Colts pick up the pace

Football: In an era of quick turnarounds, the Colts made the quickest ever, going from 3-13 to 13-3 in one season. The young nucleus sees no reason for it to end anytime soon.

January 14, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The NFL's new order dictated that the Indianapolis Colts alter their timetable.

The new order says that one-year turnarounds are commonplace now, that even the best teams in the league's best division can be hurdled with the right combination of game-breakers and schedule-makers.

So, somewhere back in October, the Colts raised their sights and asked, why not?

"This season, our legitimate goals were to be a wild card and sneak into the playoffs," quarterback Peyton Manning said. "And that's out of respect to the teams in our division.

"To go 13-3 was beyond our expectations. We sort of changed goals about midseason. We realized we were a better team and maybe could take this a little further."

No team in the history of the NFL has made a longer journey than the Colts this season. From 3-13 to 13-3. From last place to AFC East champs. From forlorn franchise to potential powerhouse.

That long, strange trip leads back to the RCA Dome on Sunday when the Colts meet the Tennessee Titans in the first home playoff game of their 16-year Indianapolis era. They arrive with the most complete, balanced, even artistic offense in today's new NFL.

Expectations?

Who would have thought that Manning would make the Pro Bowl in his second season after tossing 28 interceptions as a rookie? That running back Edgerrin James would make it in his first and win the rushing title? That Marvin Harrison would outplay the gilded wide receiver class of 1996 and make the Pro Bowl in his fourth season?

The last time the Colts had that kind of Pro Bowl recognition, the names were Bert Jones, Lydell Mitchell and Roger Carr. The year was 1976 and the team still belonged to Baltimore. Ancient history.

Present-day logic says this is a team that could possibly dominate in the next decade. But free agency suggests that domination is a thing of the past in the NFL.

When Manning looks at Dan Marino, 38, trying to squeeze out another Super Bowl in his 17th season with the Miami Dolphins, he gets all the motivation he needs to seize the moment.

"You don't get a bye and a home game in the NFL playoffs very often," Manning said. "I think for me, at least, it's a good lesson that you have to take advantage of the opportunity now.

"Dan Marino went to the Super Bowl his second season, and obviously it hasn't been a lack of effort on his part [that he hasn't been back]. It just shows how tough the NFL is."

The Colts were full of surprises this season, starting with the selection of James with the fourth pick of the draft ahead of Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams. James justified the pick by rushing for 1,553 yards to become the first rookie since Eric Dickerson in 1983 to lead the league. He scored 17 touchdowns and had 2,139 yards of total offense.

James' predecessor, Marshall Faulk, who set an NFL record for total yards with St. Louis this season, was hardly missed.

"Marshall's a great player, as is Edgerrin," said offensive coordinator Tom Moore. "Edgerrin did the things we would hope as far as being able to run the ball. He's a tough inside runner. He has the speed to get outside."

When James established himself as a running threat, it set up Manning's play-action offense. When he blossomed as a pass receiver with 62 catches, it turned a good offense into an explosive one. The Colts had five games scoring over 30 points and another with more than 40. They averaged 26.4 points and 357.9 yards of offense per game.

The Colts were only the second team in history to have a 4,000-yard passer (Manning threw for 4,135), a 1,500-yard rusher and a 1,500-yard receiver (Harrison led the league with 1,663 yards). The other team was the 1995 Detroit Lions, whose quarterback was Scott Mitchell. Moore was offensive coordinator for that team, too.

"To do it, you've got to have tremendously gifted athletes," Moore said. "You've got to have a great runner, a great receiver and a great quarterback. You've got to do what your players do best and devise a system for them."

Moore ran a three-wide receiver offense exclusively in Detroit. In Indianapolis, he diversified with two-back and two-tight end packages. Then there's the play-action pass that works because defenses have to key on James. Manning has become proficient at executing the run fake.

"He believes in the play-action game," said coach Jim Mora. "He's going to carry out every fake and make everything look good. He doesn't just give it lip service."

The result is that Manning-to-Harrison has become one of the most feared combinations in the league. They've produced 19 touchdown passes in 28 games together.

"The chemistry that we have is not something that was developed overnight," said Harrison, who was taken on the 19th pick of the 1996 draft behind wide-outs Keyshawn Johnson (1), Terry Glenn (7) and Eddie Kennison (18), and ahead of Eric Moulds (24).

"Since the day he [Manning] got here, he has dedicated himself to be the best in the league," Harrison added.

This season, the Colts orchestrated the biggest single-season turnaround in NFL history. On Sunday, behind their magnificent offense, they'll try to take it a step further.

NFL playoffs

Divisional round

Tomorrow's games

Miami (10-7) at Jacksonville (14-2), 12: 35 p.m., chs. 13, 9

Washington (11-6) at Tampa Bay (11-5), 4: 15 p.m., chs. 45, 5

Sunday's games

Minnesota (11-6) at St. Louis (13-3), 12: 35 p.m., chs. 45, 5

Tennessee (14-3) at Indianapolis (13-3), 4: 05 p.m., chs. 13, 9

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