For 48 hours last January, Tony Dungy was content to remain a former NFL head coach. Following Tampa Bay's second consecutive wild-card playoff loss in Philadelphia, Dungy was fired, an inglorious end to his six-year tenure as the most successful coach in the team's history. Upon receiving the news, he huddled with his wife, Lauren, to weigh his options. Though his name was already being mentioned for other jobs, Dungy considered another calling: prison ministry. "It's something I've always wanted to do, and I thought that maybe the time had come to try it," he says. "I wasn't sure I still wanted to be a coach in the NFL."
As devout and straight-talking as they come, Dungy would no doubt have been a tremendous minister. But when Colts president Bill Polian offered him his team's coaching job (vacant after the firing of Jim Mora), Dungy accepted. Now, he ministers to Indianapolis defenders, who last year were shackled by then defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's complicated, zone-blitz packages, for which they were too slow and inexperienced. Dungy preaches a simpler, ball-hawking Cover 2 scheme, inspiring a defense that last season gave up an NFL-high 30.4 points and an AFC-high 357.2 yards a game to think that this could be a breakout year.
"I've studied film of Tampa's defense for a long time, just because it's such a beautiful thing to watch. Having it here, well, it's been like night and day," says defensive tackle Ellis Johnson. "Last year we were taking on too many blocks and trying to read then react, instead of just flying to the ball. Guys were being asked to do things they couldn't really do. I mean, Ph.D.'s couldn't have figured out our defense."
"The worst part is watching film from last year and seeing how many big plays we gave up because of stupid mental mistakes," says defensive end Chad Bratzke. "It always felt as if we were one step behind." Bratzke, the Colts' best defender and leading sacker in each of the last three years, routinely faced double teams in 2001, partly because Indianapolis had so few playmakers. That will change if rookies such as left end Dwight Freeney of Syracuse and tackle Larry Tripplett of Washington—both exceptionally quick for their positions—are able to give the Colts the multipronged pass rush they've lacked since Bratzke arrived as a free agent from the Giants in 1999. "This defense needs speed, and our young guys give us a lot more this year," Bratzke says. "It's exciting when guys are swarming all over the place. Having a scheme that fits our personnel makes it fun again."
When it comes to the offense—again led by the formidable trio of quarterback Peyton Manning, running back Edgerrin James and wideout Marvin Harrison—the fun should be all Dungy's. (Also back is offensive coordinator Tom Moore, who recruited Dungy at the University of Minnesota.) "When you change jobs, normally you don't inherit a Pro Bowl quarterback," Dungy says. "Our offense is in good hands."
Manning threw for 4,131 yards and 26 touchdowns last season, but he also tossed 23 interceptions, second most in the NFL. That number will decline if James (who looked good in camp after returning from surgery to repair the left ACL that he tore last October) returns to form and Qadry Ismail, a free-agent pickup from the Ravens, emerges as a steady alternative to the ever-dangerous Harrison.
"The perception is that our defense lost games for us last year, but the reality is that we lost as a team," Dungy says. "We have to cut down on the turnovers, improve on special teams, improve our team speed. If we do those things, we should be fine."
But if the Colts are to reverse field after last year's 6-10 debacle and step up to challenge the Titans for AFC South dominance, their revamped defense must come through. Polian, for one, is certain that Indianapolis got the right man for the job. Asked the difference from last year to this on defense, he cuts the question short. "It's a sea change," Polian says. "With Tony here, it's as dramatic a change as you can get."
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