Why the Colts can reach the Super Bowl




By Phil Richards
phil.richards@indystar.com
September 5, 2004


History says no, but the Colts certainly are in the running. Playoff participants four of the past five years, they are a strong contender to make the 2004 season, their 21st in Indianapolis, their best, and to conclude it Feb. 6 in Super Bowl XXXIX at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Fla.

So what if, since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, only two teams have lost the AFC Championship game and come back to win it the next year. The Colts can match what Oakland did in 1975-76 and Pittsburgh did in 1994-95. ESPN's Mike Golic and Pro Football Weekly magazine pick Indianapolis to come out of the AFC.

Golic's ESPN counterpart, Sean Salisbury, is like a lot of observers. He has a hard time not picking the New England Patriots, but he likes the Colts.

"If I was picking right now," Salisbury said, "it's going to come down to the Colts and the Patriots in the AFC. And the winner of the AFC is the Super Bowl champion."

Six of the past 10 Super Bowl participants were 8-8 or worse the year before making the big game. The Colts are coming off a 12-4 season. They are experienced, unselfish, tough and determined. They are forewarned.

"I think what happens is the team that loses, many times can get lulled into that trap," Colts coach Tony Dungy said. " 'Well, we're almost there. We only have to do that, so if we get this one player in free agency or we draft this one player or do this one thing, we're going to win.' "

Dungy isn't lulled, and neither are his Colts. It's like the 41-0 playoff loss to the New York Jets that ended the 2002 season. They didn't let it define them. They wanted more. They came back. They improved.

Dungy believes they will do so again, this time from a 24-14 AFC Championship game loss at New England in January that ended a season during which three of their five losses were to the Super Bowl participants, the Patriots and Carolina.

The Colts have at least five important things going for them as Super Bowl contenders: 1. They have the league's best offense, a unit that can dominate. 2. They protect quarterback Peyton Manning. 3. Place-kicker Mike Vanderjagt is the league's best, and the special teams are on the rise. 4. The Colts' defense isn't dominant, and isn't likely to be, but it could achieve a level of sufficient reliability. 5. The combination of Dungy and team president Bill Polian is due.

Need elaboration? Here's some:

1. The Colts offense is dominant.

It has ranked among the league's top four all but one of the past five years and it is a mature bunch that has grown as a group. Nine starters have played as a unit for at least two seasons; six have started together for four or more.

Manning is the NFL's co-Most Valuable Player. At 28, he is coming off his finest season and entering the prime of his career. He was spectacular in the first and second rounds of the playoffs last season, and there is quality in quantity all around him.

The wide receivers, one through three, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley, might be the league's best assemblage. Marcus Pollard and Dallas Clark rank with any pair of tight ends. Running backs Edgerrin James and Dominic Rhodes are an elite twosome, and James again looks like the back who led the NFL in rushing in 1999 and 2000.

He averaged 4.9 yards a carry and 102.4 yards a game over the final seven games last season, including the playoffs.

The line is seasoned, consistent, effective.

Fullback Tom Lopienski won't play a lot of snaps or get a lot of attention, but he is a new short-yardage dimension: a 246-pound fullback who is an eager blocker and a capable pass catcher.

It is the most complete offense the Colts have fielded during their Indianapolis era.

"Across the board, we have a lot of weapons," Manning said. "Certainly we feel like whoever the ball goes to is capable of making a big play."

2. The Colts keep their quarterback healthy.

Manning is entering his seventh NFL season. He has missed one play because of injury, that against Miami in 2001, when Dolphins end Lorenzo Bromell hit Manning with a helmet-to-face blow that broke Manning's jaw.

A franchise quarterback is an asset only if he plays. Manning has started 96 consecutive games, the longest streak to start a career in league history. The Colts have yielded 106 sacks over the past five years, fewer than any other NFL team.

"The way we look at it," Colts center Jeff Saturday said, "is just keep him from getting hit and taking a lot of shots, and let him do his thing."

Offensive schemes and the style and talent level of the quarterbacks executing them vary widely around the NFL, but there is one constant among Super Bowl teams. They keep their quarterbacks healthy.

The starting quarterbacks of only three of the 20 teams that have played in the Super Bowl over the past 10 years have missed as many as five games.

Tennessee's Steve McNair was inactive five of the first six games of the 1999 season with a back injury. Baltimore's Trent Dilfer didn't beat out Tony Banks until midseason in 2000. McNair started the last 10 games, Dilfer the final eight.

And then there's the curious case of Kurt Warner. He came on for St. Louis after starter Trent Green was injured during the 1999 preseason. St. Louis won the Super Bowl. Warner won the NFL's MVP Award that year and in 2001.

3. The Colts' place-kicker is the best and their special teams are improving.

The Colts opened the 2003 regular season with Vanderjagt kicking a 45-yard field goal to beat Cleveland with 0:01 on the clock and closed it with him converting from 43 yards to beat Houston at the gun.

The Colts went 5-1 in games decided by three points or fewer. In a league in which close games are the norm, a kicker who can handle pressure and conditions is an inestimable asset. Vanderjagt has converted his past 41 regular-season field goal attempts, an NFL record. He has made 139 of his past 155 tries and is 25-of-30 from 40 to 49 yards on the road, where eight of his nine game-winning kicks have come.

Dungy made special teams a priority when he arrived two years ago. He preaches their importance, and he schedules it. Special teams is accorded an abundance of meeting and practice time.

Hunter Smith has become a more versatile, effective punter. Brad Pyatt was leading the AFC in kickoff returns when he suffered a season-ending neck injury at Miami in November. He could be out several more weeks with a deep bruise to his right thigh, but, like his backup, Rhodes, he has the knack. Just as important, neither is a freelancer; they run where they are told, which is precisely what the Colts' kick and punt return schemes require.

The Colts are replacing departed standbys Cliff Crosby, Jason Doering, Detron Smith and Marcus Washington with young talent, but their coverage, protection and return teams have improved in almost every category over the past two seasons.

"I think athletically, we're a better team than we were a couple of years ago," said special teams coach Russ Purnell, who has infused his units with enthusiasm. "We've got some guys who are pretty athletic but are short on experience right now. We just need to get some on-the-job training."

4. The Colts defense will be reliable, if unspectacular.

Don't look for the Colts to dominate here. Don't look for them to become the 1985 Bears or the 2000 Ravens.

With an offense that will score points and control the football, and special teams that should favorably influence field position, the Colts' defense doesn't need to.

What it needs is cornerbacks Donald Strickland and Joseph Jefferson, who will miss about four weeks after arthroscopic knee surgery, to help upgrade their position. It needs David Thornton to suffice at strong-side linebacker and Cato June to prove serviceable on the weak side, where he takes over for Thornton.

Merely cutting the crippling lapses in tackling and execution that have characterized the past two seasons would produce a reliable defense. It's the Colts' third season in the system. It's time.

Yards per attempt and yards per game get a lot of attention, but points are the only commodity that truly matters. Of the 20 teams that have played in the Super Bowl over the past 10 years, only three have ranked lower than 10th in scoring defense.

All lost. They were New England, 13th in 1996; Atlanta, tied for 24th in 1998; and Tennessee, 15th in 1999.

The Colts ranked last in 2001, the year before Dungy and coordinator Ron Meeks arrived. They moved to seventh in 2002, but tumbled to 20th last year, at 21.0 points a game. Dungy wants to reduce the yield to 17 or fewer.

"What that is, is one turnover, somewhere in the game, or one red-zone stop, where you hold them to a field goal instead of a touchdown," Dungy said. "So you're looking at either eight more stops in the red zone or eight more takeaways, and that's not hard to do."

5. The combination of Bill Polian and Tony Dungy is due.

Dungy has never taken a team to the Super Bowl. Polian has never won one. But both are among the league's best at their jobs, and theirs is a combination that works. Polian isn't interested in coaching the Colts. Dungy isn't interested in being a scout or an administrator.

Winning is their shared priority, and in two seasons together, the Colts have progressed from 6-10 to 10-6 in 2002, then to 12-4 last year.

Polian built the Buffalo teams that went to the Super Bowl after the 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1993 seasons, the latter after he had been fired. Had kicker Scott Norwood not missed from 47 yards with four seconds to play in Super Bowl XXV, Polian wouldn't still be looking for his first ring.

Dungy has been to the doorstep twice, the AFC Championship game with the Colts last season and an 11-6 loss at St. Louis in the 1999 NFC title game.

Both are devoted to keeping the offense strong, a commitment that consumes the bulk of the salary cap and places the preponderance of talent on that side of the ball.

"You can always piece together a defense," Dungy has argued.

This could be the year.
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