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4 INDIANAPOLIS Colts
Paul Zimmerman
September 01, 1997
In the old days an offensive line would stay together for five years, maybe longer. Free agency has ended that. Linemen move around now if they're young and skilled, going wherever they can earn big bucks. Or they become salary-cap casualties when even bigger bucks go to the so-called skill-position players.
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September 01, 1997

4 Indianapolis Colts

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1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 9-7 (third in AFC East)

Rushing

Passing

Total

OFFENSE

90.5(28)

206.0(16)

296.5(25)

DEFENSE

110.0(18)

227.7(23)

337.7(22)

In the old days an offensive line would stay together for five years, maybe longer. Free agency has ended that. Linemen move around now if they're young and skilled, going wherever they can earn big bucks. Or they become salary-cap casualties when even bigger bucks go to the so-called skill-position players.

An unsettled line, manned by marginal and hopeful players, can cause an offense to be torn apart, especially a quarterback. Just ask the Colts' Jim Harbaugh. Last season the Patriots broke his nose in one game and wrenched his knee in another. The Bills bruised and battered him with six sacks. In the AFC wild-card game, a 42-14 loss to Pittsburgh, he suffered a chipped tooth, a deep gash in his mouth and a pinched nerve in his neck.

Harbaugh says that the punishment he absorbed in '96, when he was sacked 36 times, was even worse than what he suffered in his final season with the Bears in '93, when he was sacked 43 times. "And you know what? I dodged a lot of bullets last year," he says. "There could have been some season-ending things in there."

The offensive line will be marginal again this year, with a group of players who are promising at best. How could Indianapolis have let this drag on so long?

Give the Colts this much credit: They went for linemen with their first two picks in the draft. The team's top choice, tackle Tarik Glenn from Cal, didn't sign until midway through the preseason—and if there's one position at which you want a young player working and learning as soon as possible, it's the offensive line, which depends on coordination and timing. Second-round choice Adam Meadows, from Georgia, got considerable practice time while Glenn was holding out, and he could even be a starter at guard or tackle on the side opposite Glenn. (Center Kirk Lowdermilk has retired, so positions on the line will be shuffled.) Still, there are no cornerstones here, no serious free-agent pickups. Coach Lindy Infante admits the line is an "area of concern," and he keeps mentioning guys who must "step up." But, hey, they can't all step up.

O.K., we'll stop griping. It's nice to hear that running backs Marshall Faulk and Zack Crockett are healthy again, and Indianapolis is expecting even bigger things from wideout Marvin Harrison after a fine rookie year. At tight end Ken Dilger is an emerging force.

On defense the three top performers are gone: tackle Tony Siragusa to the Ravens and cornerback Ray Buchanan to the Falcons by way of free agency, and middle linebacker Jeff Herrod was cut in June to clear room under the salary cap. Three free agents arrived: end Al Fontenot from Chicago and defensive backs Carlton Gray and Robert Blackmon, both from a Seattle defense that ranked 24th in the NFL. In short, even with consistent players like end Tony Bennett, tackle Tony McCoy and free safety Jason Belser, the defense has not improved.

But here's the thing about the Colts, and it's probably as good a reason as any why when no one gave them much of a chance in the playoffs, they came one play away from the Super Bowl two years ago; and why when they were banged up and struggling, they made the playoffs again last year: They play hard, relentless football. They win games they shouldn't. Who can forget the Thursday-nighter last December when the Colts had five defensive starters out and played like wild men, running the Eagles out of the RCA Dome 37-10? Or how about the September game in Dallas, when they had seven starters out and upset the heavily favored Cowboys 25-24?

These guys are well coached. They'll win their share—somehow, someway—but they'll face a lot of exotic zone blitzes and a lot of pressure. I don't envy Jim Harbaugh.

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