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Colts expect improvement from within

6/24/2004 - Indianapolis Colts

INDIANAPOLIS -- As Colts owner Jim Irsay watched the team's mini-camp and
organized training activity workouts this spring, he was quick to admit that
he sees the potential for a better season than a year ago -- when the Colts
came within one victory of the Super Bowl.

"We have a chance to be a better football team," he said, "and this was a
football team that was obviously very close to winning it all. I'm obviously
excited."

The 2003 Colts won the AFC South with a 12-4 record, then posted playoff
victories over Denver and Kansas City. Their bid to reach Super Bowl XXXVIII
in Houston ended with a 24-14 loss at New England in the AFC title game.
Indianapolis was expected to make a few minor adjustments during the
offseason in an effort to help shore up what was thought to be a few
deficiencies, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

But, surprisingly, it's been a relatively quiet offseason. With the exception
of quarterback Peyton Manning's seven-year, $98 million contract -- which included a
record $34.5 million signing bonus -- the last few months have been pretty
much a yawner.

Manning's contract provided room under the league's $80.6 million salary cap,
lowering his cap hit from $18.4 million as the team's "franchise player" to
a manageable $8.3 million in 2004.

But due to the size of Manning's bonus, team officials had little left to
offer other teams' castoffs. Indianapolis is one of five teams that did not
add a key veteran free agent.

Team president Bill Polian has repeatedly downplayed the Colts' decision not
to tap into the veteran free-agent market this year.

"There wasn't anybody that was feasible financially -- Peyton or no Peyton --
that would have made sense for us," he said. "And in the secondary (post
June 1) crop, we had really no interest in (anyone).

"They're just names. They are out there for a reason. They're names people
know, and people keep talking about them. That's fine, but it doesn't relate
to reality."

Polian and head coach Tony Dungy share a firm belief that any improvement
from last year's team will come from within, mostly from second- and
third-year players continuing to hone their skills.

"For the most part, guys usually play well when they get the chance," Dungy
has been quick to point out. "If you're drafting well, the guys do come
through."

With that in mind, there is a strong possibility that the Colts could have as
many as five players making their first NFL start or their first start at a
new position in the season opener at New England on Sept. 9 -- weakside linebacker Cato June;
strongside linebacker David Thornton (moving from the "Will" position; cornerbacks Donald Strickland
and Joseph Jefferson; and rookie free safety Bob Sanders.

Polian doesn't feel as though his team is rolling the dice heading into the
2004 season.

"I'm not worried about it at all," he said of the Colts' ongoing youth
movement. "I understand there are not names there that people know, but that
doesn't relate to performance.

"People just need to get used to the fact that we do build from within, and
we know a Cato June, for example, a lot better than anybody else does. We
know what our guys can do. We trust our own judgment."

Manning's massive contract also raises questions about the Colts' ability to
bring back some key personnel after the 2004 season. Indianapolis is
expected to face numerous offense-related decisions with potential free
agents.

Running back Edgerrin James, wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Troy Walters, right tackle Ryan Diem, left guard
Rick DeMulling and running back-kick returner Dominic Rhodes can become unrestricted free agents
after this season. They might not be the only ones playing elsewhere in
2005. Tight end Marcus Pollard's salary-cap number mushrooms from $2.9 million this
year to $4.8 million in '05, and wide receiver Brandon Stokley is due a $5 million
roster bonus and $2 million base salary next year.

But first things first. Irsay would prefer to get 2004 out of the way before
he concerns himself with what might happen sometime down the road.
"You worry about it a year at a time," the Colts' owner said, "but I do think
that it's a team we can keep together and sustain success."

James, the team's first-round draft pick in 1999, might end up being the
team's "franchise player," which will keep him in Indianapolis another year.
If he isn't limited by the franchise designation, the team's career rushing
leader and two-time league rushing champion could test his worth on the open
market.

"Just like last year, I'll be ballin'," James said. "As far as my contract
goes, yeah, it could be (an issue). But that's a non-issue for me because I
can play football, and ain't too many people who can do it all like me. I
can play in any offense, anywhere.

"I don't worry about stuff like that. This is a cool place to play. I've been
around (the offense) and know everything about it. I love the owner. I love
the way Coach Dungy is. That's way too real. It's perfect.

"But one thing about it, I'm not married to a team. It's the NFL," James
added. "Look at Coach Dungy. He did nothing wrong in Tampa, and they still
got rid of him. You can be a league MVP, and you still don't know. It's all
according to what people want to do."

Tom James covers the Colts for the Terre Haute (Ind.) Tribune-Star.

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