DATE CREATED: 12/16/08
Indy shaping up as Super Bowl darkhorse behind another 10-win season
Rich Cimini, NBCSports.com contributor
In January 2002, the Colts hired a head coach known for his conservative, mediocre-at-best offenses, joining him with a young quarterback who already had demonstrated record-breaking ability. It was an odd-couple marriage, Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning.
You bet there were questions, but the ever-mature Manning took a wide-angle view. This is what he said on the day Dungy was introduced to the Indianapolis media:
"He's won in Tampa Bay and been to the playoffs and knocked on the door. That's what we want to do. We want to knock on the door and be close and win a championship."
Since then, Manning and Dungy have been like trick-or-treaters: They knock on the door every fall.
Continuing their remarkable standard of excellence and consistency, the Colts reached the 10-win plateau for the seventh straight season, tying the Cowboys (1975-1981) for the second-longest such streak. Only the 49ers have gone longer, an incredible 16-year run from 1983 to 1998 - a mark that never will be matched.
Other franchises have flirted with that type of sustained success. The Tom Landry Cowboys did it 13 times in a 14-year span, from 1968 to 1981, and the Don Shula Dolphins made nine out of 10 from 1970 to 1979. But what makes the Colts' accomplishment unique is that they've done it entirely in the free-agency era, which began in 1992.
The NFL landscape and coaching challenges for Dungy are dramatically different than what Landry and Shula faced in the 1970s, and what the late 49ers legend Bill Walsh dealt with in the 1980s. With a salary cap and a head-spinning amount of player movement, it's difficult for an organization to post back-to-back 10-win seasons, let alone seven in a row.
Consider: Only eight players have been with the Colts for the entire run under Dungy, including Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Dwight Freeney. Manning and Harrison are certain Hall of Famers, and that certainly helps, but the ability to build around the cornerstones takes some doing. In that respect, Dungy and team president Bill Polian have done a fantastic job.
The Patriots also deserve a mention here, too. If they beat the Cardinals Sunday, it'll be their sixth consecutive 10-win season. Unlike the Colts, who haven't had to confront life without Manning for so much as a single game, the Patriots have coped with quarterback upheaval. In 2001, they went from Drew Bledsoe to an untested Tom Brady, and this season they went from Brady to an unproven Matt Cassel. You think that's easy? Ask the Chiefs or the Lions about the importance of quarterback stability.
Teams like the Patriots and Colts always rise because they have rock-solid organizations, led by coaches that are willing to adapt. There's no greater example than Dungy, a defensive-minded coach who, in his days with the Bucs, never considered it a bad thing to punt. Suddenly, he lands in Indianapolis, where it's all about scoring points.
Recognizing Manning's immense talent and the strengths of the team, Dungy changed his philosophy, tailoring it around the offense. It started with retaining offensive coordinator Tom Moore, who had been with Manning from Day 1. Moore and Dungy had worked together in previous stops, so there was a relationship, but it took some flexibility on Dungy's part, philosophically. Along the way, they built a competitive defense, and it all came together in 2006 with a Super Bowl championship.
In some ways, this could be the most rewarding season of them all. Hampered by a spate of injuries, including a surgically repaired knee that slowed Manning, the Colts got off to a 3-4 start. The bangwagon-jumpers had a field day, predicting the demise of the Colts.
Reflecting Dungy's calm demeanor, the Colts refused to panic, reeling off seven straight victories - the only team in history to win at least seven straight in five consecutive seasons.
If they beat the Jaguars and Titans, it'll be their sixth straight 12-win season - another league record, by the way. Twelve wins? Isn't that a decade for the Lions and Raiders?
How long can the Colts keep this up? It all hinges on Manning and Dungy. Manning will be 33 next season, and he has indicated he intends to play at least five more seasons. For Dungy, this could be his finale. He considered retirement after last season, and there are people in the league who don't expect him back in 2009.
For now, sit back and admire the Colts. Admire their consistency. Admire their excellence. Admire their resilience. And don't be surprised if they reach another Super Bowl.
© 2008 NBC Sports.com
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