This playoff push a rough ride for Dungy, Colts

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Through all the high-scoring victories, bids for a perfect season, wild comebacks, crazed finishes, playoff disappointments and, eventually, a Super Bowl triumph, the enduring image of Tony Dungy is one of calm.

From Tampa to Indy, the sweater-vest-wearing Dungy often looked unflappable amid the storm.

There isn't a right or wrong way to be successful in the NFL, but there aren't many doing it Dungy's way anymore. He's a throwback in an era of the thrown clipboard; a man who projects decency and respect rather than denigration and rage.

So it's fitting that what might be his final season as the Indianapolis Colts' head coach isn't some smooth ride toward a No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Rather, it's been a spin from disastrous start to white-hot finish that can be credited to Dungy's ability to stay the course, keep his team together and retain faith that the plan would eventually succeed.


Dungy with former assistant and current Lions coach Rod Marinelli on Sunday.

(US Presswire/Brian Spurlock)

Indianapolis started November at 3-4 and looked like a team whose championship window had closed for good. Seven weeks and seven victories later, it is focused on securing a playoff spot Thursday at Jacksonville so the starters can rest in the final week.

"We've now put ourselves on the doorstep," Dungy said Monday.

No one saw this coming … except Dungy.

When the Colts lost to Tennessee in late October, Dungy didn't call out his players, he didn't point blame at assistants, and he didn't stop believing that anything was possible this season. He softly addressed the disappointment and looked to the future.

"We'll see what the last nine games bring," he said that evening. "If we play well and get ourselves on a streak and get going, we can be a playoff team. I think once you get in the playoffs, anything can happen – as we've seen two of the last three years."

Through what should be a Hall of Fame career, one that saw him run a legendary defense in Tampa Bay and a legendary offense in Indy (by giving responsibility to offensive coordinator Tom Moore), his unbending optimism has proven most reliable.

His 135-69 record in 13 NFL seasons ranks him 18th all time in total victories. This should be his 11th playoff appearance, and his Colts have now won 10 or more games in all seven of his seasons in Indy.

It's more than that, though. Former players swear by him like almost no one else in the league. His assistants are fiercely loyal: In seven years, only three members of his staff have left for any reason.

In some circles, he's best known as an inspirational, best-selling author. He's a part of a number of major charities, can't begin to handle all the speaking and preaching requests, and continues to take the time for his prison ministry.

Advertiser and marketing ratings systems have his likeability among the top 15 celebrities in the country and among the very top in sports.

It might be because he continues to want so little of the credit for his team's success.

"Our coaching staff has been phenomenal during this run, working with young guys and getting them ready to play," he said. "It takes everything. It takes talented players able to focus."

Dungy, 53, has not announced his retirement date, although speculation last January that he was stepping down led the organization to tab associate head coach Jim Caldwell his eventual successor. Dungy can choose when he wants to go. He gets to write his own ticket.

Many expect this to be that final season, at least in Indy. It's why many of his supporters feared he had stayed a year too long when the team looked off-kilter early. Dungy kept preaching the virtues of time and repetition, especially since Peyton Manning missed all of the preseason because of injury.

It's one thing to say it, it's another to not panic and try something drastic. Seasons implode all the time in the NFL.

"It's the fact we've been through a lot together and we rely on those past experiences," Dungy said Monday. "We've got good, hard-working guys who understand the most important thing is winning.

"Because we've won so many games, we realize what you did last week doesn't really have a bearing on what you're going to [do] next week. We try to keep all that in perspective.

"At 3-4, we knew what the problems were," he continued. "A lot of it was ourselves and our execution, and that's what we focused on more so than pointing the finger at someone or figuring out who to blame. A lot of that goes back to the players really listening to the coaches."

A lot of it goes back to Tony Dungy, again barreling toward the playoffs, again maximizing his talent, again performing a calm, quiet, low-frills job in the middle of this loud, overreacting, look-at-me league.

If this is it for Dungy, if this is his final season, perhaps there's no better way for him to go out.