James is gone, but stretch play remains

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- The Colts realize replacing Edgerrin James with one person is a stretch.

James had four 1,500-plus-yard rushing seasons in seven years. He was a good blocker. He caught the ball out of the backfield and kept things loose in the locker room. What isn't a stretch is that the Colts' offense can operate successfully without him.

The key to replacing him is finding backs who create threats on Peyton Manning's favorite running play: the stretch play. The stretch is one of the key elements of the Colts' offense. After taking the snap, Manning takes a couple of steps to his right or left and then starts to work his magic. A master of execution, Manning either gives the ball to the back or pulls it back, hides it and works a play-action pass.

"Zach Thomas is one of the guys who gives you feedback," Manning said. "He says, 'You can't tell what it is.' There is that second or two the defense tries to play it honest and you hope you have the guy to get to the corner. If he's too slow getting to the corner, you have problems."

The Colts shouldn't have any problem getting a back to the corner. Dominic Rhodes has been James' backup for five seasons. When James blew out his knee during Rhodes' rookie season (2001), Rhodes rushed for 1,104 yards and averaged 4.7 yards a carry. This year's first-round pick, LSU halfback Joseph Addai, also excels with the stretch play.

Between Rhodes and Addai, the Colts believe they can make up for the rushing yards, and more importantly, still have the threat of running the stretch.

"I think Bill Polian and Tony Dungy evaluated that in the draft in trying to find somebody who can stretch it to the outside," Manning said. "We also ran a lot of inside plays with Edge. The back has to be physical enough to pound it inside, too. As soon as Joseph ran a 4.4 in the combine, you knew he had the speed to the outside. And he's a big guy. He looks like Edge in the body."

Addai is 5-foot-11, 214 pounds. Many considered him the most complete back at the bottom of the first round. It also helped that the stretch play worked in LSU's offense. A couple of years ago, LSU offensive coaches picked up the Colts' stretch play and installed it in their offense.

"Our offensive coordinator got it from the Colts," Addai said. "I understand it. It's the way Peyton handles the ball that enables you to run the play-action off of it. Nobody knows what's going on. You've really got to keep doing the same thing on the stretch play to open up the play-action. You try to get the linebackers to overflow."

Manning is like a magician. Everything is sleight of hand with his offensive execution. James always gave him the edge in operating that offense because he was so consistent. James could read defenses and understand how Manning would adjust from play to play. Defenses were always confused.

"You hope the stretch can make linebackers somewhat hesitant," Manning said. "As you are coming down the line, if they are selling out to the run, you can come down, fake it and get it to Marvin Harrison on the crossing route. If they are hesitant it might be a pass and then they realize it's a run, then the back gets past you.

"People always ask as it looks like I'm getting older why I don't pitch it out. When you turn and pitch it, you always know it's a run. All you can do is threaten a defense with a halfback pass, but how many times does that happen -- one or two times a year?"

The Colts plan to go into the regular season with Rhodes as the starter and Addai the backup -- although Addai is getting plenty of time in training camp with the first team. An undrafted player, Rhodes is the underdog in the long term going against a first-round pick, but he's an interesting underdog because the franchise values him so much.

First, Manning trusts Rhodes because he knows the offense. Second, Rhodes has been one of the hardest-working Colts players during the offseason. (He's gained about six pounds, putting him at a playing weight of 213.) He's also the hungriest Colt, awaiting the chance to play.

The past four years have been tough for Rhodes. James had a deal with the coaches. He was one of the few players who could come out of the game if he felt tired. All he had to do was tap his helmet, but the tireless James hardly ever did so, making life tough for Rhodes.

"You're sitting behind a guy who can go the whole game," Rhodes said. "You knew you weren't going in. You felt like a relief pitcher sitting back waiting and waiting and waiting. Then you go in and your muscles are tight, you can't run like you usually do. It was frustrating."

Rhodes had only 130 carries in the past three seasons. He's ready for this chance.

Other than the important running back position, little has changed on the Colts' offense. Manning goes about his practices working on timing routes with Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley. He works the stretch plays. He gets the tight end involved with the offense.

Colts camp is like no other in football. Practices are like mini-clinics. Drills are broken into position groups to focus on precision techniques. Scrimmages are minimal. Hitting is measured and controlled. The Colts are working on little things. The approach to this camp is more mental.

Last year drained the team. The Colts had an extra preseason game in Japan, which added extra wear to a veteran bunch that's already used to seasons lengthened by deep playoff runs. Even though the Colts open the preseason Thursday against the Rams, Polian gave his players one of the latest dates for reporting to camp, giving them a few extra days of offseason.

Despite a 13-0 start last season, the Colts' inability to advance to the Super Bowl keeps gnawing at them.

"We felt like last year was our year," Wayne said. "We still have a lot of the same guys back, especially on offense. We've got a lot of guys who know the system even better. The sky is the limit for us. In practice, we are trying to do everything right. We don't consider [not advancing to the Super Bowl] a hump. As long as we just keep working, the system will take care of itself and the hump will be jumped."

Dungy doesn't have the Colts dwelling on the past. He's trying to make sure his players are focused on finishing things.

"We have to go hard and finish the plays no matter what happens," Dungy said. "My lesson to the team is the Pittsburgh Steelers. You have to do what they did, keep putting yourself in positions. Bill Polian went through runs where he was close in Buffalo. He got to the Super Bowl and lost, but they believed in what they were doing and kept coming back."

No one doubts the Colts will be one of the favorites to win the AFC title. Though the free-agent losses of linebacker David Thornton and Larry Tripplett hurt, there is enough depth and youth on defense to allow the team to grow and even get better.

"Tony Dungy has no interest in dealing with last year," Manning said. "We have a new group of players on this team. Joseph Addai doesn't understand. He finished his season gaining 180 yards for LSU in the Peach Bowl. Adam Vinatieri comes from New England and certainly doesn't have any hangover from last season. You better be able to move on from what happened last year."

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.