The NFL offseason is a special time of the year when the teams and their legions of followers are invigorated with renewed optimism. Players and coaches endure mini-camps and toil in the hot summer sun, coming together in pursuit of a championship.
Expectations can run as rampant as the crazed fans that love their teams. Every team is undefeated and working with a clean slate—and so are the fans. We can tout our team and even taunt others with our prognostications.
Unfortunately there will always be those creepy fans who wield their predictions like a baseball bat with the intent of demoralizing and pummeling their opponents' self-esteem. Misunderstood enthusiasts or just bloodthirsty heathens, we’ve all encountered these fans at one time or another and there will be no escape from them this year either.
The shake-up in the coaching staff has grabbed most of the headlines this offseason but even with these massive changes, the Colts appear to have gotten stronger on paper.
Hall-of-Fame-caliber coaches Tony Dungy, Tom Moore, and Howard Mudd are gone, replaced by the untested Jim Caldwell, Clyde Christensen, and Pete Metzelaars. Larry Coyer takes over as defensive coordinator and Ray Rychleski on special teams.
Coaching continuity has been disturbed, especially on offense where Peyton Manning has worked with the same offensive coordinator and line coach his entire career. The Colts have anticipated this event and have had their successors in mind for some time now.
If the Colts are still going to be championed as Super Bowl contenders towards the end of the season, they will need vast improvement from the offensive line. Last season was marred by inconsistency and young players forced into starting roles.
The Colts loaded up on offensive linemen in the 2008 draft, but only Jamey Richard really stood out, starting at left guard and center when Jeff Saturday was injured. Saturday has resigned after flirting with several teams in free agency and his importance to the line can’t be understated. He is a veteran and former Pro-Bowler who has the complete trust of Manning.
Right tackle Ryan Diem is the stalwart of the line and has shown remarkably consistency when healthy in his eight NFL seasons. The jury is still out on opposite bookend Tony Ugoh. Ugoh has been inconsistent and somewhat unimpressive for a high draft-pick.
If Ugoh can come into his own as a force at left tackle and the young guys show improvement, the line should be in great shape for Pete Metzelaars.
If the offensive line can improve, the running game should follow. New running back Donald Brown was drafted in the first round to help last year’s pathetic running attack. Joseph Addai faced a lot of criticism last year, but I expect the Brown pick to light a fire under his behind.
The Colts were forced to be one dimensional last season and Donald Brown’s injection into the lineup should make the running game powerful again—a two-headed monster with plenty of kick.
Peyton will need a good running game but the passing attack has proven it can carry the team and win games on its own. Peyton has always been able to choose the right play and scatter his wide receiver around like well placed grenades.
The only question is, who will step up at wide receiver?
Somebody must step up behind studs Reggie Wayne, Anthony Gonzalez, and tight end Dallas Clark. The Colts didn’t go for one of the big-name receivers early in the draft, waiting until the third round to grab last year’s NCAA receiving leader, Austin Collie.
I fully expect Collie to become an invaluable part of the receiving corps, but it might be a little too much to ask for him to be vital in his rookie campaign.
Pierre Garcon and Roy Hall are the most likely candidates and have experience in the system though neither has impressed and Garcon looked downright awful at times last year. If these players don’t come through, the Colts will look to their free agent and undrafted signees, and they have a great track record for finding gems in the rough.
Perhaps the most important piece in the quest for another Super Bowl will be improved run defense. Giving up 122.9 yards a game is abysmal and unacceptable, and the team has taken steps to correct it. Last year, the Colts were just too small up front and the tackles were pushed around like rag dolls.
The team has made a concerted effort to get bigger up front through the draft and free agency. There are now six defensive tackles close to or over 300 lbs on the roster. GM Bill Polian drafted Fili Moala and Terrance Taylor, both over 300 lbs in this years draft.
The bigger defensive tackles should stop teams from running up and down the field at will. The Colts have had a lot of misfortunes with their DTs and even if only a few of the new big men pan out, it should pay dividends.
The Colts also addressed a long time thorn in their side in the much maligned special teams department. Long time special teams coordinator Russ Purnell was dismissed in favor of Ray Rychleski.
Purnell was well-liked but just didn’t get the job done. The Colts were simply dismal and painful to watch on special teams. There were too many times where I hurled both the remote and obscenities at the TV after watching them give up field position after scoring drives.
The AFC south has become one of the leagues most competitive and exciting divisions, and the Colts will need improvements in all of these categories if they expect to reclaim their spot at the top of the division.
I never thought I would say such a thing, much less watch the Tennessee Titans win the division with 90-year-old Kerry Collins at the helm. The division has become a force to be reckoned with.
The Houston Texans have become the trendy pick to claim the division. They have been picking at the top of the draft since they came into the league, especially on defense. They also have a good head coach and a decent quarterback, so most pundits figure it’s only a matter of time before they put it all together.
Jacksonville will be the wildcard in the division. You never know what you will get with the Jaguars. They have always been a worthy adversary and if they can solve the team chemistry problems and get consistent play from their receivers, the Jags will be dangerous.
Expectations will be high for all the AFC South teams. If the Colts can reclaim their spot on top of the division it will go a long way in helping them return to Miami and the Super Bowl.
The Colts remain one of the premiere teams in the league. They might take a back seat to the Steelers, Pats, and Giants in most preseason polls, but with a better running game, run defense, and improved special teams play, a Super Bowl victory is not out of the question.