We continue our team-by-team early off-season look at the NFL with the ...
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2007 record: 13-3 (450-262)
Expected W-L (based on PF/PA): 12.5-3.5
All-time franchise record: 415-384-7 (.519)
Playoff record: 17-17 (.500)
Last five seasons: 63-17 (.788)
Best game of 2007: 29-7 win at Jacksonville (Week 7). For all the talk about the Patriots and their undefeated (almost) season, Indy wasn't that far away from one itself. The Colts' four losses (including playoffs) were by a total of 16 points. Yet they didn't really have any great signature wins. Even their impressive Week 7 road win over Jacksonville in Florida came with an asterisk – David Garrard went out injured in the first half, and the Jags crumbled with backup QB Quinn Gray.
: The Colts, as usual, have made no major moves except to keep some free agents on their own roster (G Ryan Lilja and DE Josh Thomas). G Jake Scott went to Tennessee, and blocking TE Ben Utecht was lost to Cincinnati. But in terms of keeping the roster intact from one year to the next, this Colts offseason has been the smoothest in a half-decade.
Organization. Yes, Peyton Manning and the passing game is great, and the defense was spectacular in 2007. Tony Dungy is a gifted coach, and he's got a slew of gifted players and assistants. But none of it would be possible with out Wild Bill Polian – if rival Bill Belichick is a "genius" head coach, Polian is surely a "genius" front-office man. For 20+ years and in three organizations (Super Bowl Bills, expansion Panthers), Polian has the best track record of any executive in the game, with five NFL "executive of the year" awards
to prove it (1988, 1991, 1995, 1996, 1999). The Colts hadn't had a season with double-digit wins since 1977 before Polian came on board at the end of the 1997 season and, with his first major decision, chose Peyton Manning No. 1 in the draft over Ryan Leaf.
Weakness: Special teams. K Adam Vinatieri stood 31st in our 2007 field-goal rankings and the Colts were 32nd in net punting with Hunter "The Shunter" Smith. The Colts were also in the bottom half of the league in kick returns and net kickoffs.
Most underrated player
: FS Antoine Bethea. The safeties are responsible for the success of the Cover 2 and, while Bob Sanders won Defensive MVP thanks to Indy's excellent defense, Bethea is still a total unknown. He had 47 tackles and four INTs in 13 games for the Colts, and has filled in at SS when Sanders has missed games. The Colts were third in the NFL in Defensive Passer Rating
, and second behind only Pittsburgh with 5.88 YPA allowed on pass attempts, despite letting the opponent dink and dunk to their heart's content.
Unit on the rise: Secondary. Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden were 24 last year while safeties Bethea (23) and Sanders (26) weren't exactly old-timers. Hayden is signed through 2008, Bethea and Jackson through 2009, and Sanders on a long-term deal. So for at least this year and likely through 2009, the Colts will have one of the youngest and most-cohesive back fours in the league.
2007 Draft grade: A. The class of 2007 played a huge role for the Colts, and all of that experience should pay dividends. All 10 picks made the roster, and street free agent Ed Johnson was a 16-game starter at DT. No. 1 pick Anthony Gonzalez caught 24 passes for 398 yards and 3 TDs over his last seven games, and looks to be a good understudy behind Marvin Harrison. T Tony Ugoh was a solid 11-game starter as well, and four first-year men started games on Indy's decimated defensive line. The Colts also struck gold with 27-year-old journeyman RB Kenton Keith, who averaged 4.4 YPA behind Joseph Addai as an import from the CFL.
2008 Draft power: 2nd (60), 3rd (94), 4th (125), 5th (156), 6th (190), 7th (221). (Note: the Colts will likely add three sixth-round Compensatory Picks),
General Draft strategy: No one drafts quite like the Colts. Every one of their classes under Polian has featured at least a couple of perennial starters, despite not having a top 10 pick since Edgerrin James went No. 4 overall in 1999. Indy has a fetish for defensive backs, drafting 21 over the past eight years and three in each of the last five drafts. They've had several compensatory picks over the past half decade as they've allowed a steady flow of starters to leave town, and have three more this year. With no top pick (and no glaring need), the Colts will be looking for more unheralded players that fit their system.
Youth/experience: The Colts were one of the youngest teams in the NFL last year, with 20 rookies and 16 1st- or 2nd-year pros on last year's active roster. And the Colts will be even younger in 2008, having cut veterans Booger McFarland and Rob Morris from the defense. But because they have so many young players who have started from the get-go, they have more than enough experience – especially on offense, where the offensive line is a year wiser and Manning is still Manning.
Coaching: Tony Dungy doesn't have anything left to prove. In 12 seasons as a head coach, his teams have made the playoffs 10 times – and he finally added that elusive ring after the 2006 season. He's hoping his 13th (and possibly last, according to him) with the Colts is a lucky 13th. Assistant head coach Jim Caldwell will be Dungy's replacement, and he's no newbie – in fact he's a year older than Dungy. The Colts boast unheard of continuity on the sidelines, with every key assistant having a half-decade or more on the books. Defensive coordinator Ron Meeks and special teams coach Russ Purnell were hired under Dungy in 2002, and offensive coordinator Tom Moore, offensive line guru Howard Mudd and linebackers coach Mike Murphy all came in 1999. All of them are at least in their 50s (Moore will be 70 this year), and all seem content to coach together forever – a good thing, considering the track record.
Overview: No team is in better position for a standout 2008 season than Indianapolis. Their first-round loss to San Diego notwithstanding, this is a team that won 13 games despite battling serious injury. They have no real weaknesses save special teams, and both K Vinatieri and P Smith have a good enough history to suggest their struggles in 2007 were aberrations. The offense, if completely healthy, can compete with New England, and the defense has the personnel and scheme to repeat its great performance from 2007. Dungy's possible lame-duck status – and the franchise's less-than-stellar overall postseason track record – are about the only possible flies in the ointment. Barring a Jim Sorgi promotion to starting QB, this is (ho hum) a 12-win team at least and perhaps the surest bet for success of any team in 2008.