PHILADELPHIA -- The Indianapolis Colts packed their equipment and their dreams and left a darkened, empty Veterans Stadium Friday night.
They had just lost another exhibition game, this time, 23-21, to the Philadelphia Eagles, and it was time for the preseason reckoning.
The Colts finished the exhibition schedule at 1-3, with key running back Albert Bentley wearing a shoulder sling and the Indianapolis fans chanting something that sounded like "Hooooo," but it wasn't Hoosiers.
It wasn't supposed to be this way, at least not this summer. Eric Dickerson was signed and healthy and, yes, smiling. Jeff George seemed to pass with power and proficiency in training camp. The Colts, playoff-less since 1989 and owners of two winning records since bolting Baltimore after the 1983 season, were privately and publicly speaking of a double-digit win column. But a 10-3 loss to Denver was followed by a 17-7 loss to Seattle, which was followed by the bellyaching -- and not just from the paying customers.
"I think some of these players have been reading in the media too much about how good they are," owner Robert Irsay told reporters after the 0-2 start. "When they get on the field, it doesn't work out that way."
The Colts finally defeated Seattle, 34-28, but lost a game and a key player, Bentley, in Philadelphia.
"It's hard for me to equate," said coach Ron Meyer. "Buffalo goes 0-4 last year and is either the first- or second-best team in the league. Atlanta goes 4-0 and is either the third, second or first worst team. I don't think you can put one correlating fact to preseason games. Different coaches, different teams have different objectives they want to get accomplished. That's just how I feel about it."
The Colts ranked 27th in the NFL in offense and 26th in defense last season, when they were 7-9. Pick an objective, any objective. Meyer had plenty in the preseason: to install a crisper, '90s-style offense, based on shorter passes to backs; to get Dickerson feeling good about himself and his team; to make the Colts believe they can win. He seems to have achieved the latter two, at least.
If the Colts are in disarray anyplace, it is on the offensive line. Pat Tomberlin, who was to be the starting left guard, broke his lower right fibula in training camp and was lost for the season. That necessitated a reshuffling on the line that left the Colts with a slightly altered attack. Bubba Paris, waived by the San Francisco 49ers last week, was signed by the Colts yesterday.
George entered play against the Eagles Friday night having completed 32 of 46 preseason passes (70 percent) -- yet no completion had been longer than 18 yards. For a quarterback with such a powerful fastball, George is still a bit handcuffed by the changeup-heavy scheme. "As a quarterback, you like to go down field a little more," George said. "But in the games we've played recently, we were not able to throw ball downfield because of the pass rush on us.
"What we've been doing is getting the ball away quick, staying away from sacks. And I think we've done that well."
The loss of Bentley, for what could be as long as six weeks figured to speed-bump the Colts' fast-break intentions. It is not every team, however, that has an insurance policy like Dickerson.
When Dickerson ran with power and speed, carrying six times for 22 yards in an abbreviated, avoid-injury performance, he proved that he is still capable of softening defenses.
"I'm ready to play," Dickerson announced afterward. "Let's get the regular season started. It could have started two weeks ago, as far as I'm concerned. It can't start too soon.
"I think we have a lot of talent on this team. I know we have a lot of skill guys. I am a skill guy and I watch the skill guys."