The Indianapolis Colts are coming off of a season many fans would call a disappointment. While the 2008 Colts managed to win 12 games and its star quarterback won his third NFL MVP award, the Colts lost yet again to its budding nemesis, the San Diego Chargers, making an early playoff exit.
What's more, to the untrained eye, it would seem that the 2009 Colts are in no position to improve over last year's record; let alone make it deeper into the playoffs.
After all, Head Coach Tony Dungy retired, the Colts all-time leading receiver, future Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison was released, and four other long-time coaches are not, or likely will not, be returning to the team in 2009: Defensive Coordinator Ron Meeks; Special Teams Coordinator Russ Purnell; Offensive Line Coach Howard Mudd; and Offensive Coordinator Tom Moore.
However, few are recognizing that, given what the Colts had to overcome in 2008, the team had absolutely no business making the playoffs. Peyton Manning missed all of the summer workouts, training camp, and the pre-season. Manning was hobbled for the team's first four or five games (during which the team struggled).
Starting left guard Ryan Lilja suffered a knee injury before the season began, which kept him out for the year. The team lost both of its starting defensive tackles before week two. 2007 Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders only appeared in six contests, while starting corner back Marlin Jackson was limited to seven.
Starters Kelvin Hayden and Gary Brackett missed six and five games, respectively. Center Jeff Saturday missed four matches, playing through his injury for the remainder of the season (with only a rookie to back him up). Left tackle Tony Ugoh and running back Joseph Addai also missed four games.
Altogether, the team's starters missed 89 games, averaging just under a quarter of its starting roster per game. Needless to say, overcoming the rash of injuries to keep an NFL record streak of twelve win seasons alive was more than anyone could have reasonably expected.
A CHANGING OF THE GUARD
There is no doubt that Tony Dungy and his complimentary staff of coaches have put together one of the most successful teams in the history of the NFL. Dungy was loved by his players and all who worked around him.
That said, Dungy was slow to make changes to his system on defense and seemed unwilling or unable to move beyond the mantra that "speed kills" to a system free of some of the glaring flaws Colts defenses displayed during a vast majority of Dungy's tenure with the Colts.
Two things are glaringly clear about Jim Caldwell. Coach Caldwell has bought into the Tony Dungy system and does not plan on making wide-scale scheme changes on either side of the ball.
However, unlike Dungy, Caldwell is not afraid to make changes to the coaching staff or to tweak Dungy's systems, in an effort to make them better. Adding Larry Coyer as Defensive Coordinator and Ray Rychleski as Special Teams Coordinator are both popular moves.
Coyer looks to bring two attributes to the Colts defense it did not have under Ron Meeks; unpredictability and an expanded repertoire of blitz packages. Under Dungy and Meeks, Colts opponents could confidently plan to face exactly what they saw on tape in every game.
Whenever the defense failed, Dungy and Meeks followed the philosophy that we simply have to "do what we do" better. It appears that Coyer will offer opponents a more difficult task as they game-plan for the Colts. Certainly, the defense will still have to execute in order to succeed but now it will likely present a more dynamic in-game approach.
Do not be surprised to see more linebacker blitz schemes, which will serve to not only disrupt the offense but will generate even greater pressure on opposing signal-callers.
Rychleski brings with him a great deal of experience coaching special teams units. While fans do not know how much Rychleski will improve the special teams unit, it is no secret that the Colts have had horrid special teams play under Russ Purnell. Bringing in Ray Rychleski can only serve to improve the special teams game. Right?
The potential loss of Tom Moore was not planned. Changes to NFL pensions seem to have compelled Moore to consider an early retirement. However, while this loss is unfortunate, and while the Colts offense has been one of the most potent offensive attacks of a generation under his direction, there are many reasons to remain confident.
First, it is well known that Manning played as much a part in directing the offense as Moore. Second, Caldwell was previously the quarterbacks coach, and the assistant head coach, Clyde Christensen, has overseen one of the most dangerous passing attacks in the league, as wide receivers coach.
Christensen would seem the likely candidate to take over for Moore and there is little indication that either Caldwell or Christensen would impose drastic changes to the way the offense was coordinated under Moore. However, there is a potential benefit to a coaching change here, should one take place.
Similar to the Colts defense under Meeks, the Colts offense under Moore was relatively predictable. While Manning did have the freedom to read defenses and made a lot of changes at the line, he had only three plays to choose from and those were called in by Moore.
If Christensen approaches those three plays differently at all, it could give opponents greater pause, unsure what options Christensen will favor as compared to Moore.
Finally, and most significantly, Howard Mudd is headed toward an early retirement. Mudd's reputation as one of the best offensive line coaches in the league is nothing to take lightly.
Working with very few Pro Bowl caliber players on the offensive line in the Manning era, Mudd has been able to develop a line that has seen Manning sacked fewer times than most any other quarterback in the league for more than a decade.
Colts fans can only hope that Pete Metzelaars can use his five years as an under-study to Mudd, and his experience leading the line last year while Mudd was rehabbing from knee surgery, to carry on Mudd's legacy of excellence. Over the next few seasons the coach who has the most to prove is Pete Metzelaars.
If the offensive line somehow under-performs, under-develops, or otherwise fails to keep Manning upright, the Colts may falter.
Overall, there are reasons to be optimistic about the coaching changes the team has had to endure over the off-season. Typical to the Colts player philosophy, the team is in a position to bring the "next man up."
In each of these positions the new coaches have had a significant amount of time to study under their predecessors and show little sign of substantially altering the Colts approach on offense, defense, or special teams (well, maybe on special teams).
OFFENSE: TIMING IS INVALUABLE
The Colts offensive roster looks dangerously similar to last season with only one major addition and one major subtraction. The Colts will no longer have Marvin Harrison to Manning's right side.
However, the Colts will have a dangerous young weapon in the backfield to pair with Addai; Donald Brown.
Some have suggested that losing Marvin Harrison is certain to have an impact on the Colts ability to move the ball down the field. Those who make such claims have not been paying attention.
With all due respect, the Colts have been without Harrison for the better part of two years now. Marvin Harrison was gone the day he injured his knee and never returned. Further, when Harrison did play last year, there were times when his lack of effort, physical limitations, or other mental issues cost the Colts some big plays.
Additionally, the Colts struggled to run the ball last year. There is no doubt that the responsibility for this failure is shared amongst the offensive line and the ball carriers. However, one thing has been constant. Joseph Addai has not been healthy or capable of playing full speed since about two-thirds of the way through the 2007 season.
Accordingly, the addition of Donald Brown is extremely important. It is clear that Addai cannot handle the whole load of an NFL season and needs to run with a tandem back, as he did in his rookie season, to optimize his effectiveness.
What better compliment to Addai's shifty finesse running style is there than Donald Brown's north-south explosive running style? What better way to reinvent the Colts backfield than to have two players who are capable of running, catching and blocking at any moment?
Look forward to seeing Brown carry a significant portion of the load this year and for the team to carry two fresh running backs into the post-season for the first time since 2006.
Add to these changes the pending breakout of Anthony Gonzalez and the emergence onto the scene of one of three potential third wide receivers (Roy Hall, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie), the best of whom will have an immediate impact, leaving the two others as capable back-ups and solid special teams contributors.
The result of the new stable of wide receivers will give Peyton Manning his first pair of 1,000 yard wide receivers since 2006, and the most capable depth the Colts have had at the position at any time in Manning's career.
What's more, the young offensive line will have its leader, Jeff Saturday, return healthy. The rookies who garnered a great deal of experience at guard and center will be entering their second seasons and certainly look to be better entering the 2009 season than they did in 2008.
Throw in the fact that the Colts will likely start the season with a stable starting roster on the offensive line for the first time in a year, which will only serve to bolster the lines performance as it develops unit chemistry, and there is plenty of reason to feel confident that there will be real improvement in both pass and run blocking in 2009.
Two drafts ago Bill Polian and company drafted two tight ends to be the future replacements of Ben Utecht (Tom Santi and Jacob Tamme).
Those players suffered through their own host of injuries last year but flashed the ability to be solid contributors in the Colts offense. This year they will return healthy, familiar with the offense, and poised to take big steps in their development.
The most important change to the Colts offense entering the 2009 season? Peyton Manning enters the off-season healthy and will be able to put on the weight he lost last year, refine his mechanics and form to normal, get his timing down with receivers, and likely not have issues throwing some of the deep passes he struggled with all last year.
All indications suggest that, day one, the Colts offense will be far more potent in 2009.
DEFENSE: A DANGEROUS NEW LOOK
Last year the Colts were 31st in the league against the run. For most of the year the interior of the defensive line weighed an average of 260 pounds.
The linebackers took a beating. Sanders couldn't stay healthy. Opponents ran on the Colts defense relentlessly to eat up as much clock as possible and keep Manning on the sideline. This year? No more.
The Colts have added seven defensive tackles since the start of the 2008 season, only two of which are under 300 pounds. The Colts signed Daniel Muir and Antonio Johnson during the year last year to help add size inside.
They drafted two defensive tackles in the recent draft, Moala in the second and Taylor in the fourth. They signed two undrafted free agent defensive tackles who are both twenty or more pounds heavier than the starters last year, Adrian Grady and Pat Kuntz. Then, if that was not enough, they re-signed one of last year's starters, Ed Johnson.
It is safe to say that the Colts are resolved to put an end to the soft label and stop opponents from drilling the ball into the middle of the defense thirty or more times a game.
From now on, if opponents want to beat the Colts, they are going to have to find a way to generate yards through the air against the second best pass defense in the league a year ago (a secondary rife with injury in 2008).
The importance of adding size, strength and ability to the interior of the defensive line cannot be overstated. The change will free up the Colts speedy linebackers to fly around and make plays, as they were intended.
The change will require more attention from opposing offensive linemen, which will serve to make Freeney and Mathis even more dangerous. Additionally, the change should greatly increase the longevity of Colts linebackers and defensive backs.
What's more, Marlin Jackson, Bob Sanders, Kelvin Hayden and Gary Brackett will all return healthy; and Tim Jennings will return to his more natural nickel back role.
It should also be noted, with a stouter front seven, Sanders will be free to roam around and wreak havoc like he did when Corey Simon and Booger McFarland spent time on the Colts roster. Let the rest of the league be on notice, Bobzilla is back!
This defense will make major strides in its first year of implementation and take a lot of pressure off of the offense.
THE TEAM TO BEAT?
There are four keys to a Colts boom this year, or a potential bust.
1) The Colts must get and stay healthy.
2) The new coaches must maintain the chemistry Dungy and his crew established with the team.
3) The Colts second-year players must show solid, but not necessarily outrageous, development. Especially on the offensive line.
4) Donald Brown must make a significant impact offensively, rushing for 750+ yards.
If these four things happen, the Colts are destined to win 13 or more games this year and will be the favorites to reach the AFC Championship game. If the Colts fail in any two of these areas, it is unlikely that they'll surpass twelve wins and not likely that they will make it deep into the playoffs.