The Colts Are Entering a Perfect Storm
By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, December 8, 2005; Page E01
I'm rooting for the Indianapolis Colts to go undefeated, if for no other reason than to deliver us from the '72 Miami Dolphins and their tradition of cracking open the champagne bottles every year when the last undefeated team loses and leaves them, once again, the only perfect team.
The Colts, 12-0, are unquestionably the best team in the NFL at a time when it's difficult to identify who is No. 2. The Colts have the smartest quarterback: Peyton Manning. They have the best quarterback-receiver combination: Manning to Marvin Harrison.
They have football's best offensive threesome: Manning, Harrison and running back Edgerrin James. They have probably the best coach rarely called a genius: Tony Dungy. They seem to have fewer egomaniacal, end zone strutting prima donnas than any team in the NFL. They have balance, good sense and a wonderful mix of confidence and humility. They're like the San Antonio Spurs with slightly bigger stars.
Presuming relative health, the Colts in eight weeks will win the Super Bowl.
But they will not go 16-0.
It's too hard. That's why no team has ever gone 16-0 and why no team has gone 14-0 since those Dolphins did it 33 years ago.
If you haven't seen the final four games of the Colts' schedule, allow me. They play in Jacksonville against the 9-3 Jaguars Sunday, at home against the 8-4 San Diego Chargers the following Sunday, in Seattle against the 10-2 Seahawks on Christmas Eve. Okay, No. 16 would be at home against 4-8 Arizona, so we'll confine our anticipation to the next three games.
Jacksonville, which will start David Garrard in place of injured Byron Leftwich, is a division opponent that in Week 2 gave up only 10 points in a 10-3 loss to a Colts offense that averages more than 30 points per game. The Chargers have won five straight and may have the league's best player in LaDainian Tomlinson. And Seattle, if my memory serves me correctly, beat on the Eagles like a set of bongos the other night in Philly. The Seahawks are the worst kind of opponent: a really good team that feels dismissed by everybody east of the Rockies (they have been) and wants to prove it belongs. It's possible this upcoming three-game stretch will yield not just one defeat, but two. The Colts would beat each of these teams in a best-of-five. But each of the three can win a single game.
Somebody goes undefeated in college football almost every season.
Nobody goes undefeated in the NFL. It's a pipe dream.
And when the Dolphins went 14-0, then 3-0 in the postseason for 17-0 overall, there wasn't 24-hour coverage of every game, practice and off-day comments by backups to the backups. Don Shula's news conferences weren't more tension-packed than White House press briefings, which Dungy's will be if this keeps up. The Colts, if they get to 14-0, will feel like they're suffocating, the daily attention will be so overwhelming. Of all the coach-quarterback combos in the NFL, Dungy and Manning have probably the best demeanors to deal with this because they're disgustingly calm and utterly prepared for everything life throws at them. But still.
What makes the next few weeks even more difficult for the Colts is what to do on the field if they're 14-0 and going to Seattle. Suppose they've already got home field in the AFC playoffs clinched. Do they begin to rest the starters and try to get healthy for the run to the Super Bowl?
Remember, Manning and Dungy have both been legitimately criticized for their failure to win the big ones.
Manning, during his college days at the University of Tennessee, couldn't beat Florida, and he hasn't been able to beat the Patriots in the playoffs. And Dungy lost some heartbreaking games in the playoffs before somebody else came along (Jon Gruden) and led his team into the Super Bowl without him. So do you go for the Super Bowl or the undefeated season?
My sense of Dungy is that he's reasonably cautious. He's not Marty Schottenheimer cautious; it's just that Dungy probably truly doesn't care that much if his team wins every game -- as long as it wins the final game. Dungy's football godfather, or one of them anyway, is the former Steelers coach, Chuck Noll. How many times did Noll appear to be "going for it"? Yet, Noll is the only head coach to win four Super Bowls.
And while a lot of coaches say they're not susceptible to outside pressures but clearly are, Dungy isn't. Dungy, asked recently by a Sports Illustrated reporter about how he plans to handle this whole thing said, "While it would be nice to be 16-0, it really doesn't change our plan. . . . It's really a no-brainer. As soon as the games aren't meaningful in the standings, it's something we'll think about. They don't give out rings for 16-0. They give out rings for winning the Super Bowl. And everything we do will be with that goal in mind."
Of course, they immortalize men for going undefeated, but it doesn't sound like Dungy much cares about his likeness being bronzed.
Do those of us watching want to see the Colts put everything they have into winning every game? Absolutely. Few things in sports would be as thrilling or as memorable as watching the Colts fight off really good teams in the effort of going undefeated. Not much is better than chasing certifiable, historic greatness in something this culture cares as deeply about as pro football.
And it's not just us couch potatoes. Players are nowhere near as conservative as coaches. I'd bet money 90 percent of the Colts would beg Dungy to go all out if the team reaches 14-0. You have to wonder how disappointed Indy's players would be if Dungy pulled the starters against the Chargers or in Seattle and the Colts wound up losing. That scenario, it seems, would be difficult for the players to swallow.
In the meantime we watch the Colts on Sunday, and listen in the days before to the various 1972 Dolphins talk about their feelings. They've been described, because of the annual champagne celebrations, as bitter old men. But that's not true across the board. Shula, for starters, has talked glowingly of the Colts in recent weeks.
But Bob Kuechenberg, a great guard on that Dolphins team, told the Indianapolis Star recently: "I will cheer very ardently for whoever the Colts are playing [against] every week until they lose. Perfection is a unique club and I'm not at all interested in sharing it with anyone."
That sentiment, no matter how contained and no matter how understandable coming from a Dolphin, is enough to make a whole lot of people outside of South Florida root for the Colts to go 19-0. At the same time, it also serves as a reminder that being perfect over an entire season is so difficult that Kuechenberg and his mates will probably remain the club's only members.