The Indianapolis Colts call it "Summer School."
As they do each May into early June, players gathered this week to work out and spend time in the classroom with coaches. While the daily sessions are considered voluntary, the Colts have one of the league's best veteran turnouts for their summer workouts, something that has played prominently in the success of the offense over the last few years.
"Since coach [Tony] Dungy has been here, he has really encouraged that," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning says. "Obviously you cannot make it mandatory, but he points it out very simply: 'If you want to win, you need to be here.' And everybody on this team wants to win, so we've always had good participation."
Offensive players are in town for this year's "school," but everyone knows which curriculum truly is in need of tutoring.
Yes, harping on the Indianapolis defense seems tired at this point, especially given the Colts' biggest hurdle, Patriots 101, is a course that the entire team has flunked in back-to-back years. But New England isn't going anywhere, and the Colts can only solve one problem at a time.
The offense is stacked with star pupils. In 2005, Indianapolis' coaches once again will be left to hope the defensive unit can close the gap.
"I think we're going to catch up," Dungy said of the defense following a session earlier this week. "We have some young guys who play hard, who practice hard, and they're going to be good players."
In last month's draft, Indianapolis was one of the few teams that spent its choices almost solely on pressing defensive issues. The majority of the Colts' cap dollars are tied into quarterback Peyton Manning, wide receiver Marvin Harrison and a handful of other offensive players. These cap realities have forced Indianapolis to improve its defense almost exclusively through the draft, and five of the team's first six draft picks went to defense, with cornerbacks taken in the first and second rounds.
That's a much-needed infusion for a defense that ranked 29th in the NFL last season and allowed a league-worst 65.4 percent of passes to be completed.
In fairness, a portion of those problems can be pinned on injuries in the secondary, where several players missed games or struggled, including cornerbacks Nick Harper, Donald Strickland and Joseph Jefferson, and safeties Mike Doss, Idrees Bashir and Bob Sanders.
The Colts bolstered their depth chart via the draft with cornerbacks Marlin Jackson (the 29th overall pick), Illinois' Kelvin Hayden in the second round and Cal safety Matt Giordano in the fourth. Jackson, who showcased his range by playing both cornerback and safety at Michigan, could challenge for a starting role at either spot.
"We lined up for the first time [on Monday], and we had Joseph Jefferson out there, Donald Strickland, Bob Sanders and Mike Doss, and none of those four guys were totally healthy last year," Dungy said. "They were running around and making plays in the secondary – and that's even before we got to Marlin Jackson, Kelvin Hayden and Matt Giordano's group. We're going to be much improved because of the health of some of the guys, including Bob [Sanders]."
- It isn't getting the publicity of steroid scandals elsewhere in sports, but the NFL has a big banned-substance embarrassment on its hands in the form of retired linebacker Bill Romanowski. The man who won four Super Bowls and was a cornerstone of Denver's championship defense in the late '90s said earlier this week that he managed to stay ahead of the league's substance testing program for most of his 16-year career.
"I had two criteria: Would it hurt me? And would I test positive?," Romanowski told the Rocky Mountain News of his supplement use.
"It wasn't about illegal. I was doing things that they couldn't test for."
Romanowski was suspected by many to have used performance-enhancing drugs, including steroids, during his career. His admission is damaging for a league purported to have had one of professional sports' oldest and most stringent policies on banned substances.
Despite having attention focused squarely on him, including media reports that detailed his extreme use of supplements, Romanowski never tested positive for a banned substance until the final year of his career. That's when the NFL discovered his use of the designer steroid THG, and Romanowski became ensnared in the widely publicized BALCO scandal.
Considering the assertion of BALCO boss Victor Conte that there is an army of chemists out there working on undetectable performance-enhancing drugs, Romanowski's statements are chilling.
- The Manhattan stadium project for the New York Jets is fading fast. A league source said this week that the team has begun preparing for the worst, including preliminary work on a lease extension with the Meadowlands.
The team's current lease expires in 2008. New York's public authorities board is expected to vote on the stadium proposal next week, but considering the difficulty the city is having rebuilding the district around Ground Zero, the Jets' stadium plans look like a long shot.
- It's no surprise that wide receiver David Boston landed back in Miami with a one-year deal. After his recent steroid suspension and other off-field issues, Boston had nowhere else to go.
- If the extent of Kellen Winslow Jr.'s knee injury is a torn ACL as reported, don't expect the team to pursue a refund of his signing bonus. The Browns aren't going down that road unless the damage is career-ending, which it reportedly isn't.
- It's easy to understand Jerry Rice wanting an NFL farewell tour, but it's hard to believe he's going to be happy as a role player for the Denver Broncos – or any team. We've heard before that Rice is willing to take a back seat to other players, but there always seems to be friction when it actually happens.
And Rice clearly isn't going to get a crack at being anything more than a No. 3 receiver (and probably no more than a No. 4). How self-satisfying is Rice's finale going to be when he catches 20 balls?
You have to respect someone's wish to keep playing, but considering Rice's competitive nature, it seems like it's a good time to hang it up.
- With a poll showing that voters in Louisiana are overwhelmingly against tax dollars going toward keeping the New Orleans Saints, it's hard to imagine the team not ending up in Los Angeles when it comes time to open that market for a team – perhaps as early as 2008.
- It looks like the NFL will have to hold a supplemental draft now that USC defensive tackle Manuel Wright has applied for inclusion in the process. Until Wright's application, there were no players available, and the league had no plans to prepare a supplemental selection. Now it will likely hold the process in July.
The 6-foot-6, 295-pound Wright backed up 2005 draft picks Mike Patterson and Shaun Cody last year, and was slated to be a starter for the Trojans this season before being sidelined for academics. While he had only limited experience in college, it's likely a team will take a gamble on him in the supplemental draft's fifth or sixth round, giving up a corresponding fifth or sixth rounder in the 2006 draft.
The supplemental draft's order of selection is determined in a three-tiered lottery. The first tier is comprised of teams that finished 6-10 or worse in 2004. Those go into a lottery for the draft's top six picks. The remaining non-playoff teams (and teams that didn't land in the top six) fall into the second tier lottery to round out the top 20 selections. The final tier is a lottery among the playoff teams to determine picks 21-32. Once the first round is set, the order is repeated through each round of the supplemental process.
- The Tennessee Titans are a great fit for Buffalo Bills running back Travis Henry. Not only do the Titans like Henry's powerful style, Tennessee's incumbent at the position, Chris Brown, has done little to dispel questions about his durability. Brown's upright running style lends itself to punishing hits, making it a necessity that the Titans find a quality backup like Henry.
- The possibility of former Patriots cornerback Ty Law landing in Miami or Detroit is looking more likely this week after New York Jets cornerback Donnie Abraham announced he would return for the 2005 season. Law seemed a natural fit for the Jets, who appeared to be bracing for Abraham's retirement. Now that he's returning, it's expected that Law will land elsewhere.
- Bill Romanowski