Baseball's no fun from now until September, and we can only watch old NFL highlights on YouTube for so long before we need to start prognosticating on the '06-'07 NFL season. Fall can't come soon enough. In the meantime, here's the 15th of our 32 team previews for the upcoming season, the Indianapolis Colts.
TOM'S TAKE: The lack of major activity for the Colts this year has made this preview incredibly difficult. For the last few years, the Colts have fielded the same type of team -- high-octane offense, below-average defense. Last year, their young defense gelled to the point that people were expecting the Colts to go 16-0 and win the Super Bowl. I, as always, dissented from the public opinion because Peyton Manning has, to this point in his career, proven to be incapable of winning when the pressure is on. They ran into a strong Chargers team late last year and got beat and then suffered the tragedy of James Dungy's death. Those two events, while resting players late in the season and a first round bye, threw off the rhythm and momentum of the squad. It was inevitable that they lose to the Steelers.
Many people think that the loss of Edgerrin James will hurt the run game. This is true -- world-class runners like James don't come along very often. But between first-round pick Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes, the first undrafted player to run for 1,000 yards, they'll still be OK moving down the field. Where James' departure hurts is in protection and blitz-pickup. What makes Edge so valuable is that his skills go beyond running; he's a dependable blocker who isn't afraid to break off a route and smack someone in the mouth. Rookies who can step in and are willing/able to master blocking schemes are rare, and it'll take Addai some time to learn. This could result in something we haven't really been accustomed to -- seeing Peyton Manning on his back. Other than the loss of James, the Colts' offense is the same -- the team decided to keep #2 receiver Reggie Wayne at the expense of losing James, ensuring Manning his top three targets -- Marvin Harrison, Wayne, and Dallas Clark -- remain.
The addition of Adam Vinatieri is an odd one. It seems dubious that the Patriots would let a local hero walk, to their rival, nonetheless. The Patriots have always been about cutting players loose before their skills begin to wane. They're confident enough in their coaching abilities that they are more comfortable playing young guys under fire. Is it possible they saw something in Vinatieri's leg that made them uneasy about paying him so much money? When it comes to player personnel, the Patriots have earned a sort of blind trust, so I'll wait and see before I annoint Vinatieri as the Colts' savior.
The Colts have taken a major step back on defense, however. They lost defensive tackle Larry Tripplet and linebacker David Thornton in free agency. Although they still have their biggest names, Dwight Freeney and Bob Sanders, the loss of these two guys shouldn't be discounted. The Colts' recent success on defense has been predicated on rotating the defensive linemen and linebackers to keep them fresh and to show the opposing offense multiple fronts. With these two guys gone, the rest of the front seven will have to take on the increased number of snaps. Can they keep their legs fresh throughout the course of a game, or will they start to wobble late in the fourth quarter?
It's more likely we'll see a team more like the '04 version of the Colts than last year's, one which will again rely heavily on the offense to outgun their opponents without a shutdown defense. As long as Manning, Harrison, and Wayne are in the same offense, the Colts should be considered a playoff lock, but it seems to me last year was their time. All the pieces had come together. The window was at its widest, and this seems to be the first year that sees it closing slightly. Manning's never been one to deal with pressure, so it'll be interesting to see how he responds this year as the pressure continues to mount on him. With the loss of Edge, will he feel the Colts' only chance of success is with his arm? If so, this could be a dangerous season. They should win the division by two games, but they're above-average instead of elite, and the AFC teams that have been years looking up at the Colts are closing the gap. I'm afraid this year, like every year of his career so far, the Colts will be watching the Super Bowl on TV.
KYLE'S TAKE: Indianapolis looks like the same team from last year -- minus two big moves.
Their big loss was obviously Edgerrin James to Arizona. That is a huge whole to fill. In the past, I've been skeptical about James, but I've gotten wiser with age. James was a crucial piece to the puzzle. When teams prepared for Peyton Manning, James ate them up. When they prepared for James, Manning tore them apart. However, with James gone and Dominic Rhodes filling in, defenses can focus more on Manning. I'm not saying Rhodes was a poor player. He's always done well with the Colts. However, he's no James. The Colts drafted Joseph Addai out of LSU and signed him to a five-year contract. Addai, who is the fifth on the all-time rushing list at LSU, was drafted as James' replacement. He has the same body frame as James and the Colts hope he resembles Edge on the field as well. Although Rhodes is the starter, I expect to see the Colts to throw Addai into the mix soon. If his talent matches the excitement the Colts have about him, the running game for the Colts will survive.
The other move was acquiring kicker Adam Vinatieri from their archrival Patriots. This move is bigger in the media than it will be in the game. They took the multi-Superbowl hero from the team they just couldn't beat in the playoffs. They also gave Mike Vanderjagt the boot after he missed a tying field goal in the playoffs that would have taken the Steelers to overtime. Vanderjagt has had issues with Manning in the past, causing Manning to call him a drunk. So it was time to get rid of Vandy and why not replace him with one of the most clutch kickers there is? However, the acquisition of Vinatieri won't translate to a Super Bowl. They just have a clutch kicker.
Their defense was strong last year, with such players such as Cato June and Gary Brackett at linebacker and Gary Mathis and Dwight Freeney on defensive line. Nick Harper is a good corner when he's not too busy getting stabbed by his wife.
Last year, the Colts had to win some games on defense when their offense wasn't setting records like it was two years ago. If their defense holds like it did last year, we can expect the Colts to return to the playoffs, even without Edgerrin James. They'll have to contend with Jacksonville again in their division, a team that has just been getting better and better. It won't be a cakewalk to the playoffs because of the Jaguars, but the Colts have been a playoff staple as of late and once again, they have a really good chance to return to the postseason where they can, once again, choke.