Colts expect improvement from within

The Colts weren't very busy in the offseason, but they still expect big things in 2004.

Updated: June 24, 2004, 12:29 PM ET
By Tom James | Pro Football Weekly

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.

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Despite last season's 12-4 record, AFC South championship and ending the year just one game away from the Super Bowl, questions remain about the Colts' long-term future. At the May owners meeting in Florida, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue pointed to having a franchise in the Los Angeles market by 2008. At that very meeting, Colts owner Jim Irsay pointed to the hardships and obstacles involved with keeping his franchise in Indianapolis, considering its modest population. Can Irsay find a way to keep the team in Indianapolis and away from Southern California, where rumors continue to run rampant? Stay tuned. "It's natural," Irsay told the Indianapolis Star in mid-June. "I have a lot of friends out there, and I have business interests out there. My youngest daughter is interested in Pepperdine and UCLA, but that doesn't mean I'm moving the team there so I can be closer to Pepperdine. "I have not talked with Los Angeles. My entire focus is on making it work here. I don't have the answers yet, but we're working on them." One area of concern for Irsay and the Colts continues to be the team's sluggish season-ticket sales. Sales of full- and mini-season ticket packages hit 40,170 in early June, eclipsing last year's 39,000 total. "I've always said the season-ticket base is the pulse of the franchise," Irsay admitted. "We're at a critical crossroads, not just for the franchise and the Colts, but for the state and the city." Indianapolis city officials understand Irsay's dilemma. "I can understand his concern," Steven Campbell, director of communications for Mayor Bart Peterson, told the Indianapolis Star. "We are one of the smaller markets in the NFL, but there are small markets that thrive in the NFL. "If you're in New York or Washington, D.C., there's always going to be a waiting list for suites and season tickets. Here, you always have to be on top of your game." Peterson formed the Colts Business Alliance last year to help promote support of the team. The move has helped. All suites in the RCA Dome have been sold. "We're really trying by the late fall to come up with some long-range and permanent solutions," Irsay said.
--Tom James
"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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