Season In Review:
Throughout the course of the season, the training room was a busy place — a bit too busy. But despite the fact that Indianapolis lost the second-most starts to injuries of any team in the NFL in 2007, they finished 13-3 and won a division that featured both AFC Wild Card representatives.
The loss of stars such as Marvin Harrison and Dwight Freeney could have crippled other teams in the league. Instead, the Colts fought through those injuries and won the second seed in their conference.
It all starts with Tony Dungy, but the underrated Ron Meeks kept his defensive charges hustling — even with the loss of Anthony McFarland during training camp, Freeney for the second half of the season, and numerous injuries to a linebacking corps whose depth was tested all year.
Tom Moore was a steady hand on offense and worked with Jim Caldwell to keep Peyton Manning on the same page with a cast of unfamiliar receivers. The staff was able to keep their charges focused and hungry and did not accept excuses.
To get what they did out of the players they had available, it was certainly a huge effort by Dungy and his assistants and coordinators.
Bill Polian presided over another successful draft, with first-round selection Anthony Gonzalez faring much better than most first-year wideouts and second-round pick Tony Ugoh, when healthy, filling in admirably at left tackle after the sudden retirement of Tarik Glenn.
Fourth-round pick Clint Session stepped up when called upon, as did seventh-round pick Keyunta Dawson, who also contributed on special teams. Third-rounder Quinn Pitcock was a disappointment and the Colts still don't know what they have in fifth-round choice Michael Coe, but a deep team like Indianapolis needs to win in the first three rounds, and it certainly did that.
The Colts also scored big on undrafted free agents, with Ed Johnson starting every game this season in place of McFarland.
The free-agent market was a mixed bag, but one that involved low-risk players. Polian looked brilliant in signing Clifton Dawson and Rocky Boiman to meager contracts, but also brought on Simeon Rice, who was a disappointment.
And, of course, the team ultimately fell short in its quest to repeat as Super Bowl champions, losing its first game in the Divisional Round to the San Diego Chargers.
Tony Dungy decided to return for at least another season
Dungy's steady hand and consistent approach keep this team together and running efficiently. He has surrounded himself with a very capable staff and the consistency with Caldwell, Meeks, and Moore — three men who have been with Dungy throughout his entire tenure with the Colts — as well as assistants such as Clyde Christiensen, Mike Murphy, and Alan Williams, who likewise have been with Indianapolis for at least six seasons, is all part of what makes this team so successful from one season to the next.
Polian has built this team from the ground up, with nearly every starter someone that the Colts drafted during his time with the club. He has been extraordinarily successful in the first three rounds of the draft and has rarely missed on a first-round selection.
Additionally, he seems to be able to identify men on defense and along the interior of the offensive line on an annual basis that possess the physical skills and mental ability to be plugged into the Indianapolis system and become productive players.
With so much cap space tied up in certain skill position players that critical to the effectiveness of the team, Polian's ability to find these players is what helps Dungy hold everything together and move this squad towards greatness.
Though they have been right more often than they've been wrong throughout the past decade, the last six seasons in particular, Polian will need to find more cheap, motivated labor at the hub positions on the offensive line and Dungy and his staff will need to coach them up once again, as both Jake Scott and Ryan Lilja are pending free agents.
The market for quality guards has improved considerably and good, young talent can command a premium on the open market.
The Colts will be able to keep only one of those men, should they choose to do so, but certainly not both.
Depth is needed along the defensive and offensive lines, as well as quality at the receiver and running back positions and the cupboard may be bare by the middle of March at tight end.
There are simply too many high priority needs at too many positions to fill all of them through the draft. Polian has an excellent track record for evaluating NFL prospects, but no one is that good. Some vacancies must be filled by free agents.
The organization is not typically active in the free agent market, so it will be interesting to see the results and how mixed they are.
There is always the pending retirement of Tony Dungy that hangs in there air heading into each season. Will 2008 be his last season? Will he continue coaching into the next decade, or will he step aside and give Jim Caldwell the reins of the franchise?
Future head coach Jim Caldwell
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Only Dungy himself knows the answer to those questions and he likely will not have a concrete answer until after the coming season has ended. In the meantime, questions about the head coach's future should not be a distraction, as Dungy runs a tight enough ship that he will not allow his players to be distracted.
Additionally, the head coaching jobs that Caldwell interviewed for were filled after he had already taken his name out of consideration and Ron Meeks didn't get the head job with the Washington Redskins, which went to Jim Zorn.
The staff will be together and most of the starters will return, with Dungy revitalized and ready to lead his team to victory.
As mentioned previously, there will simply be too many holes in the dam to plug with draft picks, especially considering the lack of a first-round pick in the 2008 draft.
Polian will need to find at least one quality defensive lineman — preferably an end — a receiver with some experience to mentor the younger wideouts currently on the roster and provide depth, and possibly a running back that could be part of the rotation with Kenton Keith and Joseph Addai.
The Colts don't have a lot of room under the salary cap to operate with, but they should be able to acquire some veteran talent at reasonable prices as the free agency period wears on.
Speaking of the salary cap, it looms over this team much larger than the specter of Dungy's retirement. The Colts have been in the top 10 in the NFL the past five seasons in terms of payroll and have often exceeded the cap in a given season.
The overdrawn funds in each of those years will need to be paid back at some point, so the window appears to be rapidly closing for Indianapolis.
While building for the long term is certainly a sound strategy, the nucleus of players currently on the roster is a rare blend of talent and chemistry and may not be duplicated, no matter how skilled Polian is.
Since the long-term outlook is grim from a salary cap perspective, the Colts need to think in the short term this offseason and next offseason, acquiring as much talent as possible to put them over the top.
This strategy failed for the Titans during the late 1990s and certainly did not work out the way the Patriots expected this season, but it's a chance Indianapolis needs to take.