Pass by pass

INDIANAPOLIS -- The best way to tell whether you're in a bona fide, hard-core NFL town is to apply the John Facenda Test.

Cue the background music. Now, in your best impersonation of the fabled, steeped-in-gravitas baritone Voice of NFL Films, tell the local team's story. Today's test is applied to the Indianapolis Colts.

The carpetbagging Colts fled to America's heartland in the dead of night, deserting a long-suffering city on the Atlantic seaboard.

On a scale of one to Green Bay, that rates about a two.

The blue-and-white warriors do battle at room temperature, in an antiseptic dome more famous as the site of multiple Final Fours. No player has ever seen his breath at an Indianapolis home game, and no snow plow has ever cleared the yard lines.

On a scale of one to Buffalo, that rates a 1.5

They sell out home games. (Since Peyton Manning arrived.) They turn the RCA Dome into a cauldron of sound. (Like when the fans used to do the wave when the Colts had the ball.) The Indianapolis faithful has been waiting two decades for its chance to cheer a champion.

On a scale of one to the Dawg Pound, that rates a generous 3.5.

They play a form of basketball on plastic grass, outscoring opponents more often than stopping them. This is pass-and-catch football more than block-and-tackle.

On a scale of one to the Steel Curtain, that rates a five.

So the Facenda Test is not terribly kind to the Indianapolis Colts. They don't register well on the legit-grit meter. They don't have much tradition. They don't lend themselves to lyrical prose, soaring symphony and general gridiron romanticism.

They are what they are: a transplanted franchise playing indoors in bedrock basketball country that, thanks largely to patron saint Peyton, is forcing Hoosiers to appreciate the pointed ball. They've established a beach head and they're moving forward, one Manning-to-Marvin Harrison pass at a time.

"This is still a basketball town in its heart," Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz said. "But the difference in just the last five years is night and day."

"It's not what Green Bay is, not what some other cities are," season-ticket holder Dan Dilbeck said. "But it's growing. It used to be about four or five of us tailgating in this parking lot. Now look around."

Look around and you see some genuine atmosphere -- what you'd hope to see when your team is a playoff contender and "Monday Night Football" has come to town for the first time in four years.

You see RVs and campers in hordes. You see face paint and goofy horse-head hats -- and Manning jerseys on almost every man, woman and child. You see gonzo drinking and gluttonous eating -- and gratuitous smack-talking to the sizeable number of Minnesota invaders. (Another sign that the Colts aren't there yet: too many tickets going to people wearing purple. No way this happens in, say, Denver.)

You see a blue-and-white fire engine, tailgate headquarters of The Blue Crew, a 5-year-old fan group that has grown from 10 members to 516. If Blue Crew members go too long without a beer, they can be summoned by bullhorn to collect one.

"Tailgating almost was nonexistent," Blue Crew co-founder Randy Collins said. "Now, you can't get here early enough."

Some Colts fans from the Evansville area, in the southwest corner of the state about 2½ hours away, arrived to tailgate 5 hours before kickoff -- the earliest they were allowed into the lot. On this Midwestern Monday night, the revelry was in high gear.

Bubba Hoffman was wearing a blue-and-white felt bowler on his head and a Manning jersey on his torso -- although his body was more along the lines of Gilbert Brown. He was cooking turkey legs with Big Dave Alben and Ken Fraley, who have had season tickets for all 21 years the Colts have been in Indy.

Alben says he's missed only one home game in that time.

"He was in jail," Bubba offered. Alben looked hurt at this revelation but did not refute it. Instead, he offered his prediction on the Colts' game against the Vikings: 56-3.

"That's been our prediction for every game since 1984," he said. "One time, we're going to be right."

Not far away were some new (and young) season-ticket holders, seduced by the team's success and growing popularity. Their leading indicator that the Colts are the hot thing in town, according to one man: "Look at all the beautiful women! No more corn-fed girls out here."

There was nothing beautiful about the Colts in Indy for many years. It took 12 seasons to win a playoff game. Sixteen seasons to win more than nine games and to host a playoff game. Twenty seasons to win a home playoff game and finally send the fans spilling out of the RCA Dome in a fit of ecstasy.

Until that time, look at the list of coaches: Frank Kush, Rod Dowhower, Ron Meyer, Rick Venturi ... finally, Ted Marchibroda got something done in the mid-90s with Captain Comeback, Jim Harbaugh.

Look at the list of busted draft picks: Overall No. 1s Jeff George and Steve Emtman, plus other first-rounders like Leonard Coleman, Paul Bergmann and Sean Dawkins. (There's a reason why, for many years in the 1980s and early '90s, Indy radio stations played a popular song with the refrain, "Help my Colts. Lord, help my Colts.")

And look at the fickle fan support: Indy's first-ever home playoff game, against Tennessee in 1999, turned into a near home game for the Titans as thousands of their fans drove north on I-65 and gobbled up tickets. The resulting roars for the Titans in an upset of the 13-3 Colts turned the game into a hometown embarrassment.

That's changed. Mostly.

"Some fans don't give a rat's ass about this team," young season-ticket holder Tony Abbott said. "But the fans out here suffering in the cold care."

(Meteorological note: Monday was a blue-sky sunny day in Indy, and temperatures never dipped toward anything punitive. A decent coat and long pants were enough to make tailgating tolerable -- and then everyone headed indoors. So on a scale of one to the Frozen Tundra -- well, you get the idea.)

The fact is, Hoosiers are wired to be indoors at this time of year anyway. They're used to basketball gyms.

This cannot be understated as an explanation for the slow catch-on of Colts football. The state that produced John Wooden, Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson, among a thousand others, has a much shorter list of homegrown football heroes (Rod Woodson, Bob Griese and Tom Harmon probably lead the pack). There simply isn't much gridiron heritage here to build upon.

Many high schools in the state have no football teams. Meanwhile, the Indiana state high school basketball tournament has been a huge deal for nearly a century -- until the state high school athletic association drew a mustache on Mona Lisa, going from a legendary single-class tournament to multiple classes. (Fan interest correspondingly has plummeted.)

Bob Knight's forced exit has at least opened the athletic pantheon to Manning, Harrison and running back Edgerrin James -- although it must be noted that a dog was trotting around the tailgate lot in a Reggie Miller jersey, and several fans said they thought a Pacers NBA title or an Indiana University national basketball championship would be bigger than a Colts Super Bowl win.

But Manning and Harrison play well in a state of polite and folksy people. After all, they just elected a governor, Mitch Daniels, who ran on the slogan, "My Man Mitch," and who spent weeks traveling the state in an RV and staying at peoples' houses.

Most Hoosiers would be honored to show Peyton or Marvin to the guest room. Just don't ask them if they know who John Facenda is.

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com.