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Super Bowl champs with the best quarterback in football should be mortal locks for the postseason the following year, even if some sort of decimating off-season sets in. Like this one. " Bill Parcells told me once that five things will happen every day in this job that you didn't expect at the start of the day," says club president Bill Polian. The Colts didn't expect to lose linebacker Cato June (free agency, Tampa Bay), left tackle Tarik Glenn (retirement the week before camp began), defensive tackle Booger McFarland (knee surgery during camp) or six other full- or part-time starters--players who started a combined 105 games last year. But when Peyton Manning and 70% of the other first-line players are back, the sky is not falling.
Preceding the first practice of camp, coach Tony Dungy put 10 names on the board, names like Edgerrin James and David Thornton, key players from the past who didn't play in last year's Super Bowl. "Tony made a great point," Manning says. "He just put the names out there and said, 'What's the correlation?' These were guys we lost, and yet we still won it. Now we still got Marvin Harrison, Dwight Freeney, Bob Sanders, Reggie Wayne, Joseph Addai. We're going to be O.K." More than O.K., most likely.
WHERE THEY'RE HEADED
This is when the Polian-Dungy brain trust is at its best. Polian's 10-year draft record is beyond remarkable; it's the kind of accomplishment that along with his previous playoff architecture jobs in Buffalo and Carolina, will have him up for the Hall of Fame someday. Look at his 10 first-round picks in Indianapolis: Manning, James, Rob Morris (a full-time starter on Colts playoff teams in 2002, '03 and '04 and back in the starting lineup this year), Wayne, Freeney, Dallas Clark, Sanders, Marlin Jackson, Addai, Anthony Gonzalez. Eight of them will start for the Colts this year. The ninth, rookie slot receiver Gonzalez, is slated to play a good 50% of downs. The 10th, James, is in the second year of a rich free-agent contract in Arizona after seven excellent seasons in�Indy.
Of the 22 projected offensive and defensive starters in 2007, only one--defensive tackle Raheem Brock, acquired on waivers from Philadelphia in 2002--was not drafted by the Colts or signed out of college as a rookie free agent. Now, Polian is a strong-willed guy. He doesn't draft players to watch them sit on the bench for long, and that's where the relationship with Dungy comes in. The coach believes in a separation of powers: He and the G.M. ( Polian's job, if not his title) should agree on which players fit the coach's system. The G.M. acquires the players, and the coach works them in.
This year's team is a perfect example of the Colts Way. Glenn retires five days before camp begins, and rookie second-rounder Tony Ugoh walks into the starting lineup--a year earlier than Indy had hoped, but with the tools to eventually be a good blind-side blocker for Manning. Slot receiver Brandon Stokley leaves for Denver in free agency; Gonzalez, an inch taller and six pounds heavier, steps into his shoes. In camp, Manning made sure Ugoh and Gonzalez heard every audible in his repertoire so they'd be ready on opening night against the Saints. One more example: Starting corners Nick Harper and Jason David left in free agency; Indy's top two picks in the 2005 draft, Jackson and Kelvin Hayden, both 24, take over those jobs. It's the NFL circle of life, and Polian and Dungy are the lion kings.
The defense will likely be a work in progress for much of the year, as it was last year, when the Colts allowed a horrendous 5.3�yards per rush. Without McFarland in the middle, Dungy will need a prospect like rookie third-rounder Quinn Pitcock to step in early and stop the run. The Colts think they'll be as good in the secondary with Jackson and Hayden, two physical run-support players, replacing David and the underrated Harper.
But no rookie will be under the microscope as much in the early going as Ugoh. After starting at left tackle for three years at Arkansas, the lithe 6' 5" 301-pounder struggled against speed-rushers during Senior Bowl practices, pushing his draft value down into the second round. Polian remembered how he played, though. At Arkansas, Ugoh, a physical force at tackle, had 82 knockdown blocks in 12 games in 2006; 40 or 45 in a season is considered very good. The mild-mannered kid got through training camp without getting Manning killed. In the first half of the season we'll see if he can block Pro Bowlers Will Grant and Richard Seymour, along with bright prospect Mario Williams. "We've had cold rookies start before on the line--Ryan Lilja, Jake Scott," says line coach Howard Mudd. "It's a little more daunting because we're the defending champions, I guess. But it's still football. We think he can do it."