John Crist: There has been all kinds of speculation into the health of Peyton Manning's knee here in Chicago, and apparently there are rumors circling that he actually had a second surgical procedure and could be more injured than the team is letting everyone believe. Personally, I don't think there's any doubt that he'll play in the opener and probably start all 16 games this season like he always does, but take us back through the timeline of his injury and how you think it may affect him in 2008. Does his consecutive games streak finally come to an end?
Eric Hartz: The Colts are notoriously secretive about injuries, so it came as a surprise in July when the team announced that Manning had knee surgery one week before training camp began. It's entirely possible that the rumors of a second knee surgery are true, since he was asked about that last week and didn't deny it.
However, the fact that the Colts cut Jared Lorenzen and Quinn Gray and have just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster is a good indication that the team doesn't have any lingering doubts about Manning's health, and it looks like he will be a go for the opener and the season. The good news for Bears fans is that he hasn't faced a live, hostile defense since last January, so his timing and reactions may mean he's not as sharp as usual on Sep. 7. Then again, a not-so-sharp Peyton Manning is still better than most quarterbacks in the league.
JC: Joseph Addai is one of the more complete running backs in the NFL and was highly coveted in fantasy football drafts from sea to shining sea, but it seems like almost every ball-carrier in that offense performs well. We all know that Edgerrin James might end up in the Hall of Fame one day, although nobody expects to see James Mungo or Kenton Keith in Canton unless he buys a ticket like the rest of us. How much of Addai's success is the result of his own ability, and how much of it is the product of an incredible offensive scheme?
EH: It's difficult to quantify something like that, but for the sake of comparison, let's say it's 70 percent ability and 30 percent system. For other backs like Mungro or Keith, that ratio may have been closer to 60-40 or even 50-50.
The Colts have a specific skill set they look for in terms of running ability (and to a certain degree, style), receiving ability, and comprehension of the offense. James and Addai have not only been the best prototypes for the Colts system, but they've also been the most talented players in that system, and their productivity has reflected that. But other, less talented backs have also been very effective in the system — Dominic Rhodes in particular has been more productive at times than Addai. Bears fans already know how effective Rhodes can be.
JC: Marvin Harrison has been one of the most consistently prolific wide receivers the game has ever seen, but he finally showed some signs of wear and tear this past season when he missed 11 games with a knee injury. We still don't know just how healthy Harrison will be this year, although Reggie Wayne has officially taken over as the top target in the passing game. If you had to take a guess, will Harrison or second-year pro Anthony Gonzalez be the one who ends up complementing Wayne on the other side of the formation in 2008?
EH: While Gonzalez should easily surpass his rookie numbers and continue to improve his overall game, he still has experience and size limitations that will prevent him from becoming a No. 2 receiver this season. I expect that the No. 2 — or 1A — option will be Harrison. He's looked sharp in the preseason, and there's no receiver in the NFL with his savvy. He's actually quite durable (his injury was somewhat of a freak accident) and good at avoiding hits.
The last 12 months have been quite tumultuous for Harrison, and he's not getting any younger. But the idea of a first-ballot Hall of Famer with something left to prove as he reaches the twilight of his career is quite enticing for Colts fans. I expect him to play with a chip on his shoulder and have a very productive season.
Speaking in more general terms about the passing game, Manning is surrounded with a cast of targets — Wayne, Harrison, Gonzalez, Dallas Clark, rookie Jacob Tamme, plus Addai and Rhodes — that are as good as he has ever had, and if everyone stays healthy, the Colts' QB could rival the numbers from his prolific 2005 campaign when he threw a then-NFL record 49 touchdown passes.
JC: It may have taken much longer than most everyone expected, but head coach Tony Dungy has finally turned the Colts into a solid defensive team, as well. The D-end tandem of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis is one of the best in the business when operating at full capacity, and Bob Sanders is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year from his strong safety position. But tell us more about the three starting linebackers — Gary Brackett, Freddy Keiaho, and Tyjuan Hagler — because they seem to be getting very little attention.
EH: The linebacking corps is as good an indicator as any at the skill Bill Polian and the Colts front office have at evaluating talent that will suit their system. Brackett was undrafted out of Rutgers in 2003 and is quite short (5-11) and light (235 pounds) for an NFL middle linebacker. Yet he's worked his way into the lineup and is the team's defensive captain, and his play in 2007 approached Pro-Bowl level.
Keiaho broke into the starting lineup last season after being selected in the third round of the NFL Draft. Like Brackett, he's also quite small for his position at 5-11 and 226 pounds.
Hagler bounced back and forth from the starting lineup and the strong and weak side last season, but acquitted himself well in his first significant playing time aside from special teams. He'll start the season on the PUP list so the Bears won't see him, but keep an eye on his replacement, Clint Session. The second-year man from Pittsburgh has a knack for making big plays — and occasionally big mistakes. If he can eliminate the latter and continue the former, he could become a star.
JC: If you look at Adam Vinatieri's career numbers, they're not very impressive when you consider how accurate kickers are in this league nowadays. Sure, he's registered triple digits in scoring every season since he was a rookie with the Patriots in 1996, but he only hit on 23 of 29 field goals last year and hasn't connected from 50 yards or longer since 2002 believe it or not. Has he been worth all that money he got in free agency, and should the Bears be worried about handing Robbie Gould his record-setting contract?
EH: 2007 was no doubt a down year for Vinatieri, and he'll be looking for redemption in 2008. I'd argue that yes, he was worth the money the Colts spent on him. Especially after dealing with Mike Vanderjagt for years, who was the NFL's most accurate kicker — unless the game was on the line, when he was one of the worst. With Vinatieri, the Colts were buying peace of mind if nothing else, and he essentially carried the team to a playoff win over Baltimore after the 2006 season. Add in the Super Bowl title that season, and they've already gotten their money's worth out of the investment just by filling in one of the missing pieces of the puzzle.
I think that peace of mind is a valuable thing for everyone from teammates and coaches down to the fans, and Gould has done it as well as anyone in the business for the last couple of years. And with the trouble the Bears have scoring, I think holding on to a consistent point-getter like Gould is in their best interest.
Be on the lookout for Part II of this series, where John answers five questions from Eric.
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