Humbling offseason

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

INDIANAPOLIS – Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy got his dose of humility in a New York City bookstore this offseason.

"Yeah, I was going through the offseason feeling pretty good about everything when my wife and I were in the bookstore," said Dungy, the man of grace, a Super Bowl ring and now a best-selling book. "Then someone from the bookstore came up to me and said, 'It's so good to have you here, Coach Edwards.' … The Lord has a way of keeping you humble."

Dungy shared a laugh over that with his good friend and former assistant, Kansas City coach Herm Edwards. More important, the moment was the first of many reminders that winning a Super Bowl guarantees little in life, even recognition.

The further reminder of that has come in training camp. The Colts may be the defending champions, but they are a very different team from that rainy night in Miami during Super Bowl XLI less than seven months ago.

Gone are four starters on defense and left tackle Tarik Glenn on offense. There's also a new No. 3 receiver, first-round draft pick Anthony Gonzalez, who is already ingratiating himself to quarterback Peyton Manning.

"It's hard not to notice in the locker room that there are different guys … than last year," said Manning, MVP of the Super Bowl. "That is very noticeable that guys aren't here and that keeps you focused. I'm not saying you want it. You'd rather have every guy here and not lose anybody off your best team. But it keeps you busy and keeps you active."

In Manning's never-ending quest to throw a perfect pass on every play, he has struck up a kinship with his new receiver.

"Gonzalez, I can tell, has read the whole playbook. It's like how they put that $5 bill on page 300, he's got it," Manning said. "So yeah it does, it keeps you focused. We had good offseason attendance, nobody missed. It doesn't guarantee you're going to win, but at least it's a good start."

But for every great thing that has happened collectively or individually, from the Super Bowl to defensive end Dwight Freeney signing a six-year, $72 million contract that included $30 million in guarantees, there has been a reminder that fame is fleeting.

The latest reminder was the season-ending injury to defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, who played a vital role during the stretch run and the playoffs last season.

Bottom line: If the Colts are to repeat, it will be a test of how fast their star-driven team can get up to speed with all the changes. Although it helps when a team has a nucleus like the one built and maintained by general manager Bill Polian.

Polian's strength has been spending big money at crucial positions. On offense, he has kept the communication-heavy passing trio of Manning, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne together. On defense, he has paid for speedy pass rushers Freeney and Robert Mathis, a valuable commodity to find because such players change the game so much.

"When you have one of those guys, it's amazing how much easier the game becomes," Tennessee defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said of the defensive ends. "When you have two, the effect is not just double, it's beyond that. You're multiplying the value way beyond what most people would think. All of a sudden, the offense is doing all sorts of things to adjust to what you're doing and it opens up the rest of the game for everybody."

Dungy, one of the architects of the Cover 2 defensive scheme and a member of the great Pittsburgh teams of the 1970s, believes almost as devoutly as he believes in his Christian faith that speed trumps size on defense. He has also impressed it upon his players.

"You see the way teams play us and you know that they have to account for our speed," Mathis said. For instance, Mathis said he has never seen an opponent play an empty-set backfield against the Colts.

"Not unless they were trying some one-step drop or something with their quarterback. … What we see a lot is the other team using eight guys to protect their quarterback," said Mathis, who led the team with 9½ sacks last season. "They're chipping me with a running back and keeping a tight end over with Dwight and still keeping the other running back in to help. They're using eight blockers on our four guys up front."

Even in an "off" year when Freeney recorded just 5½ sacks, his impact was felt … though Manning wants more from the star defender.

"I told him: 'For all that money, you've got a lot more responsibility on you. You've got to be scoring touchdowns now,'" Manning said with a grin.

Dungy will be happy to take Freeney as the speed guy he is, hoping that makes life easier on the guys who have to replace cornerbacks Nick Harper and Jason David and linebacker Cato June, all lost to free agency. Dungy is confident the situation will be fine. More than fine, actually.

"We'll be better on defense this year," Dungy said, succinctly.

On Monday night in the second exhibition game, Dungy's confidence was boosted when cornerback Marlin Jackson, who is taking over for Harper, picked off a pass against Chicago. Overall, the first-string defense handled the Bears' first-string offense quite effectively, forcing two turnovers and allowing only 16 yards rushing on nine carries.

Of course, such a performance can be discounted quickly. This is, after all, the preseason and last year in the regular season was a much different story for the Colts. The run defense finished last in the NFL and was continually embarrassed until getting to the playoffs.

Indeed, the Colts were humiliated much of last season. But as Dungy might say, those who remain humble and work hard have a way of getting rewarded.

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