Colts focused on keeping nucleus intact

The Colts will relish their Super Bowl victory, but they know it won't be long until their focus shifts to 2007, writes John Clayton.

Originally Published: February 5, 2007
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Tony Dungy is a stoic leader along the Colts sidelines, but he's usually several steps ahead of his players. He built the Buccaneers into a perennial playoff team, and finally got over the hump Sunday night by winning his first Super Bowl.

On the chalkboard prior to the Colts' 29-17 victory over the Bears in Dolphin Stadium, Dungy noted there were only 18 players left from the Colts team that lost the AFC Championship Game to the New England Patriots in January of 2004. Even the always prepared Peyton Manning was stunned by that stat. Dungy was trying to make sure his team would made the most of the moment and win.

The NFL stands for Not For Long, and Manning and Dungy realize that. Still, they don't want to concede anything. The Super Bowl MVP and the first African-American head coach to win the Super Bowl will enjoy the victory, but it won't be long until they have to start preparing for the 2007 season.

"One thing I have learned when you get the ball rolling for next [is] season that there are going to be changes," Manning said. "That's why it was special last year. There is no question there is going to be personnel changes. There could be coaching changes."

The offseasons for the Super Bowl participants are severely short and usually disruptive. Believe it or not, this offseason shouldn't be too bad for the Colts. Assistant head coach Jim Caldwell will interview for the Cowboys' head coaching job, but he probably won't get it. And even though free agency usually has been very damaging to the Colts, this offseason shouldn't be too bad.

Tony Dungy
AP Photo/Michael ConroyA Super Bowl champion at last, Tony Dungy won't change the way he tackles the offseason.

The Colts have a dozen unrestricted free agents and only $2.5 million of cap room, but numbers can be deceiving. Manning has a $10 million roster bonus that will be converted into a signing bonus to save cap room. That could save $8 million. The Colts could save a little more by cutting wide receiver Brandon Stokley and defensive tackle Corey Simon. They can restructure some contracts.

But the Colts will use most of that cap room to retain their own players. General manager Bill Polian built this team, and he certainly doesn't want to see if fall apart.

The first piece of good news for the Colts during Monday's new conference came when Dungy said he was going to continue as the team's head coach. Rumors of a possible retirement by Dungy have hung around this Super Bowl. Dungy is a great family man and does not plan to coach too much longer. The tragic loss of his son James in 2005 put Dungy in a position that he is going to judge his coaching future year-to-year.

On Monday, he clearly stated that he is coming back next season.

"Every year, probably in the last three-to-four years, I try to evaluate where I am at the end of every year," Dungy said. "I still have a lot of passion. I'm not burned out. I'm not tired. I'm very, very fired up. I'm looking forward to coming back."

Dungy is giving his assistant coaches a couple weeks off, but he's already set to start watching players at the NFL combine in about three weeks. Knowing his quarterback, Dungy anticipates having Manning show up in his office around March 1 with a list of seven things he needs to do to get better.

In other words, it's business as usual for Dungy and Manning.

Now that he's a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, Manning vows to not fall into a pattern of some other quarterbacks. Manning calls it, "Getting the pass." The pass is a Super Bowl quarterback who watches his play the next season drop off for whatever reason and accepts that.

"I don't want to get the pass," Manning said. "I want to be accountable each and every year. Next year, our goal is be a better quarterback. I feel I should be because of the experience I gained this year."

Polian has several tough decisions to make. One is easy. He's not going to lose defensive end Dwight Freeney. Freeney's contract expires, and he clearly could become the top free agent. Polian is going to try to sign him, but if he doesn't he will give him the franchise tag. The franchise tag is $8.644 million, but the team would have a much lower cap number if Freeney agrees to a long-term deal.

The next biggest decision involves linebacker Cato June, a Pro Bowler in 2005. It's very possible Polian will do everything to re-sign him. Over the past several years, the Colts have lost linebackers Marcus Washington, Mike Peterson and David Thornton. Polian regretted the loss of Thornton last year because he was so vital to the defense.

Linebackers in June's talent level have been getting contracts of $4 million to $5 million a year. Even if that might be considered a lot on the surface, Polian might pay that to maintain continuity at linebacker. The drop-off from the Thornton to Gilbert Gardner was one of the reasons the Colts struggled to stop the run. June might be able to cash in and stay even though Thornton, Washington and Peterson might have been considered better players.

It's not out of the question for Dominic Rhodes to return. Only about five or six teams are looking for starting running backs, so Rhodes might have a tough time getting starter's money. His strong performance in Super Bowl XLI, though, might be attractive to a team looking for a downhill runner to go with an elusive type of feature back.

There is a good chance the Colts could take some hits in the secondary. Nick Harper is 32, but there are rumblings the Patriots might be interested in him if they don't re-sign Asante Samuel. Marlin Jackson could take over for Harper if he leaves.

The Colts aren't expected to make an offer to safety Mike Doss.

There is a chance linebacker Rob Morris might get lured away by another team after being a valuable role player for two years at the NFL minimum.

The rest of the list are role players and backups -- linebacker Rocky Boiman, defensive tackle Dan Klecko, wide receiver Aaron Moorehead, fullback James Mungro and kick returner Terrence Wilkins. Wide receiver Ricky Proehl is going to retire.

Watch for the Colts to be on the lookout for bigger defensive linemen at low prices to add more bulk to the defense. The Colts' starting front seven is only 253 pounds per player. Because they can be overpowered by big offensive lines, the Colts might try to add a package of bigger players to match up better against the run.

Having been a Super Bowl player in Pittsburgh, Dungy knows it's hard to repeat as champion. "We will be the hunted next year," Dungy said. Which is why the Colts will be trying to make changes and work even harder this offseason.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer