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After winning his first 14 games, an NFL record for a rookie head coach, and becoming only the fifth first-year coach to take his team to the Super Bowl, Caldwell did a masterful job guiding the injury-plagued Colts through a thicket of injuries and back to the playoffs in 2010.

But those successes all came with Peyton Manning, who led the Colts to a league-record 115 regular-season wins in the previous decade and a record-tying nine straight playoff appearances.

This year, with Manning out the entire season, the Colts lost their first 13 games.

Among players and coaches, Caldwell was universally well-liked. The list included Manning, who won all four of his record-setting MVP Awards with Caldwell on Indy’s staff, as well as perennial Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday.

“I think coach Caldwell has done a very good job. He has gotten the most out of his players, and we play hard for him each and every week,” Saturday said before the season finale. “We haven’t necessarily played well, we’ve made mistakes and done things, but they have, oftentimes, been things that we’ve talked about in coaching meetings.”

Outsiders often saw it another way.

Fans frequently complained about Caldwell’s game management, and some critics referred to Caldwell as a “puppet” of the Polians.

Many never forgave Caldwell for pulling the plug on a perfect season in a Game 15 loss to the Jets in 2009 and pointed to the midseason firing of defensive coordinator Larry Coyer and the long delay in replacing Curtis Painter with Dan Orlvosky at quarterback as decisions that should have come much earlier.

Irsay and Grigson did not characterize Caldwell’s 1,099-day tenure the same way as fans.

But with Grigson already searching for a new coach and presumably preparing to take Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick, the questions now turn to Manning, who had his third neck surgery in 19 months on Sept. 8.

The Colts still are not saying much about Manning’s recovery, and Grigson has not yet spoken with Manning, who is owed a $28 million bonus in early March.

“We’re not even there with anything regarding Peyton Manning just yet,” Grigson said. “We have to know about his medical stuff, first. There’s so many things there.”

Caldwell ended his Colts’ tenure 26-22 overall with one AFC title, two division crowns and one bleak season that has left him unemployed just three years after replacing close friend Tony Dungy, the first black coach to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

“This was a difficult decision,” Irsay said. “I wanted to make sure we took all the time we needed to make sure it was the right decision. … And just like 14 years, ago, it’s a big change for the franchise and at the same time, there’s players, coaches, many people on the staff that will go into the new day and get on with the work of 2012.”