IF THE Colts were a publicly traded company, they'd pace the S&P 500. For most of the last decade they have been the gold standard in the NFL, winning at least 12 games in each of the past seven seasons. But while Indianapolis's 31--17 loss to the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV last February might be viewed as a sign that its bubble is about to burst—of the previous nine Super Bowl losers, six failed to reach the postseason the following year, and six finished under .500—nobody at training camp in Anderson, Ind., seemed to be panicking, a phenomenon that can be explained by the Colts' corporate culture. Asked to explain the team's low-key professionalism, second-year coach Jim Caldwell sounds like someone who's been studying the lingo of middle management: "We're pretty good at compartmentalizing." He'll be asking for TPS reports from his assistants next.
Everything starts at the top in Indy with team president Bill Polian, who built the Bills into a minidynasty as general manager in the early 1990s. Buffalo made it to each Super Bowl from '91 through '94 (losing all four), in part because Polian was able to keep the nucleus of his team—including stars such as quarterback Jim Kelly, wideout Andre Reed and defensive end Bruce Smith—intact, a benefit of building the team through the draft instead of with flashy acquisitions on the free-agent market.
Polian's approach has been much the same in Indianapolis, which is why the roster remains mostly untouched from a year ago. The Colts' biggest off-season move was re-signing eighth-year middle linebacker Gary Brackett, a fast and heady leader on the field, to a five-year, $33 million deal hours after he hit the free-agent market in March. They will likely lose Jeff Saturday for at least one game while the two-time All-Pro center rebounds from off-season knee surgery, but they get back All-Pro safety Bob Sanders and fourth-year wideout Anthony Gonzalez, who missed a combined 29 games a year ago, as well as the entire postseason. Both the offense and defense performed well in their absence—the Colts allowed the third-fewest yards per pass attempt (6.23) and threw for the second-most yards per game (282.2)—but they gain enviable flexibility and depth with their return.
Indy is now grappling with how best to reintegrate Gonzalez, a speedy and cerebral receiver, who had to watch from the bench as Pierre Garçon and Austin Collie, both 24, combined for 1,441 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. With those three targets and a pair of All-Pros in wideout Reggie Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark, the Colts—whose 601 pass attempts ranked second in the league last year—will remain deadly through the air. "People say that [ball distribution] is a problem, but it's a good situation," says Gonzalez, who insists he is 100% after undergoing surgery last November to clear loose particles out of his right knee. "Now we have so many guys with experience starting in big games. There shouldn't be any wide eyes."
A year after naming quarterbacks coach Caldwell to replace the retiring Tony Dungy, Indy has tapped two more company men to succeed retiring offensive line coach Howard Mudd and offensive coordinator Tom Moore (who is stepping down to a less-time-consuming role as the team's senior offensive assistant). Offensive quality control guru Pete Metzelaars will coach the line, and eighth-year assistant Clyde Christensen will call the plays. "Howard allowed Pete to run a lot of the meetings the last few years, and Clyde organized a lot of our red zone and third-down packages," Caldwell says. "Systemwise, we haven't changed, so that adds a lot of continuity in itself."
The Colts' most glaring weakness remains their ground game. Last season they finished last in rushing (80.9 yards per game), but that's largely because they also had the second fewest attempts (22.9 per game). Nevertheless, Indy has set the audacious goal of improving last year's 3.5-yard rushing average by at least one yard per carry. A more selfish feature back would certainly chafe at the limited workload, but fifth-year vet Joseph Addai accepts his place in the Indianapolis org chart. "When you have a quarterback like Peyton Manning, you want him to throw the ball," says Addai. "You could argue that he's the best quarterback to ever play."
As long as Polian keeps talent in-house, with Manning under center, the Colts will be recession-proof.
WITH 2009 STATS
COACH JIM CALDWELL