Commentary

Camp Confidential: Colts comfortable with Manning's timetable

Though they have several key players on the mend, the Colts feel good about their prospects for 2008, writes Paul Kuharsky.

Originally Published: July 27, 2008
By Paul Kuharsky | ESPN.com

Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison & Dwight FreeneyGetty Images The health of Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Dwight Freeney is a major topic in Colts camp.

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- Sure, the Colts have several of their top players on the shelf. Sure, they are concerned about getting them back.

But lost in the news about Peyton Manning's infected bursa sac, Dwight Freeney's Lisfranc, Marvin Harrison's knee and Bob Sanders' shoulder is this: The Colts have at least seven players heading into their second or third seasons who will hold significant roles and who've yet to reach their peaks.

Though the Jacksonville Jaguars seek to prevent the Colts from winning a sixth consecutive AFC South title, crafty drafter and architect (as well as team president) Bill Polian may have put together one of his top rosters.

"Talentwise, I think we're a bit better, but that remains to be seen," Polian said. "We'll find that out over the course of the preseason. I never make any judgments at this point, nor do I pay any attention to offseason standings."

Polian's optimism, like that of people all around the league, is tied to his team's health, particularly that of Freeney.

"When we've had both defensive ends healthy all the way through, we've won the Super Bowl," he said.

The Colts' recent run of success -- even with several playoff disappointments -- isn't something the current players want to be responsible for ending.

"If you approach it from the right perspective, it drives you," veteran center Jeff Saturday said. "You don't want to be the team that didn't meet the expectations when you've met at least close to your goals every year. You don't want to be the team that can't get it done, that's for sure. On the other side, you can't just think it's going to happen. We have a lot of veterans who stay hungry. We're committed. We'll do what it takes. …

"I've heard it for a long time now, we've been supposed to let down for a number of years. It's what people do to sell papers and sell time on TV shows. We have to go out and play, and that's how you settle the issue."

Key questions

Will Manning return in time to allow the Colts to get their timing down and roll through the first two months of the season?

The Colts have consistently started very well. They have not lost a September or October game since 2004, and have posted a 21-0 record in those two months the past three seasons. All indications are that Manning will be healed by Aug. 25.

That would be six weeks since surgery that removed an infected bursa sac from his left knee, and doctors have said his recovery will take four to six weeks. Even on the longer timetable, he'd still have about two weeks to prepare for the team's regular-season opener at home on Sept. 7 against Chicago and could be ready for another try at a hot opening stretch.

Saturday said the offense will need two days at most to click back into form once Manning is back in the huddle. Maybe that estimation is a little quick, but the iron man quarterback will be eager to resume his normal routines, and he won't have lost any of his offensive recall or knowledge. The rest for his arm might even help him be fresher later in the season.

Will Freeney, Sanders and Harrison return to form?

All signals say they will. Freeney is the most important because of the way the Colts key their defense around a consistent pass rush. The team's failure to pressure San Diego backup quarterback Billy Volek was a decisive factor late in last season's surprise playoff loss.

The Colts, wary of undersized ends wearing down, hope fifth-round pick Marcus Howard can help alleviate the pressure to produce pressure.

Bob Sanders
Brian Spurlock/US PRESSWIREWhen healthy, Bob Sanders is a disruptive force and a huge key to the Colts' defensive success.

Sanders' all-out style is what makes him great, but it's also what gets him dinged. They've won with him, and they've won without him. Obviously, they'd prefer the first option.

Harrison looked like his old self in the early days of training camp.

Will the home-field advantage be the same at Lucas Oil Stadium as it was at the RCA Dome?

It's too early to tell.

But this move could be a rare instance in which a team heading into a new building loses a little bit of that edge. The RCA Dome is tiny by today's standards in terms of its footprint, and that tight space held sound. With a lot more square footage in the new building, it's possible the noise is the one factor that won't be as good.

Market watch

Tight end Ben Utecht went to Cincinnati as a free agent, and fullback Luke Lawton, who was traded to the Eagles. Indianapolis likes to run a lot of two-tight end sets, but the player who complements Dallas Clark will have to handle a good share of blocking.

Fourth-round pick Jacob Tamme and sixth-rounder Tom Santi are pass-catchers more than blockers, as Utecht was. So Gijon Robinson, who was on the practice squad last season, needs to become a steady contributor. Coaches praised him early in camp.

Newcomer to watch

Charlie Johnson was with the first team at right guard at the start of camp, but the Colts have a good history of sliding rookies into the starting lineup with hardly a blip. Their top pick in the draft, center-turned-guard Mike Pollak, was drafted out of Arizona State in the second round. If he wins the spot, he'll follow left tackle Tony Ugoh as a rookie starter on the line.

Observation deck

Training camp sessions are quiet affairs, outside of pad popping. Tony Dungy and his staff have things down to a science. Camp has a businesslike feel, and there is a lot of focus on positional work. Dungy could have started six days earlier than he did but did not see the need. … The Colts had the league's worst kickoff coverage unit and third-worst punt coverage in 2007. Because of the way the team is built, little continuity exists on the rookie-heavy coverage teams. If they were to just become average, it would be an accomplishment. … Can a two-time Pro Bowler be underrated? Receiver Reggie Wayne is. In an offense packed with big names, he seems to be an irreplaceable X factor. … Division III Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute is the Colts' training camp home. The Fightin' Engineers play in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference.

Paul Kuharsky covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

Paul Kuharsky | email

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