As the 2009 season quickly approaches, The Indianapolis Colts look toward yet another season. This time, however, there is a much different look and feel to what has become one of the most prolific teams in the NFL.
The coaching staff has experienced the most turnover, starting with the departure of head coach Tony Dungy, who was replaced by protégé and former assistant coach Jim Caldwell. Several other coaching changes also have been made in addition to Caldwell taking over.
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Longtime offensive coordinator Tom Moore retired as well, as did offensive line coach Howard Mudd, although both were brought back to the team before the start of training camp as “special advisers.”
In addition, defensive coordinator Ron Meeks was replaced by Larry Coyer, who has been assigned the challenge of turning a mundane defense into at least a respectable one. And the most scrutinized position of late is that of new special teams coach Ray Rychlesky, who replaced Russ Purnell.
Other less notable coaching changes also have been made this offseason in an attempt to correct what was viewed by many as a subpar 2008 season. Despite a sixth straight 12+ win season, as well as a wildcard playoff berth, the first round ejection by 8-8 San Diego capped the 2008 season.
The draft brought much needed help at running back and on the defensive line.
The first round brought the Colts RB Donald Brown from Connecticut, who will hopefully boost a subpar running game and provide a sort of “Thunder and Lightning” combination between he and incumbent starter Joseph Addai.
Defensive tackles Fili Moala (Southern Cal) and Terrance Taylor (Michigan) were aquired in the second and fourth rounds, respectively. while receiver Austin Collie (BYU) was added in the fourth as well. Pat McAfee, a punter, was drafted to replace long time booter Hunter Smith who has found a new home in Washington with the Redskins.
Let’s break down each of the three units as the Colts get ready for the regular season, which is now less than two weeks away.
The Offense (The Good)
Of course any team with Peyton Manning will be successful offensively. The good news is that Manning’s knee is at full strength, and we won’t have to wait a hand full of games in the regular season to watch the timing get ironed out, like last year.
Joseph Addai has shown signs of returning to his former self in the preseason thus far, and rookie running back Donald Brown continues to impress. The question remains, will the offensive line be able to consistently open holes for these two feature backs to run through?
The line is healthier than last year, but there is a glaring issue in the worst possible spot: Peyton’s blind side. OT Tony Ugoh has been replaced as a starter by Charlie Johnson, due to the fact that no one on the coaching staff believes that Ugoh is working his hardest, nor living up to the potential his draft position and salary would suggest.
However, Johnson has not been much better thus far, with the Colt’s O-line giving up a horrific three sacks in just the first possession alone of the first preseason game against the Vikings.
The most intriguing position on the Colts offense comes at wide receiver. With the departure of long time No. 1 receiver Marvin Harrison, the Colts are looking to fill a significant void of experience and production. Reggie Wayne will become the No. 1 WR (and basically was last year) while third-year man Anthony Gonzalez will take over the No. 2 spot.
But who will be the No. 3 WR in the slot?
Dallas Clark, the Colts starting tight end, will no doubt be put into the slot with various personnel groupings. Through two weeks of the preseason, we have seen Pierre Garcon and rookie Austin Collie making great plays and looking to be solid contenders for the slot when the Colts go three-wide.
Tom Santi and Jacob Tamme look to have locked up the backup roles to starting TE Dallas Clark.
The Defense (The Bad)
Amidst all of the many questions that surround one of the NFL’s worst third down defenses is, what about Bob? It’s been a while since Bob Sanders has played an entire season, but when he is in the lineup we all know that his presence is invaluable as a stabilizing and inspirational force in the Colts’ D.
The linebackers looks solid, anchored by Gary Brackett, Phillip Wheeler, and Clint Session, but still seems somewhat weak in certain coverage and run schemes and situation.
The defensive line seems to have improved, adding a couple of 300+ pounders, but the injury to Raheem Brock could make things a little more challenging. The pass rush, anchored by DE’s Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, seems as strong as ever; but can the Colts stop the run?
Only time will tell if Larry Coyer can make a major difference replacing Ron Meeks as the leader of what was ranked as one of the worst run defenses in the league last year, as well as one of the worst defenses at getting off of the field on third down.
A lot of questions remain for the Colts on defense, and only time will tell how good the D can be in 2009.
Special Teams (The Ugly)
Where do I start with the special teams?
The Colts can boast that they have one of the most reliable placekickers in the league in Adam Vinatieri. However, the lack of touchbacks, the poor kick coverage, and poor kick returns that are often riddled with turnovers and bad decisions, have plagued the Colts for years and made both the offense and defense have to work much harder to attain victory.
They say that defense wins championships, but I personally believe that special teams plays just as important a role, if not slightly more. There must be change. There must be improvement. Need I say more? Ray Rychlesky, the pressure is on from Day One.
This season’s schedule seems a little soft at first glance, but there could be teams that were weak last season that may be more of a challenge this year. The Colts will host the Jaguars, Seahawks, 49ers, Texans, Patriots, Titans, Broncos, and Jets, and will find themselves traveling to the Dolphins, Cardinals, Titans, Rams, Ravens, Texans, Jaguars, and Bills.
Will the Colts make it to 12 wins for a seventh consecutive season? Las Vegas thinks not. The over-under for the Colts is currently 10. My prediction is somewhere between 11 and 12 wins, but, of course, that’s why they play the games!
There has been a lot of change in Indianapolis this offseason, and the Colts have more competition in the AFC then ever before. Only time will tell if Peyton Manning will win his second Super Bowl, or perhaps a record 4th MVP. He’s Peyton, so anything is possible.
Either way, here’s hoping on another fun ride and successful season for the Colts—one of the NFL’s best and most consistent team over the course of this decade.