- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2006

This is the fear for the Indianapolis Colts: They are destined to end up just another tremendously talented team that never found the fortitude or fortune to win it all.

The Colts, once considered the NFL’s most dangerous outfit, now are a team defined as much by big-game failure as by the offensive prowess of quarterback Peyton Manning and Co.

The most recent case in point: The Colts finished last season 14-2, ranked second in the league in scoring and third in total offense and held home-field advantage throughout the postseason. The disappointingly familiar result: a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC semifinals.

“We don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about [the past],” Manning said yesterday. “If you sit around feeling sorry for yourself about last season’s loss, it hurts you for the next year. I’ve never believed in defining someone’s career or a team’s legacy in the middle of it. If this was the last year for the Colts to play in the NFL or my last year or Marvin [Harrison’s] last year, that would be one thing.

“But we feel like we’re right in the middle of it and right in the middle of the season. I feel like we’ve got a shot this year.”

But then, that’s what they say every year in Indianapolis, including last season.

Those Colts had it all: A superb quarterback in Manning, a feared offense that featured an elite running back in Edgerrin James and dynamic receivers in Harrison and Reggie Wayne.

They had the winningest coach in the league over the past seven years, Tony Dungy, and a terrific kicker, Mike Vanderjagt. Even the long-lagging defense ranked fourth in the AFC.

The Colts ran their record to 13-0, and it looked like finally it might be their time. Then came the loss to the Steelers, a stunning defeat that dropped the Colts to an abysmal 3-6 in postseason play since they emerged as a contender in 1999.

Midway through this season, things again look good. The Colts are 5-0, the only unbeaten team in the AFC. The offense ranks in the top five in the league in scoring and total offense. Manning, though not putting up the monster numbers of some seasons past, ranks fourth in the league in passer rating.

Expectations, however, are diminished — and not just because James departed as a free agent to the Arizona Cardinals and top defensive tackle Corey Simon never got on the field.

The Colts needed two fourth-quarter touchdowns this season to beat the middling New York Jets and a rally to beat the then-winless Tennessee Titans at home. They won close games over the Jacksonville Jaguars and the New York Giants. Their only comfortable win came over the hapless Houston Texans.

“People don’t remember we won some close games last year,” Dungy said. “Last year we were playing pretty well on defense and just finding the groove on offense in Weeks 5 or 6. Everybody was kind of saying the same thing, but they felt like with our offense’s reputation … it would come around.”

There’s not that same kind of confidence in a defense that now ranks 20th overall in the league and last against the run.

But expectations also are diminished by experience with a team that has won four division titles in seven seasons but advanced to the AFC title game only once.

So where does that leave the Colts?

Hoping to avoid being lumped by with the Minnesota Vikings teams of the 1970s and the Buffalo Bills teams of the 1990s that won a lot of games but not the one that really mattered (though those teams at least got to the Super Bowl).

Like those teams, the Colts suffer from bad timing: They arrived at the same time as another dominant team.

In the Bills’ case, that team was the Dallas Cowboys, who won three Super Bowls from 1992 to 1995 and beat the Bills twice in the title game. The Vikings rose in an era that included the Dolphins teams that won two Super Bowls in the 1970s and the first of the Steelers teams that won four.

The Colts’ nemesis has been the New England Patriots, who twice doused their playoff hopes en route to winning two of their Super Bowls from 2001 to 2004.

But as humbling as their four Super Bowl losses apiece were for the Vikings and Bills, they at least managed to reach football’s ultimate game. The Colts have won more regular season games than any other team over the past eight years, but failed to achieve anything of significance in the playoffs.

An arguably better parallel for the Colts are such never-were teams as Marty Schottenheimer’s Kansas City Chiefs and Dennis Green’s Vikings. The Chiefs posted an 86-42 record in the regular season from 1990 to 1997, but they finished only 3-7 in the postseason and never reached the Super Bowl. The Vikings qualified for the playoffs eight times in nine seasons under Green in the 1990s but likewise never reached the title game.

Schottenheimer’s teams were thought to be too rigid and Green’s too undisciplined to achieve ultimate success.

The knock on Dungy, however, is something of the opposite: He’s too nice. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl under hard-driving Jon Gruden the year after Dungy’s departure, adding credence to the theory.

Dungy, however, greets that criticism with a shrug.

“If we don’t win, that will be written as a reason,” Dungy said. “Then people aren’t saying that anymore when you do win.”

Dungy can only hope he gets to hear the sound of that silence.

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