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The Jeff Falconio Blog

How The Indianapolis Colts Became Super

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For the Indianapolis Colts, the journey to Super Bowl XLIV can be traced all the way back to 1997.  That year the Colts were a lowly 3-13 and had the number one pick in the 1998 NFL Draft.  Of course, Indianapolis selected quarterback Peyton Manning but the rest wasn't history.


In his second season Manning led the Colts to a surprising AFC East title and the number two seed in the playoffs but the Cinderella season ended with a loss to Tennessee in the divisional round.  In 2000 Indianapolis returned to the playoffs but again lost their first game. 


Thus a trend emerged.  After back-to-back early playoff exits people began to question Indianapolis' toughness and if Manning had the makeup to be a championship quarterback.  While this was going on in the spring of 2001 another trend emerged: the Colts unparalleled success with first round draft picks.  To complement veteran receiver Marvin Harrison, the Colts used their first rounder on Reggie Wayne.  The championship seeds had been planted.  With Harrison, Wayne and running back Edgerrin James the Colts had a dynamic offense but with no defense to speak of Indianapolis fell to 6-10.


Heading into 2002 Indianapolis replaced Jim Mora with defensive-minded Tony Dungy as head coach.  Dungy had transformed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from a laughingstock to perennial playoff contenders thanks in large part to his defensive philosophy.  Meanwhile the Colts scored in the draft again with the first round selection of speedy pass rusher Dwight Freeney.  Indianapolis returned to the playoffs in 2002 but were drubbed by the New York Jets 41-0. 


Three playoff appearances under Manning, no playoff wins.


In 2003 the Colts mined another successful draft by taking pass catching tight end Dallas Clark with the first pick and later added a bookend for Freeney with defensive end Robert Mathis.  The Colts also acquired middle linebacker Gary Brackett in free agency.  The defensive personnel was getting better but as the 2003 season began the Colts were known only as an offensive juggernaut.  The Colts won the AFC South in '03 with a 12-4 record but more importantly they finally scored a playoff win.  In fact the Colts parlayed postseason wins over Denver and Kansas City into an AFC Championship showdown against the rugged New England Patriots.  Indianapolis appeared to be on the verge of looking like a Super Bowl team but the Colts were shut down by the Patriots 24-14 as Manning was intercepted four times.


Knowing that the road to the Super Bowl would go through New England again the Colts focused on getting aggressive defensively and selected physical safety Bob Sanders with their first pick in the 2004 draft.  But there was no doubt the Colts were still an offensive machine and Manning exploded for 4,557 passing yards and a then-NFL record 49 touchdowns.  Again the Colts finished 12-4.  Again they faced the Patriots in the playoffs.  Again they came away losers, this time 20-3 in the divisional round.


The scouting report was now out on the Colts: a good team that can't play physical football.  However Dungy continued to put his thumbprint on the franchise aand in the 2005 draft the Colts used their first three picks on defensive players, including cornerbacks Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden.  At long last Indianapolis had the pieces in place to be a Super Bowl team.  This would be their best chance experts predicted.  Sure enough the Colts started '05 13-0, including a win at New England.  Although the Colts stumbled down the stretch they finished 14-2 and had homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.  The Colts were now the team to beat.  Indianapolis squared off against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional playoffs and it came down to a Mike Vanderjagt field goal attempt.  The kick sailed wide right and with it went Indy's best chance at winning the Super Bowl.


Or so it appeared.


Indianapolis scored again in the draft in 2006 with first rounder Joseph Addai who would replace the departed James in the backfield.  The Colts also picked up tackle Charlie Johnson and safety Antoine Bethea.  The same script played out as the Colts registered another 12-4 season to go with a fourth divisional title.  Indianapolis finished the year second in scoring offense but 23rd in scoring defense.  It looked like once again Indy would not be physical enough to survive the brutal AFC playoffs but the Colts beat Kansas City and Baltimore to set up another showdown with the Patriots.  But this time was different as the Colts scored a dramatic come-from-behind win over New England.  With the monkey off their backs the Colts were crowned Super Bowl champions two weeks later.


As 2007 began the Colts had finally adopted Dungy's defensive philosophy and they finished 1st in scoring defense.  Prior to that the '07 offseason was another fruitful one as the Colts drafted wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez first, then linebacker Clint Session and signed safety Melvin Bullitt in free agency.  Indianapolis finished '07 13-3 but old habits die hard and the Colts were again one-and-done in the playoffs.


The 2008 draft was not a memorable one save for the late round selection of Mount Union's Pierre Garcon.  Coming off another playoff disaster and with Manning dinged up and sitting out the preseason it looked like the Super Bowl window was slowly closing for Indianapolis.  By the end of October the Colts were staggering at 3-4.  However, they wouldn't lose again in the regular season as Manning got healthy and then torched the NFL in the second half of the season.   Another 12-4 season.  Another MVP for Manning.  Another early playoff exit.  Perhaps the Colts were a one-trick pony. 


However, the Colts came back even stronger than ever.  2009 was an offseason of change as Dungy stepped down and handed the reigns to Jim Caldwell.  In April the Colts re-stocked offensively with draft picks Donald Brown and Austin Collie.  Manning was razor sharp throughout 2009, winning his fourth MVP trophy as the Colts reeled off 14 wins to start the season.  Coupled with the nine game winning streak to end '08 Indianapolis set a record with 25 straight regular season wins.  But in Week 16 the Colts elected to sit the starters late in the third quarter against the Jets and the perfect season ended.  Everyone questioned if it was the right move but all doubts were erased once the playoffs began.  After years of focusing on defense the Colts looked the part with physical wins over Baltimore and New York.


Now the Colts are back in the Super Bowl and if there's any wonder as to how they've maintained such success in the parity-driven NFL for so long one only needs to look back at the last nine draft classes.  All nine first round picks from 2001 to 2009 remain on the roster and 14 of the 22 starters on the field Sunday were draft picks.  Such remarkable success in the draft coupled with numerous key acquisitions in free agency has transformed the Colts from a one-sided offensive threat to the most complete team in the NFL.  With Manning at the helm, protected by a solid offensive line and surrounded by weapons at every skill position Indianapolis is poised once again to become Super Bowl champions.

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