Tony Dungy brings his reputation for strong defense to a team with an already-strong offense. The Colts hope it's a formula for success.
That formula will begin being tested this Sunday at Alltel Stadium, when Dungy and quarterback Peyton Manning lead the Colts into the regular-season opener against the Jaguars. It will also be each team's debut in the new AFC South Division, which also includes Tennessee and Houston.
"Defensively, we're still not where I'd like to be, but we are making things happen," Dungy said of his re-tooled Colts defense, the NFL's 29th-ranked unit last season. "The hard thing is really believing in what the coaches are saying and going out and doing it every play," he added.
The offseason emphasis has clearly been on the defensive side of the ball, where the Colts spent the 11th choice of this year's draft on undersized pass-rusher Dwight Freeney of Syracuse. Freeney has yet to establish his presence in the Colts' starting lineup, but his selection clearly establishes what Dungy wants to do on defense: Attack the ball with speed.
"Guys are believing in the assignments," linebacker Mike Peterson said. "Before it was, 'Well, it's a nice scheme, but let's see how it works.' Now, you see guys buying into it. You see guys hungry to learn and hungry to get better.
"We're not where we want to be, but we're close," Peterson added.
Some would say "close" will be good enough for the Colts to claim the first-ever AFC South title. Considering the Colts' high-flying ways on offense, any significant improvement on defense may be good enough to win a division that is not considered to be that strong. To that end, Dungy will get an indication this Sunday of where he is in the installation of his program.
"I was really surprised at the efficiency of our offense," he said of his initial reaction to Manning and company, the league's second-ranked offense last season. "I knew these guys were good, but the fact that they've been with it for four years really shows. A lot of guys have been in the system and the way they were able to function in the spring was a real positive to me."
Until recently, the Colts offense has been functioning without star running back Edgerrin James, who suffered a season-ending knee injury at midseason last year. James, who led the NFL in rushing in 1999 and 2000, will be attempting the most major of knee recoveries (ACL reconstruction) this season, but he has expressed little concern for its severity. Though James has babied the knee through training camp and the preseason, he has maintained that he'd be ready for the opener in Jacksonville.
His return is absolutely critical, since the Colts recently lost James' replacement of a year ago, Dominic Rhodes, to a season-ending ACL injury. Rhodes rushed for over a thousand yards as a rookie last season.
Though Manning had a career-high 62.7 completion percentage last year, his touchdown passes were down and his interceptions were up, and his numbers really fell off following James' departure from the lineup. With James out of the lineup, the Colts went on a five-game losing streak and lost seven in an eight-game stretch that canceled whatever playoff hopes they had and led to a 6-10 record that cost Jim Mora his job. Enter Dungy, who was fired by Tampa Bay after having led the Bucs to the playoffs four times in five years.
"I like it because it's a thinking-man's offense. It puts the ball in the hands of the quarterback a lot. He's got to make the decisions and get us into the right plays. It challenges our guys mentally and it's flexible enough to get the ball to all of the different guys. All five of the skill positions can be featured," Dungy said.
But defense holds the key.
"I go in expecting us to be very good. We can't say, 'We're an offensive team and we're going to win the Super Bowl by being an offensive team.' We've got to be very good on special teams and we've got to be very good on defense. We expect to be," Dungy said.