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5 - Indianapolis Colts
A long season figures to get even longer if new boss Bill Polian doesn't get his money's worth out of a couple of 26-year-old cornerbacks
That's right. We said cornerback, not quarterback. While rookie signal-caller Peyton Manning was the big off-season pickup, signing a six-year deal that will likely be worth a minimum of $38 million, Polian bought himself security at a spot he considers, along with an outside pass rusher, the toughest position to fill on a defense. In mid-February, on the second day of free agency, Polian picked up the phone and did a sales job on Jeff Burris, late of the Bills, and persuaded him to sign a five-year, $20 million deal before Burris had the opportunity to make a single recruiting trip. Then, as training camp dawned, Polian ponied up a second-round 1999 draft choice to the Panthers for cornerback Tyrone Poole, who had been on the trading block since March; Polian followed with a stunner, tearing up Poole's contract and rewarding him with a five-year, $20 million deal.
Two corners. Zero Pro Bowls between them. Dallas pays one of the best cornerback tandems in the game, Deion Sanders and Kevin Smith, an average of $6.893 million a year. Indianapolis will pay its starting cornersassuming Poole beats out incumbent Carlton Grayan average of $8 million over the next five years. "When I got here, I saw a defense without much at cornerback in the way of coverage ability," says Polian, who, having had successful runs with the Bills and the Panthers, is with his third team in five years. "And we're in a division with Yatil Green [Dolphins], Keyshawn Johnson [Jets], Terry Glenn [Patriots] and Andre Reed [Bills]. We needed two cover corners, and we went out and got them."
Both new cornerbacks are 26 and former first-round draft selections. Burris, quick enough at 6'0" and 204 pounds, was a logical buy. But Poole? He's 5'8". He gives up seven inches to Johnson, six inches to Green. Polian, however, insists Poole can play bigger than he is. "Carolina got down on him because they're infatuated with big," says Polian. "I feel the game is more speed than big. Time will tell if I'm right."
In training camp Burris and Poole have taken their share of razzing. "On one of my first days in the cafeteria," Burris says, "one of the guys said to me, 'The executive suite is to your right, Governor.'" Burris and Poole will have to play like big-timers for Indianapolis to have a chance to see .500. While Manning struggles to get acclimated, the defense and special teams are going to have to keep the Colts in games. "In practice, we talk about creating opportunities for the offense all the time," says Burris. "We want to be impact players." Adds free safety Jason Belser, "We recognize the defense is going to have to win a few games for this team to get where we want to be."
Supervising the on-field reconstruction is a 63-year-old reclamation project. When last we saw Jim Mora in the NFL, as the Saints' coach in mid-1996, he was blowing a gasket in a profanity-laced diatribe directed at his team after a loss to Carolina. "Losing it like I did bothers the hell out of me, and it'll bother me for the rest of my life," says Mora, who won 93 games in 10-plus seasons in New Orleans. "But I'm a different coach now. I've got a fresh outlook. And I'm working with a great guy in Bill Polian, a football purist who knows what it takes to win."
In Indianapolis, the first thing it will take to win is patience. The second is a handful of front-seven players, but Polian won't be able to mine those until after this season. Watch out for this team in 1999, when Manning has a year under his belt and the defense has more depth. Until then, Burris and Poole are going to feel as much pressure as any pair of cornerbacks in the league.
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