Since 2002, they compiled a combined regular-season winning percentage of .759 (85-27), became five-time AFC South Champions, and accumulated an NFL record six consecutive seasons with 12 or more victories. How many Super Bowl victories?
One. Really? Yep, just one.
It has been an era of success for the Indianapolis Colts, whom head into 2009 with hopes of ending their season in Miami, the host of this years’ championship game, and the same location for the Colts’ Super Bowl victory in 2006. Some would be quick to point out it has also been an era of great disappointments for a franchise that should have more than just one Vince Lombardi Trophy to show for the last seven years of football. Will 2009 bring another great regular-season run, ending with an unexpected early playoff exit? Or, will there be a nationwide case of déjà-vu viewing the Colts dancing away under the rain in Miami hoisting the hardware?
I’m thinking déjà-vu.
Clearly a lot has changed since their title run in ’06. Heck, a lot has changed since their 1st Round loss to the San Diego Chargers in January. The Colts will begin the season with many unanswered questions surrounding rookie head coach Jim Caldwell, a receiving corps without probable future Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison, and new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer, heading a squad that has been in the bottom half of the league defending the run for some time. Chances are they could even be without long time offensive coordinator Tom Moore, and offensive line coach Howard Mudd, due to the latest changes to NFL pension plans… both whom have been in Indy every step of the way with Peyton Manning as the franchise quarterback. Several matters within the franchise hold concern to those from the outside looking in, but history shows adversity is welcomed with open arms in Indianapolis.
Here are my keys to the Colts success in 2009:
Continuity on the offensive line is important for the protection of Manning, and the improvement of an anemic rushing attack in 2008. Center Jeff Saturday’s new contract makes him the anchor in the middle until his heir apparent is found, but a lot is unclear about who will surround him on either side. Tony Ugoh’s presence at left tackle has been less than spectacular, and it is hard to put a finger on whether guard Ryan Lilja will be ready to go or not. Ryan Diem has been solid at right tackle, starting every game in ’08 and will likely start at right tackle in ’09. With questions surrounding Lilja’s health, both guard positions seem to be up for grabs, providing some early and exciting competition in training camp.
The Colts generally do not like to shuffle people around during the season, but if injuries hit hard like last year, depth should not be an issue this time around with the likes of Jamey Richard, Steve Justice and Mike Pollack all heading into their 2nd year, and Charlie Johnson returning for his 4th season. (Johnson has proven to be a great asset and could earn some starts in place of Ugoh.)
The offensive line needs to be a strength if the Colts want to beat the best competition in the NFL, let alone their own division foes -- games are won in the trenches. Ranking next to last in rushing -- dead last in yards/attempt at 3.4yds -- is unacceptable when considering how much of Manning’s success comes on play action passing, something that was missing all of 2008 with very little production on the ground, allowing opposing safeties to sit back and defend the deep routes in a plethora of double coverage. This group needs to be the main area of focus on offense going into training camp.
Marvin-less = Marvelous
Ok. So maybe it’s a reach for me to use the word marvelous when describing the Colts’ current depth at the WR position. I’m a firm believer that releasing Marvin Harrison will be addition by subtraction, purely because Anthony Gonzalez has shown great strides in his ability to be a big-time receiver no matter the position he lines up on the field. It was apparent that both sides had to part ways, with Harrison not ready to take a back seat to Gonzalez, or take a pay cut for that matter. Reggie Wayne is a proven Pro Bowl talent annually, and Gonzalez has a lot to show given more opportunities.
For the Colts to remain a dominant passing team, they will need a 3rd receiver to make some adequate contributions in order to keep opposing defenses honest. If a 3rd receiving threat cannot emerge within the current trio of Roy Hall, Austin Collie or Pierre Garcon, you may see the Colts rely heavily on 2-tight end sets early and often in 2009 in order to keep safeties from doubling down on Wayne and Gonzalez on a regular basis.
I think Hall is the best candidate if his health allows; he is a very big target at 6’3” and a whopping 240lbs., a rare commodity in Manning’s career. My feeling is Garcon will reveal moderate improvement in that 2nd year jump to make some contributions in possibly both the pass and return game, showing some flashes of play-making ability during the pre-season last year. With Collie, it will take some time to acclimate himself to the offense, but as productive as his college career was, he definitely has a chance at winning the 3rd receiver position like Gonzalez did in his rookie season. If one of those three is able to produce on a consistent basis, the Colts should be in good shape.
Back to the trenches!
When it comes to improving run defense, there is nothing more important for the Colts heading into training camp. Their inability to stop anyone on the ground consistently for years has been the Achilles heel for overall success. It will almost surely kill two things: the pass rush, and the game clock. It’s a major domino effect across the board; 3rd downs turn into easy 1st downs, the front seven becomes fatigued, and most importantly, Peyton Manning stays on the bench.
Many will point out it’s an issue of size -- which I beg to differ. Stopping the run is a mentality that all 11 players on defense have to adopt and remain disciplined. A big part of why the Colts were unable to establish a successful run defense in ’08 was an overall lack of depth across the defensive line, especially in the middle with the unexpected retirement of Quinn Pitcock, and the release of Ed Johnson after Week 1. Sure some more beef up the middle is going to make a difference -- size has its advantages -- but, the Colts have had success stopping the run given they have a good rotation of defensive linemen.
So, do they have the depth entering the 2009 season? You could say that. No two men are happier than Pro Bowl defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis after the draft picks of 2nd rounder DT Maola Fili (6’4” 305lbs.) from USC and 4th round selection DT Terrance Taylor (6’0” 314lbs.) from Michigan. They didn’t stop there, either. Defensive tackle Ed Johnson (6’2” 296lbs.) has been re-acquired and will be given a chance to make the team, again. Other players returning from ’08 include DT Eric Foster (6’2” 265lbs.), DT Antonio Johnson (6’3” 310lbs.), and DT Daniel Muir (6’2” 312lbs.). Help is on the way!
Once the thinnest area of the depth chart, is now a surplus of bodies and should result into some major position battles throughout training camp. It will be very interesting to see who will be starting at both tackle positions to start the year, but either way they will have a deep rotation across the defensive line, which in hand will allow to keep their elite pass rushers fresh deep into 4th quarters of football games.
Rushing makes the clock tick
The Colts have much to improve on from last season, regardless of winning 12 or more games for the sixth year in a row. If the Colts are to make it back to the Super Bowl, they will have to improve on both running the football and stopping opposing rushing attacks. The average time of possession in wins versus losses says enough. In all 12 wins during ’08, the Colts averaged 30:00 minutes in T.O.P. compared to an average of only 24:30 minutes T.O.P. in their 5 losses. That is a detriment to not establishing the running game on offense to sustain long drives, resulting in a lot of quick 3-and-outs or drives ending early on incomplete passes on 3rd and longs. And as well as the inability to keep opposing offenses from moving the chains on the ground instead of forcing teams to get 1st downs through the air, rendering the pass rush to be quite ineffective. While that won't be the end-all in the regular-season, don't expect a deep run into the playoffs if there isn't marginal improvement in those areas.
Establish the run. Stop the run. Return to the Super Bowl.