Clearly, this has not been a run-of-the-mill offseason for the Indianapolis Colts. Not with a trip to the White House and the ceremony to distribute the diamond-studded Super Bowl rings.
Normalcy will return as players report to Terre Haute, Ind., for the start of training camp. That's when the dazzling distractions that accompany a Super Bowl championship must give way to a message coach Tony Dungy will issue to his players: The only way to win another title is to do what made the first one possible.
AFC SOUTH PREVIEWS
AFC SOUTH PREVIEWS
The offseason was not kind to the Colts' roster. Seven prominent players departed, including four who played significant roles in the drive to the win against Chicago in Super Bowl XLI: linebacker Cato June, cornerbacks Jason David and Nick Harper and running back Dominic Rhodes. But the nucleus remains. That means opposing defenses must brace themselves for quarterback Peyton Manning, wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne and running back Joseph Addai, who will carry the running load this season.
Offense: The focus is on maximizing the available personnel and adapting to it. Few do it better than Tom Moore, who has been the mastermind behind one of the NFL's most vibrant attacks since 1998. More adjustments, subtle but significant, will occur after the departure of Brandon Stokley. No longer does Moore have a proven slot receiver, though first-round pick Anthony Gonzalez gives Moore the option of using a three-receiver set or his beloved two-tight end formation.
Defense: Which is the Colts' real defense: the porous regular-season unit or the stingy playoff squad? No philosophical changes have been made, and it's imperative for players to be sounder in their assignments and execution. If the run defense reverts to last year's regular-season form, the team will struggle to repeat. A couple of things need to happen: 1) The play of the linebackers must be better; it was substandard much of last season; 2) Safety Bob Sanders, a Pro Bowl selection in '05, must stay healthy – he missed 12 games last season with a knee injury.
QB Peyton Manning: There is a method to the madness that precedes every snap taken by Manning. It's all about reading defenses, adjusting blocking assignments and getting into a play that has a chance of succeeding. The effectiveness of the approach is rooted in the unwavering trust that exists between Manning and Moore.
Not only is Manning arguably the most indispensable player in the league, but he's the best at operating an offense that requires split-second decisions. More often than not, the decisions are good ones – Manning has thrown no more than 10 interceptions in each of the past four years.
Manning delivers the ball where it's supposed to go – as evidenced by his 64 percent career completion rate – and works in concert with his line to limit sacks.
RB Joseph Addai: In Moore's system, a running back not only must be a productive runner but he also must be a reliable option as a receiver and a viable part of the pass protection.
With his ability to handle all three elements, Addai has been a perfect fit. Despite his size (5-foot-11, 214 pounds), he runs with power and – most important – he excels at running the team's patented stretch play. He showed the necessary patience, and once he made his decision to cut, he accelerated impressively through the hole. After catching 40 passes during the regular season, Addai had 10 receptions in the Super Bowl. And he was consistently solid with his pass blocking.
With Rhodes' offseason departure to Oakland, Addai is the only back on the roster who has carried the ball during the regular season.
WRs Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne: The passing offense – which has ranked no lower than No. 6 in the league since Manning's arrival in '98 – hinges on a blend of rhythm and timing. Manning is supremely confident his receivers will be at the right spot at the right time and typically hits them in stride, which maximizes their run-after-the-catch opportunities.
Harrison and Wayne work well in the system because of their ability to avoid contact at the line. When corners miss their jam attempts on Harrison, he can go deep on them in a blink. He has produced at least 10 touchdown catches in eight consecutive seasons, an NFL record.
The team took a major step toward complementing its dynamite duo by selecting Gonzalez with the last pick of the first round. With his speed and after-the-catch sizzle, Gonzalez has the skill set to be an ideal replacement for Stokley in the slot.
SS Bob Sanders: The key at safety – and perhaps for the entire secondary – is Sanders' health. A big hitter who provides an emotional presence, Sanders was a catalyst to the Super Bowl victory, but he has missed half of the team's 48 regular-season games the past three seasons. If Sanders can stay on field, he and Antoine Bethea, a sixth-round pick in '06 who started 14 games, will form a solid safety duo. Depth at the position is a concern – especially because of Sanders' injury history. The only reserve with NFL experience is Matt Giordano, a competent stopgap option and solid special teams contributor.
VINNIE IYER'S TAKE
Some free-agent departures – especially on defense – hurt the chances of a Super Bowl repeat, but Manning and Dungy will keep the champs among the AFC's best. Prediction: 13-3 (1st in the AFC South).
Seven players who started a combined 273 games for Indy no longer are on the roster – a significant hit, for sure. But if the Colts keep their difference-making core players on the field, they will be challengers not only for a fifth straight AFC South title, but also for a second straight Super Bowl championship. Expectations are high – and they should be. But to realize those expectations, the Colts have to fix their problems on defense, particularly because they face stiff competition in the AFC.
Mike Chappell covers the Colts for the Indianapolis Star and Sporting News.