Super Bowl champswith the best quarterback in football should be mortal locks for the postseasonthe following year, even if some sort of decimating off-season sets in. Likethis one. "Bill Parcells told me once that five things will happen everyday in this job that you didn't expect at the start of the day," says clubpresident Bill Polian. The Colts didn't expect to lose linebacker Cato June(free agency, Tampa Bay), left tackle Tarik Glenn (retirement the week beforecamp began), defensive tackle Booger McFarland (knee surgery during camp) orsix other full- or part-time starters--players who started a combined 105 gameslast year. But when Peyton Manning and 70% of the other first-line players areback, the sky is not falling.
Preceding the firstpractice of camp, coach Tony Dungy put 10 names on the board, names likeEdgerrin James and David Thornton, key players from the past who didn't play inlast year's Super Bowl. "Tony made a great point," Manning says."He just put the names out there and said, 'What's the correlation?' Thesewere guys we lost, and yet we still won it. Now we still got Marvin Harrison,Dwight Freeney, Bob Sanders, Reggie Wayne, Joseph Addai. We're going to beO.K." More than O.K., most likely.
This is when thePolian-Dungy brain trust is at its best. Polian's 10-year draft record isbeyond remarkable; it's the kind of accomplishment that along with his previousplayoff architecture jobs in Buffalo and Carolina, will have him up for theHall of Fame someday. Look at his 10 first-round picks in Indianapolis:Manning, James, Rob Morris (a full-time starter on Colts playoff teams in 2002,'03 and '04 and back in the starting lineup this year), Wayne, Freeney, DallasClark, Sanders, Marlin Jackson, Addai, Anthony Gonzalez. Eight of them willstart for the Colts this year. The ninth, rookie slot receiver Gonzalez, isslated to play a good 50% of downs. The 10th, James, is in the second year of arich free-agent contract in Arizona after seven excellent seasonsin¬†Indy.
Of the 22 projectedoffensive and defensive starters in 2007, only one--defensive tackle RaheemBrock, acquired on waivers from Philadelphia in 2002--was not drafted by theColts or signed out of college as a rookie free agent. Now, Polian is astrong-willed guy. He doesn't draft players to watch them sit on the bench forlong, and that's where the relationship with Dungy comes in. The coach believesin a separation of powers: He and the G.M. (Polian's job, if not his title)should agree on which players fit the coach's system. The G.M. acquires theplayers, and the coach works them in.
This year's team isa perfect example of the Colts Way. Glenn retires five days before camp begins,and rookie second-rounder Tony Ugoh walks into the starting lineup--a yearearlier than Indy had hoped, but with the tools to eventually be a goodblind-side blocker for Manning. Slot receiver Brandon Stokley leaves for Denverin free agency; Gonzalez, an inch taller and six pounds heavier, steps into hisshoes. In camp, Manning made sure Ugoh and Gonzalez heard every audible in hisrepertoire so they'd be ready on opening night against the Saints. One moreexample: Starting corners Nick Harper and Jason David left in free agency;Indy's top two picks in the 2005 draft, Jackson and Kelvin Hayden, both 24,take over those jobs. It's the NFL circle of life, and Polian and Dungy are thelion kings.
The defense willlikely be a work in progress for much of the year, as it was last year, whenthe Colts allowed a horrendous 5.3¬†yards per rush. Without McFarland inthe middle, Dungy will need a prospect like rookie third-rounder Quinn Pitcockto step in early and stop the run. The Colts think they'll be as good in thesecondary with Jackson and Hayden, two physical run-support players, replacingDavid and the underrated Harper.
But no rookie willbe under the microscope as much in the early going as Ugoh. After starting atleft tackle for three years at Arkansas, the lithe 6' 5" 301-pounderstruggled against speed-rushers during Senior Bowl practices, pushing his draftvalue down into the second round. Polian remembered how he played, though. AtArkansas, Ugoh, a physical force at tackle, had 82 knockdown blocks in 12 gamesin 2006; 40 or 45 in a season is considered very good. The mild-mannered kidgot through training camp without getting Manning killed. In the first half ofthe season we'll see if he can block Pro Bowlers Will Grant and RichardSeymour, along with bright prospect Mario Williams. "We've had cold rookiesstart before on the line--Ryan Lilja, Jake Scott," says line coach HowardMudd. "It's a little more daunting because we're the defending champions, Iguess. But it's still football. We think he can do it."
Now all Ugoh has todo is keep the Franchise upright. If he does that, no matter how many guys aregone, the Colts will have a chance to repeat.
COACH TONY DUNGY(114-62 in NFL), sixth season with Colts
HT 6' 6"
HT 6' 5"
HT 6' 2"
HT 6' 2"
TONY UGOH (R)"NEW ACQUISITION"
HT 6' 5"
SACKS 9 1‚ÅÑ2
ED JOHNSON (R)"NEW ACQUISITION"
SACKS 5 1‚ÅÑ2
(R) Rookie(college statistics)
> 2006 RECORD12-4 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 18/2/3 DEFENSE 32/2/21
6 NEW ORLEANS (T)
16 at Tennessee
23 at Houston
7 TAMPA BAY
22 at Jacksonville (M)
28 at Carolina
4 NEW ENGLAND
11 at San Diego
18 KANSAS CITY
22 at Atlanta (T)
9 at Baltimore
16 at Oakland
NFL rank T5
Opponents' 2006winning percentage .516
Games againstplayoff teams 5
(M) Monday (T) Thursday
Instant access to the latest and best Colts stories,stats and blogs from across the Web, handpicked by SI's¬†editors.
ENEMY LINES AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THECOLTS
> The Tony Ugoh story won't matter much unless he'sawful, and I doubt he'll be bad, because he faced some solid rush ends andlinebackers at Arkansas. Plus, there's no way Peyton Manning will allow himselfto get victimized at left tackle; he'll just slide protection over there tohelp. . . . I see a big breakout year for Joseph Addai. He's a betterall-around back than Edgerrin James because of his athleticism. . . . The mostunderrated player on this team, easily, is tight end Dallas Clark. WheneverManning's in trouble, you can see his eyes go like magnets to Clark. . . . WithBooger McFarland out, the Colts will have lots of trouble stopping the runagain unless one of their unknown kids steps up early. I don't see ithappening. This team is going to have to outscore people all year.
THE KING 500
> WIDE RECEIVER
"Hey, I'm Peyton," were the first words theOhio State first-rounder heard from the guy who might be feeding him the ballfor the next eight years. Says Gonzalez, "There were a few moments when Iwas nervous, thinking, Be perfect. One day [Manning] told me, 'Gonzo, justrelax.' " In camp he ran the precise routes Manning demanded, showingexcellent hands. It could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
The Colts have cleared the way for Addai to assume the feature-backrole.
JAMES D. SMITH/ICON SMI