has he done enough to either unseat Sorgi as the backup or force Caldwell into keep three quarterbacks on Indy’s active roster?


Those decisions must be made by Saturday’s final cutdown deadline.


Thanks to Manning’s durability—he has started all 176 regular-season games and 15 playoff games in 11 seasons—the Colts have traditionally kept only two quarterbacks on the active roster. The last time they had three was 2004, and that was only briefly.


But with Sorgi, the veteran, and Painter, a draft pick, coaches may be rethinking that plan.


“It’s something you grapple with every year,” Caldwell said.



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