When he came to Indianapolis in 1998, Colts president Bill Polian
had a plan. "First job," he says now, "was to increase the
overall team speed and athleticism at every position. Then get
the offense in place. No sense getting a fine young quarterback
without giving him something to work with. So we drafted for
offense in '98, added to it last year while trying to patch the
defense through free agency and then drafted for defense this
year. Plus we tried to spend our money getting our key veterans
signed, long-term, rather than hitting the free-agency market
It's a sensible, long-range way of doing things, and the result
was a 13-3 record in '99 (up from 3-13 in '98, making it the
greatest one-season turnaround in NFL history), an attack that
terrorized the league to the tune of 26.4 points a game last year
and Polian's fifth executive of the year award. His No. 1 draft
choices, Peyton Manning in '98 and Edgerrin James in '99, went to
the Pro Bowl last season. Coach Jim Mora has a young team with
only one of the 22 projected starters over 30. Oh, yes, this is
an outfit on the rise, poised to make a serious run at Super Bowl
Manning, 24, is the hottest young quarterback in the AFC. He
threw for 26 touchdowns in his rookie season but a league-leading
28 interceptions too. A year later it was a different story. His
rating jumped almost 20 points, to 90.7, and his interceptions
dropped to 15. He has a terrific thing going with Marvin
Harrison, his 115-catch, Pro Bowl wideout, who worked with
Manning prior to this season on a series of optional reads and
breakoff patterns that sometimes even puzzles the Colts coaches.
"Sure, I improved last year," Manning says, "but look at what
they gave me to work with. I could really spread the ball around.
I had three young wideouts, all of whom played, plus Edgerrin. I
didn't have to force the ball as I did when I was a rookie. It
seemed like someone was always getting open.
"I wasn't happy about the 28 interceptions my rookie year, but
even late in the season the coaches were still telling me to be
aggressive and calling stuff down the field. I see young
quarterbacks just coming into the league, and they're throwing
screens and layoffs right away. As funny as this might sound, I
really learned a lot by going downfield, even in tight coverage."
If he had to lay it off, though, his bail-out receiver was James,
who could turn a dump-off into a serious gainer. While the
draftniks had predicted Ricky Williams as the Colts' top choice,
Indy shocked the world by going for James, Polian's second
straight first-pick bull's-eye.
Polian says he picked James for two reasons. "He was better in
the passing game," Polian says, "and he had the ability to hit
any hole along the line, the perfect fit for our stretch running
"This year I'm working on the little things," James says.
"Getting downfield for passes, coming out of my breaks faster. I
caught 62 balls last year, but I can get a whole lot more."
Harrison is the third part of Indy's big three, reminiscent of
the Cowboys' Aikman-Smith-Irvin triumvirate that won three Super
Bowls. "We'll flash signals to each other, Peyton and me,"
Harrison says. "We've taken [offensive coordinator] Tom Moore's
system and expanded it. Sometimes we'll go to a pattern on our
own, and after there are six points on the board, Tom'll say,
'Great job,' but he'll be scratching his head."
During the dark years of the club, the offensive line was an
ever-changing cast, and quarterbacks such as Jeff George were
lucky to survive an afternoon. The line is not exactly great now,
but it's solid, and it remains virtually intact from '99, a
rarity in the era of free agency. The unit gave up only 14 sacks
last year, best in the NFL and close to a third of the league
average of 40.3.
This is an offense with no noticeable weaknesses, and it will
light up a lot of scoreboards this year. The Colts should repeat
as division champs, but how far they go in the postseason will
depend on their defense. Indy ranked 27th in takeaways last year;
only Cleveland had fewer interceptions than the Colts' 10, a
statistic that looks even worse when you consider that including
the playoffs Indy led at halftime in 11 games, so teams were
usually playing catch-up against them.
Five of the Colts' seven draft choices were on defense. Their No.
1 pick, middle linebacker Rob Morris, should help against the
run. Their No. 2, pass-rushing linebacker Marcus Washington,
should help pressure the passer. "To become a good defense," Mora
says, "we need impact players, whether it's on the front line or
in the secondary. Difference-makers."
The difference could be a Super Bowl trip.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER UNBRIDLED Harrison's symbiotic relationship with Manning allows him the freedom to improvise as he streaks downfield.
COLOR PHOTO: TODD ROSENBERG
Sept. 3 at Kansas City
17 Open date
25 JACKSONVILLE (Mon.)
Oct. 1 at Buffalo
8 at New England
15 at Seattle
22 NEW ENGLAND
Nov. 5 at Chicago
12 N.Y. JETS
19 at Green Bay
Dec. 3 at N.Y. Jets
11 BUFFALO (Mon.)
17 at Miami
1999 Record 13-3 (1st in AFC East)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 19/4/4; defense 18/19/15
2000 Schedule strength
NFL rank: 3
Opponents' 1999 winning percentage: .563
Games against playoff teams: 8
PLAYER TO WATCH
Last year at Auburn, 6'3", 247-pound Marcus Washington,
Indianapolis's second-round draft choice, played defensive end.
The Colts are moving him to strongside linebacker, to provide
some relief for 35-year-old Cornelius Bennett. "We'll start him
as an outside rusher in nickel situations," coach Jim Mora says
of Washington, "and eventually work him in as linebacker."
"Rushing the passer comes naturally to me," Washington says. "I
was a speed rusher in college, coming off the corner. Just dip
the shoulder and go. But I know I'm gonna have to put in a
couple more moves. As far as playing the Sam backer, well, I'm
learning from the master, Cornelius Bennett. He's been great,
trying to teach me as much as he can about the position. It's a
great spot to be in."
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1999 STATISTICS
Coach: Jim Mora
Third season with Colts (107-84 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Peyton Manning 2 533 att. 331 comp. 62.1% 4,135 yds.
26 TDs 15 int. 90.7 rtg.
RB Edgerrin James 4 369 att. 1,553 yds. 4.2 avg. 62 rec.
586 yds. 9.5 avg. 17 TDs
RB Abdul-Karim 241 143 att. 445 yds. 3.1 avg. 17 rec.
al-Jabbar 84 yds. 4.9 avg. 2 TDs
FB Paul Shields 319 0 att. 0 yds. no avg. 4 rec.
37 yds. 9.2 avg. 0 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Marvin Harrison 9 115 rec. 1,663 yds. 12 TDs
WR Terrence Wilkins 60 42 rec. 565 yds. 4 TDs
WR Jerome Pathon 134 14 rec. 163 yds. 0 TDs
TE Ken Dilger 171 40 rec. 479 yds. 2 TDs
K Mike Vanderjagt 125 43/43 XPs 34/38 FGs 145 pts.
PR Terrence Wilkins 60 41 ret. 9.5 avg. 1 TD
KR Terrence Wilkins 60 51 ret. 22.2 avg. 1 TD
LT Tarik Glenn 6'5" 335 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Steve McKinney 6'4" 302 lbs. 14 games 14 starts
C Jeff Saturday 6'2" 295 lbs. 11 games 2 starts
RG Larry Moore 6'2" 312 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Adam Meadows 6'5" 295 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Bernard Holsey 20 tackles 0 sacks
LT Bernard Whittington 33 tackles 1 sack
RT Ellis Johnson 46 tackles 7 1/2 sacks
RE Chad Bratzke 48 tackles 12 sacks
OLB Cornelius Bennett 102 tackles 5 sacks
MLB Rob Morris (R) 77 tackles 6 sacks
OLB Mike Peterson 105 tackles 3 sacks
CB Jeff Burris 83 tackles 2 int.
SS Chad Cota 87 tackles 0 int.
FS Jason Belser 76 tackles 1 sack
CB Tyrone Poole 39 tackles 3 int.
P Hunter Smith 58 punts 42.5 avg.
 New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 139)
THE BOOK an opposing team's scout sizes up the Colts
"The offense was on fire last year, which hid some of their
defensive weaknesses. They might have problems this season
because their schedule is tougher.... Their corners also may be
exposed this year. Jeff Burris is a short-area-zone-type guy; on
the deep stop-and-go, stutter-step stuff he needs help from the
safeties. On the other side Tyrone Poole looks glamorous at
times and makes enough plays that the guy in the bar thinks he's
a real terror, but you can get him in mismatches.... Chad
Bratzke at right defensive end was a pickup last year that they
needed to have. He'll get his sacks in bunches. All 12 came in
home games. At other times you lose track of him. We think his
side can be run on.... The Colts plugged their No. 1 draft pick,
Rob Morris, in at middle linebacker, and it's a good thing he
didn't miss more camp time because it would've been tough for
him to catch up.... Offensively, they'd better not get one of
their big three [Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin
Harrison] hurt, but we used to say that about Dallas too."