By Brad Wells, Stampede Blue
The Indianapolis Colts are accustomed to breaking records. Now, in 2010, they have a rather daunting one placed before them: Be the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to win a Super Bowl the year after losing it.
Irony once again smiles in the face of the Colts, who spent all of the 2009 season ducking and dodging comparisons to the 1972 Dolphins, the only team in NFL history to go undefeated for an entire season. Once again, the shadow of that team drapes over Jim Caldwell and his Colts. Whether they like it or not, it is 'Super Bowl Or Bust' for the defending AFC Champions, and for good reason. The 2010 Colts are fielding one of the strongest and deepest teams they've had in quite some time.
Significant Offseason Additions/Subtractions
As per the Colts standard modus operandi, big name free agents are not how team president Bill Polian re-fuels his team during an off-season. The two most important 'additions' for these Colts are the return of two established veterans who missed virtually all of the 2009 season, including the playoffs. The oft-injured Bob Sanders and Anthony Gonzalez return to a Colts team that nearly won the Super Bowl without them. Stands to reason that if you add these two already potent players into a championship-caliber mix, it's like adding two 'free agents.'
Key for both players, especially Sanders, is going what they have had difficultly doing throughout their careers: Staying healthy.
Other important additions include the fifth round tight end, H-Back from Oklahoma, Brody Eldridge. Eldridge provides the Colts something they haven't had since the days of Ken Dilger in the very early years of the Bill Polian era, a blocking tight end who can also run intermediate routes. Eldridge is already slotted in as the team's second tight end, and considering the Colts run a base two tight end offense, fans should expect to see a lot of Eldridge in 2010. Another key rookie is first round pick Jerry Hughes a pass rushing defensive end from TCU. Hughes was taken to alleviate some of the pass rushing pressure off of superstars Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
While the Colts did part ways with longtime veterans like Raheem Brock and Freddy Keiaho it is the release of offensive lineman Ryan Lilja that was the most puzzling. Lilja was the Colts best interior guard in 2009, and for a team looking to upgrade their line, the release of Lilja back in March still has not been fully explained.
The Colts offense fields the best quarterback of his generation in Peyton Manning. Four league MVPs. That's an NFL record, in case you didn't know. At 34 years old, Manning continues to redefine what a quarterback can do in the modern passing league. 2009 was his first season without his longtime security blanket, Marvin Harrison. In Week One, Harrison's replacement (Anthony Gonzalez) went down in a heap with a knee injury and was done for the season.
What did Manning do?
He threw for 4,500 yards (second most in a single season in his entire career), 33 TDs, and completed nearly 69% of his passes. He worked with then-unknown receiving talents named Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie. He had a new offensive left tackle in Charlie Johnson, and he was given next to no help from his running game (last in the league). Manning's 2009 MVP season might have been his most brilliant, especially when you factor in what he had to work with.
In 2010, receivers Garcon and Austin are a year older, and a year better. Gonzalez is back and will be used in specialty situations. And then, of course, there are Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark. Both had 100-catch seasons last year, and both continue to give defensive coordinators nightmares.
If there is a weak spot with the Colts offense, it is the uncertainty of their offensive line. The line was the source of criticism by president Bill Polian after the Colts lost Super Bowl 44. This criticism very much irked the veterans along the line, including Jeff Saturday and Ryan Diem. Despite strong suggestions by Polian that changes would happen along the o-line in 2010, the Colts return the exact same starting five, minus Lilja.
The Colts made significant strides on defense in 2009, solidifying the interior of their defensive line with surprising young players like Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir. In 2010, this unit has the potential to be 'Top Ten' good.
Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are the two most feared bookend pass rushers in all of football. However, under year two of coordinator Larry Coyer's 'tweaked' Tampa-2 defense, Colts fans should expect to see more pass rushing from the linebackers and the defensive backs. The return of Bob Sanders will give Coyer more flexibility with the defense. Sanders can both cover and be used as a 'linebacker' type player in Cover-3 looks.
The secondary was a point of emphasis for the Colts during the off-season. Gone are longtime vets Tim Jennings, T.J. Rushing, and Marlin Jackson. Initially replacing them were young, inexperienced draft picks and collegiate free agents. However, after preseason exposed the young secondary, Polian and company decided to change their approach. They signed veteran corner Deshea Townsend on the day training camp started, and made a trade with the Washington Redskins on cutdown day for promising veteran Just Tryon. Townsend and Tryon will provide solid depth behind starters Kelvin Hayden and Jerraud Powers.
The longtime weakness of the club was a source of strength in 2009. The addition of special teams coach Ray Rychleski, and the drafting of punter and kickoff specialist Pat McAfee, greatly improved the Colts kick and punt coverage units. In 2010, the focus has no shifted to improving the kick and punt returns. After a competitive preseason, Devin Moore emerged as the team's new kick returner. Moore, an Indianapolis native and local high school football hero, brings speed and quickness to the return game, something the Colts have not had since the early 1990s when Clarence Verdin was running kicks back for touchdowns.
And speaking of returns, Adam Vinatieri is finally back and healthy for the Colts. The legendary kicker missed most of the 2009 season with hip and leg injuries. Having him back is a big boost to a kicking game that, while accurate last year, lacked distance.
Jim Caldwell was placed in a near impossible situation last year. Win it all, and you are seen as nothing more than a caretaker for Tony Dungy's legacy. Lose it, and you are the goat. Despite the heat Caldwell took for benching starters in the Colts Week Sixteen contest against the New York Jets and the team losing Super Bowl 44 to the underdog New Orleans Saints, the general consensus is the first-time NFL head coach did an excellent job managing the club in 2009. His 'tweaks' to the offense and defense, and his decision to replace longtime coordinators Ron Meeks and Russ Purnell, paid off in the form of a 14-2 regular season and a dominant run through the AFC playoffs.
In 2010, there seem to be even more 'tweaks.' Gone is legendary offensive line coach Howard Mudd, retired after yelling at linemen for nearly three decades. Replacing him is his longtime protege in Indianapolis, Pete Metzelaars. Longtime Mudd devotees Jeff Saturday and Ryan Diem have taken to Metzelaars, giving him praise for his new emphasis on running the football.
Quite possibly the biggest coaching change is Tom Moore stepping down from his post as offensive coordinator and taking on a more consultant-type role with the team. This means that, for the first time in his professional career, Peyton Manning will have a new coordinator feeding him plays. This new coordinator is longtime receivers coach Clyde Christensen, who is also the team's assistant head coach. Replacing Christensen as the receivers coach is one-time Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner.
Interesting note, 2010 marks some of the most dynamic coaching changes for the Colts since Jim Mora was replaced by Tony Dungy in 2002. The offensive coordinator, offensive line coach, assistant offensive line coach, and receivers coach positions are all manned by new faces.
Conclusion/Prediction for 2010
Expectations are high for the 2010 Colts. It very much is a 'Super Bowl Or Bust' year for them. Anything less than a Lombardi Trophy in Cowboys Stadium in February will be viewed as a disappointment. While teams like the Houston Texans have indeed gotten better, the Indianapolis Colts are still the class of the AFC South. They should win their division and compete for the top seed in the AFC Playoffs.
When you look around the AFC, not too many teams feature the same level of talent and playoff experience the Colts do. And, of course, the 'Manning Factor' makes any Colts team a contender. For 2010, the stories to follow are the re-integration of veterans like Gonzalez and Sanders; the affect a new coordinator and new umpire positioning rules have on the prolific Colts offense; and how the team will overcome the 'Super Bowl Curse' and attempt to do what no teams has done in 38 years.
Win the Super Bowl the year after losing it.