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December 21, 2007
Greatness by design
The Colts' machinelike consistency isn't supposed to be attainable in the salary cap era. But the model is simple: Find the right people and keep them.
Jim Irsay got into the construction business long before the first trench was dug and the first footing poured at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Indianapolis Colts owner built his franchise. He hired Bill Polian as club president in early 1998. He enthusiastically endorsed taking quarterback Peyton Manning the same year as the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. He hired Tony Dungy as coach in 2002.
"Those are the pillars," Irsay said. "Continuity is the key, but part of that is you have to make the right pillar decisions to get your people in place."
Continuity. Since the year after the third of those pillars was placed, the Colts have played five seasons. They have littered the NFL landscape with milestones:
The 2006 world championship, a summit 16 of the league's 32 teams have not ascended.
Five consecutive AFC South titles.
Five consecutive seasons of 12 or more victories, the first time that has been achieved in the NFL's 88-year history. For that matter, the Colts are the only team in league history to win 75 percent of its games five successive seasons. (Schedules went from 12 to 14 games in 1961 and from 14 to 16 in 1978.)
A place alongside the Green Bay Packers of 1929-31 as the only teams to start three consecutive seasons 7-0 or better: 13-0, 9-0 and 7-0, 2005-07.
An "incredible journey," Irsay called it. He leaned back in the chair behind the gleaming half-moon desk in his office in the team's Northwestside complex.
"Now history watches us," he said. "Will there be more than one Super Bowl victory? Who's going into the Hall of Fame? What other milestones will be achieved?"
Win, win some more
It's Irsay's job to look beyond the opponent of the week to the season two, four, six years ahead, but that is not to say that he doesn't subscribe to the message Dungy imparted to his team in the locker room Sunday after its grueling 21-14 victory at Oakland:
Don't take all of this for granted.
The Colts are a small-market team competing with behemoths. They annually achieve more than Washington, the NFL's leader in total revenue. They annually compete facemask-to-facemask with New England, the league's second most profitable franchise.
And they are doing it during the salary cap era, when fiscal constraints force teams to make bad decisions on good players. Roster turnover annually exceeds 30 percent.
"If you look at the '03 team and the players in that picture, there are a lot of different faces," Dungy said.
Thirteen starters, to be precise. Gone are standouts such as running back Edgerrin James, left tackle Tarik Glenn and linebackers Marcus Washington and David Thornton.
Players come and go. Sustained excellence is a moving target, but it is achieved through stubborn consistency.
Polian and his football staff stick to player evaluation tools and systems he has developed over 30 years in the business. He has one of the largest scouting staffs in the NFL and all nine scouts have been with the team at least six years.
Dungy describes what he needs in a defensive end or a middle linebacker. The football staff goes out and finds him, whether he is defensive end Dwight Freeney, the 11th player taken in the 2002 draft, or linebacker Gary Brackett, an undrafted free agent in 2003.
The coaching staff with which Dungy began in 2002 is largely unchanged. So are the offensive, defensive and special teams schemes they teach and execute.
The Colts are the only NFL team to keep its starting quarterback and its offensive coordinator and line coach, Tom Moore and Howard Mudd, together for the past 10 seasons. Running backs coach Gene Huey is the longest-tenured assistant in team history: 16 seasons, 254 games, from Marshall Faulk through James to Joseph Addai.
People wonder why the Colts don't spend on free agents. They do. They sign their own. It's a proven formula, and an expensive one.
The Colts keep those they deem essential. Since 2002, Irsay has paid more than $150 million in bonuses on long-term contracts for players like Manning, Freeney, Brackett, wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, center Jeff Saturday, defensive end Robert Mathis and tackle Ryan Diem.
Guaranteed money, like Manning's $34.5 million signing bonus and Freeney's $30 million in bonuses, is prorated over the term of the contract and counts against the salary cap. But it's paid up front, directly out of the owner's pocket. It takes a committed owner.
"Continuity is a major factor," Polian said, "and organizational continuity speaks completely to Jim."
Wayne signed for six years and $39 million, with $12.5 million in bonus money. He could have gotten more elsewhere, probably quite a bit more. He liked where he was.
"Talk to Edgerrin James. I talk to him every other day," Wayne said. "He's one of the main guys to say the grass isn't always greener on the other side."
Wayne has won a Super Bowl ring and twice been voted to the Pro Bowl since re-upping in 2006. James has spent 5-11 and 6-8 seasons in Phoenix since signing as a free agent with Arizona after the 2005 season, the last of his four Pro Bowl seasons with the Colts.
Against all odds
The Colts not only have won with stubborn consistency, they've been exciting. They've fielded a top-four offense each of the past five years. They've played five of 14 games in prime time this season. They draw killer ratings.
The story isn't finished, but this is in many ways their most satisfying season.
They have not succumbed to post-Super Bowl letdown, a very real phenomenon. Twelve of the 41 Super Bowl-era champions failed to return to the playoffs, including three of the past five: New England (9-7) in 2002, Tampa Bay (7-9) in 2003 and Pittsburgh (8-8) in 2006.
The Colts are one of 16 teams that have been able to back up their titles with .750 football the next season.
They have done it playing in the NFL's toughest division. They have done it despite 52 missed games by starters, including key players like Harrison (nine), Freeney (five) and a linebacking corps that has missed 21.
They won at Oakland on Sunday with two defensive starters from their Super Bowl team of only 10 months before.
"I can never remember a year of as many key injuries as we've had this year," Polian said.
With the No. 2 playoff seed in hand, the Colts can spend the final two weeks of the regular season resting their wounded, polishing their game and positioning themselves for a run.
They are only two games from a return to the Super Bowl, one of which will be played at the RCA Dome. Were form to hold, the other would be contested, fittingly, against New England in Foxborough, Mass.
The Patriots have won the Super Bowl three times in the past six years.
"I'm not so sure that if we were in the other conference we wouldn't have been to four Super Bowls," Irsay said.
"We have a great opportunity now to be measured by history and to compete with history. Twenty or thirty years from now they may be talking about the 2005 Colts or the 2007 Colts or the 2004 Colts."
It has been a great run, and it isn't over.
Call Star reporter Phil Richards at (317) 444-6408.