Despite departures, Colts feel good about future
INDIANAPOLIS -- If there is any residual scarring from the manner in which the 2005 season ended for the Indianapolis Colts, any lingering bruises from the premature conclusion to a brilliant campaign that was supposed to carry the league's best team to a Super Bowl berth, players have either become skilled makeup artists or have grown adept at verbal plastic surgery.
Most of the veterans who assembled here for a full-squad weekend minicamp were pretty convincing in declaring that 2005 is just another entry in the history book, that the Colts have collectively relegated their divisional round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers to the mental dumpster, and they are focused on moving ahead toward another run at a championship.
Notice, please, we said most.
"You can't ever really close the book with that kind of chapter," defensive tackle Montae Reagor said before the first of five weekend practices. "The last chapter is supposed to be a happy ending, and it wasn't for us. So I guess the book is still open, because we have unfinished business, some editing to take care of, you know? A loss like that, when you think you have everything in place and then you don't play your best game, it eats at you for a long time. Even when you're moving ahead, like we are, you keep peeking over your shoulder at times, to see if it really happened."
It did happen, of course, the final ignominy coming when kicker Mike Vanderjagt pushed a potential game-tying 47-yard field goal so far wide right, one might have thought the most accurate placement specialist in league history had attempted it from the rough at Augusta National instead of the smooth carpet of the RCA Dome. The enigmatic Vanderjagt is gone, replaced by former Colts nemesis Adam Vinatieri, a guy whose résumé includes a pair of Super Bowl-winning field goals.
Now if the Colts can only figure out a way to get their new field goal kicker a shot in the dying seconds of a Super Bowl game, and not a divisional round contest.
"There's no reason, with the group we have here, that we can't do that," said wide receiver Reggie Wayne, who elected to re-sign with the Colts this spring rather than test the unrestricted free-agent market. "No reason at all. Last year is history. This is another chance."
Funny thing how coach Tony Dungy, certainly the most resilient of the men in the Indianapolis locker room and undoubtedly the emotional compass for this team, conducts his press conferences in front of a backdrop that bears the word "Anthem," the name of a health-care provider and Colts sponsor. It might be more appropriate if it read "mantra," because this is a team that, for the most part, is in verbal and psychological lockstep with its leader.
And its leader is a man who has demonstrated a remarkable capacity for confronting personal losses far more devastating than a playoff defeat, having tragically lost his son just three days before Christmas last year. A man who pays honor to the past but also views every second of the future as another viable opportunity for even more accomplishment. His unspoken mantra, keep moving forward, seems indelibly etched in the consciousness of Dungy's charges.
So for the Colts, the 2006 season is still a book with no words, a blank slate waiting for inscription. And as players repeat the Dungy mantra, a credo that insists you move forward and don't glance too often into life's rearview mirror, it seems they aren't just paying lip service to the notion that 2006 offers another chance for redemption and fulfillment.
"This is an unusual team," Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday said. "I mean, I doubt anyone would think of us as an old team, right? Just look around [the locker room]. But I think we're a really mature team. Guys have come and gone, including this offseason, but they've always done a good job here of keeping the core group of players. There is still a strong nucleus here."
Some of the atoms that broke loose from the core, though, were key performers. Beyond Vanderjagt, the Colts lost starting strongside linebacker David Thornton and key backup defensive tackle Larry Tripplett in free agency this spring. And star tailback Edgerrin James, the one "triplet" management decided it could not afford to retain, bolted to Arizona for the kind of fat contract Indianapolis never offered him.
How do the Colts compensate for those defections? Pretty much the way they always do: Move someone else up the depth chart.
Sure, the team signed Vinatieri, its only veteran acquisition of consequence, away from longtime rival New England. But in every other situation, Indianapolis will count on its ability to develop players and the skills of general manager Bill Polian to find draft choices capable of contributing. Third-year linebacker Gilbert Gardner, oft-injured in the past and with just 22 regular-season appearances, moves into Thornton's spot. To replace Tripplett, left end Raheem Brock will move inside and situational pass rusher Robert Mathis will become the starter at end. Polian grabbed tailback Joseph Addai toward the end of the first round and the former LSU star is expected to eventually wrest the No. 1 job from Dominic Rhodes, who was James' caddy for five seasons.
"Year after year, we've had good players who have left and we've been able to replace them with good players that's what our system is all about," Dungy said Friday.
That system was arrived at not by mere happenstance. One of the best talent evaluators in recent league history, Polian has always believed that teams with staying power are built through the draft. Dungy's first job in the NFL was in Pittsburgh, as an undrafted safety, and in the pre-free agency and salary cap era, the Steelers always seemed to have talented youngsters stashed away on the bench serving an apprenticeship, and ready to move into the starting lineup when the guy in front of them retired.
While it might seem borderline ironic to some, it really isn't altogether surprising that Dungy invoked the Steelers, the team that knocked the Colts for a loop just 4½ months ago, in his opening address of the weekend minicamp. As a coach, Dungy has, as do all successful men in his profession, borrowed from past mentors, but none more so than his first boss, Chuck Noll. The Pro Football Hall of Fame coach of the Steelers and his personal mantra, "Whatever it takes," is a huge part of Dungy's makeup.
But there was also this lesson, gained from the Steelers, that Dungy wanted to relate: In 2004, Pittsburgh owned the NFL's best record (15-1), felt it was Super Bowl-bound, and fell a game short, losing to New England in the AFC championship matchup. But in 2005, a Steelers team struggling at 7-5 and staring at the possibility of not even qualifying for the playoffs reeled off eight straight victories to capture a Super Bowl crown not many felt Pittsburgh was capable of securing.
So while outsiders point to the personnel losses the Colts endured this offseason, Dungy kicked off the minicamp pointing his team in the only direction he ever publicly discusses. And for the most part, the Colts players, in their follow-the-leader manner, have bought into the message.
Since 1999, quarterback Peyton Manning's second year in the league, Indianapolis has the NFL's best regular-season record at 77-35. In posting a 14-2 mark last year, the Colts became just the seventh team in league history to string together three straight seasons with 12 or more victories. They can become in 2006 the first franchise since Dallas (1992-95) to register four straight seasons with 12 or more wins. And few in the Colts locker room see any reason why they won't match the Cowboys' remarkable feat.
"Every season is a new season," said Manning, who announced at the outset of minicamp that he plans to play eight more years. "And the new season pretty much begins when you put the last one behind you. I think, even though it took a little longer than most, we've done that."
"I mean, we played [the Steelers] twice, but you knew it was the [playoff] game because the NFL playoff logo was on the field, and yeah, you kind of winced a little," Manning said. "It would pop up and you were forced to confront it once again. But I think being here, being back in a football environment, it kind of forces you to focus more on the present and the future."
Several veterans agreed that it wasn't until some time in March, when the Colts commenced the offseason weightlifting and conditioning program, when they were able to quit consciously reflecting on the surprising playoff loss.
Said Saturday: "Walking off the field that day, there was just a numbness, like, 'How could this happen?' I mean, everything we had talked about -- having the best record in the league, getting home-field advantage all the way through the playoffs, all those kinds of goals -- we did. That's probably what bothered guys the most. We followed the script, at least the way we'd laid it out, up to that Pittsburgh game."
The minicamp essentially signaled the start of a new season, and despite efforts to not dwell too much on the past, one concession the Colts will make is that they actually won't alter a pretty successful script very much. The defections aside, there is a quiet confidence here that the holes in the lineup will somehow get spackled, and this team will again contend for a Super Bowl berth.
This time around, though, the Colts are planning on a happier final chapter.
"I think guys realize that, while we're still a really good team, it's time to win," left offensive tackle Tarik Glenn said. "We've done things a certain way around here for a long time now. I'm not suggesting that it's time for a new way. Not at all. But we need to do something different to get over the hump. Whatever that is, it's time to do it. You learn from the past and move on. Hopefully, we've done [the former] and are ready to do the other now. You live for the now, you live in the moment, right? Well, there's a sense in here that we've got one more chapter to write before the book is closed. There's a feeling that this year ought to be our moment."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .