TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- It starts out as a murmur, gathers steam, spreads throughout the NFL like a Lindsay Lohan rumor does in the tabloids, and then people start to think the perception has become a reality.
One of those perceptions that seems to have gained a lot of traction since the end of the 2007 season is that Indianapolis is a team in regress, moving away from that team that won a Super Bowl 18 months ago and more toward a second-level AFC team.
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As Colts cornerback Marlin Jackson strolled off the team's practice field here, I asked him about that kind of thinking.
"All I can do is laugh at that," Jackson said. "We've regressed? I don't know how that can be possible. How can you say anything about the Indianapolis Colts regressing? That makes no sense."
It certainly does not. The reality is this Colts team has more talent than the 2006 team that won the Super Bowl. That's not saying they will win it all again, but the perception that the Colts are heading in the other direction is woefully mistaken.
The time to get the Colts would be now -- if the games mattered. Luckily for the Colts, they don't. Quarterback Peyton Manning is laid up in a bed in his Indianapolis home, recovering from an infection of the bursa sac in his left knee. With Manning, the Colts are a super team, maybe the best in the league. Without him, they would be a sub-.500 team.
Manning has never missed a game in his career. He didn't miss a practice until he failed to show up for the open of camp here Friday. But the Colts think Manning will be ready for the regular-season opener against the Chicago Bears and might come to Terre Haute in the next week.
"I've tried to be patient," Manning said on a conference call with reporters. "I really haven't hounded the doctors: 'Hey, when can I get up there?' I'm not trying to influence their decision."
Manning is a football junkie. He has worked on the mental side of things as he recovers. His teammates know it's killing him to be away.
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colts13 : "With Marvin Harrison back healthy, nothing less than a Super Bowl victory."
"Oh yeah," tight end Dallas Clark said. "You know he wants to be on that field."
Manning will get there. If he misses a game or two early, the Colts are good enough that they could win a couple games without him. The key will be getting him healthy for the long haul.
The talent level on the Colts roster is deep enough to win in the short term without Manning. Sorgi is capable of managing the offense to a victory or two and he looked pretty good in the two practices I watched.
"We're probably stronger than we've been since I've been here as far," Colts receiver Reggie Wayne said.
Yet the talk in the conference is about the New England Patriots, the San Diego Chargers and even the Jacksonville Jaguars possibly taking over the AFC South, a division the Colts have won the past five seasons.
Jacksonville will be better, the talent-rich Chargers beat the Colts in the playoffs last year, and the Patriots are coming off an unbeaten regular season with many of the same players back. So there is reason to think those teams will be good again, but don't dare forget about the Colts. President Bill Polian, the man who put the team together, has a stacked roster.
"Talent wise, I think we're a bit better, but that remains to be seen," Polian said. "We'll find that out over the course of the preseason. I never make any judgments at this point, nor do I pay any attention to offseason standings. So right now I don't know. After the third preseason game I'll have a pretty good feel for where we are. I am very optimistic, but a lot of that depends on health."
Positives: There's no doubting Harrison's track record. When he's on his game, he can deliver some outstanding numbers. It's also a huge plus that he's catching passes from Peyton Manning and working alongside Reggie Wayne, which means that if he's playing, the ball is coming at him perfectly and the coverage isn't swarming. And while Harrison's legs may be ailing him, there's no doubt that his hands remain exceptional. It's also worth noting that when the Colts had the opportunity to spend a high draft pick on a wide receiver in April, they went elsewhere.
Negatives: Aren't they obvious? His knees have deteriorated, thus making him highly unlikely to participate in 16 games. And if the investigation surrounding him ends badly, Harrison might actually be suspended for violating the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy. His age isn't entirely a negative since other great receivers have played well into their late 30s (Jerry Rice comes to mind).
Outlook: Harrison is a very risky draft pick because we're not clear on what to expect from him, both in participation and production. In this case, a safe approach is the best approach: If Harrison is available between Rounds 6 and 8, pick him up with the idea that he'll be your No. 3 wide receiver. If he plays at the level we're accustomed to seeing, your team will be better for it. If he's so-so, then you're drafting him at about the right spot. If he tanks, then your initial investment in him isn't too steep. Lastly, don't be afraid to pass entirely on him and take a more reliable receiver -- until we know more about Harrison, he's going to be an enigma.
-- Dave Richard
RB: Joseph Addai (7th overall)
QB: Peyton Manning (6th overall)
WR: Reggie Wayne (17th overall)
TE: Dallas Clark (65th overall)
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Aside from Manning, that means defensive end Dwight Freeney. When he's on the field, Freeney is one of the best edge rushers in the league. When he's not, the Colts are vulnerable to the pass.
Freeney suffered a Lisfranc injury to his foot last season, forcing him to the sidelines after the ninth game. He is still not practicing now, but the Colts expect him back in a couple of weeks. When he makes it back to his Pro Bowl form will be the thing to closely watch.
"It's a big difference not having him out there," Jackson said. "He puts fear in the offensive linemen and in the quarterbacks, knowing he's coming off the blind side. If he's out there, we know the rush is out there."
Freeney is to the defense what Manning is to the offense. So why all the optimism since they aren't even practicing? For one, they'll both eventually be there. The Colts expect that and expect them to be their old selves again.
But there are many other reasons for optimism. Among them:
• A defense that had five first-time starters in 2007 and still finished third in the league might be the best the Colts have had in years. Assuming growth by those first-time starters, including Jackson and Kelvin Hayden on the corners, this defense has a chance to be one of the league's best with Freeney and Bob Sanders, the league's defensive layer of the year in 2007. "This is the first time since I've been here that we have four veterans in the secondary and all the linebackers that played the full season together back together. If we keep guys healthy, we have a chance to some great things."
• The Marvin Harrison factor. Harrison missed 10 games last season and was essentially a non-factor, catching a career-low 20 passes. The knee problems that plagued Harrison last season seem to have subsided. He practiced Saturday afternoon, although he will work once a day during camp to limit the wear and tear. He might not be the same player he once was, and Wayne is the No. 1 receiver now, but anything the Colts get from Harrison is more than they got when they went 13-3 last season. His absence gave rookie Anthony Gonzalez more action and he's more polished this time around. That gives Manning three quality targets for the first time since 2005.
• Tony Ugoh. A year ago, the plan was to keep Ugoh on the bench as a rookie and let him watch Tarik Glenn play left tackle. But Glenn retired right before the start of the season, which forced Ugoh in as the starter. Ugoh played OK, but he had rookie struggles. With another year, he should move closer to becoming a top-notch left tackle. He has added some much-needed upper-body strength. That should help him in the run game and with bull rushers.
Those three factors alone will make the Colts a better football team in 2007. Let's not forget that it was the Colts who nearly had the undefeated season. They lost a tight one at San Diego, losing 23-21 on a last-second field goal. They blew a 10-point lead late to the Patriots and then rested starters in the final loss to the Tennessee Titans when it didn't matter.
So let's put to rest the perception that the Colts are going in the wrong direction. They're as good as any team in the league, provided Freeney is on the field. This team would be favored over the 2006 team that won it all. That's not to say they will win it again, but the talent is better.
"If you're a true football fan, who understands the game and watches the game thoroughly, and you watch the Colts play and say we're regressing than you don't know what you're talking abut," Jackson said.
Jackson could only shake his head. And laugh some more.
Colts in regress? What else can you do but laugh?