Long the picture of stability, the Colts suddenly face big changes

Publish date:

• When you're the Indianapolis Colts, and the status quo has been very, very good to you this decade, any change can probably feel like a pretty big change. For what seems like forever, the Colts have meant Tony Dungy on the sidelines, Peyton Manning in the pocket, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne split wide. Oh, and at least 12 wins and a playoff trip every year.

But this year, there's no Dungy, no Harrison and no complete sense of familiarity for the team that has an NFL-best seven-year streak of playoff berths. For a change, change is a topic in Colts' training camp.

One longtime NFL quarterback I know always liked to remind everyone how "the train keeps moving'' in the league, with players and coaches constantly either coming or going, and it's true. Nothing lasts forever, not even in Indy. Turning the page and moving on is the mantra every year in training camps all across the NFL map, and the Colts are getting their own dose of it in 2009.

But maybe because of how transitory the league has become, I loved what Manning had to say to me on the topic of change Wednesday, in his attempt to neither forget where his team has been, nor delay where it's going.

"One thing (new head coach Jim) Caldwell talked about at the start of camp was we can't look in the past, we've got to live in the now,'' said Manning, after a morning practice and just before an ESPN The Magazine cover shoot. "Although I'm kind of one of those old-school guys, I guess. We've had players whose pictures were on the wall by our meeting rooms, and all of sudden they're released, and the picture is down and it's like the guy never played here. I'm one of those who kind of likes to linger on things a little bit. I just never want to forget the impact the guy made on your team.''

OK, so they're not removing all pictures of Dungy and Harrison from the Colts' team complex any time soon, but you get No. 18's point. You have to turn the page in this sport, but do you have to do it in five minutes?

Manning completed an NFL-record 953 passes to Harrison since they first joined forces in 1998, and with Dungy he won his only Super Bowl ring so far, in that storybook 4-0 playoff run after the 2006 regular season. That's a lot of history that walked out the door in Indy this offseason, and Manning, on day three of this summer's training camp, is at least acknowledging the obvious. Things are different. Not all new, just different. It's OK to say it.

"This is a little bit of a change, and you kind of go to the meetings not knowing what you're going to get,'' Manning said. "Whereas in the past, you knew what to expect. Guys get a little more juices flowing, I guess. It can be good. The key is we want to build on the impact that Tony and Marvin made and be better for their contributions.

"At the same time, I think the sooner we get comfortable with Coach Caldwell and get comfortable with (new starting receiver Anthony) Gonzalez -- and that's the two biggest changes for me -- then the better off we'll be.''

Nobody in the NFL loves their routines more or is a bigger fan of precision and consistency than Manning, so when he tells you that it's going to be strange and maybe even a little unsettling to look out to his right at the line of scrimmage and not see Harrison, you realize it's no knock on Gonzalez or any other Colts receiver who might line up out there. It's just Manning saying that Harrison's place in the lineup can't be taken by just filling in another name and number. Not right away, at least.

"It's hard to say on paper you're replacing Marvin Harrison,'' Manning said. "Some might say, 'Well, he wasn't himself in 2008, because he wasn't healthy.' But I'm looking to replace what he was from 1998-2007. That's what we need to replace. There are a lot of plays to be replaced. When you had one-on-one coverage, it was like stealing out there throwing to him.''

The Colts don't need to re-invent themselves this season -- why fix something that's not broke? -- but when you add in new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer (replacing Ron Meeks) -- that's three pretty significant new pieces of the puzzle to shake up the status quo in Indy.

"It's too early to say if the changes were a good thing or a bad thing yet, but maybe this gives us a new spark, a new energy, with some new faces and new drive,'' said defensive end Dwight Freeney, the Colts' defensive leader. "Around here, it's usually the same thing. We don't get a lot of free agents, and it has been all the same faces for the most part. Obviously Jim (Caldwell) is not a new face, but he's in a big new role. A little uncertainty, it's OK, because sometimes things change for the better.''

• In reality, Reggie Wayne has been the Colts' No. 1 receiver the past two years, with his statistics dwarfing Harrison's diminishing production. But with Harrison officially gone after 13 seasons in Indy, Wayne told me he's determined to take on an increased sense of leadership on the Colts offense.

"Obviously there will be a lot more attention on myself and people are going to expect more of me,'' said Wayne, now in his ninth NFL season. "That doesn't necessarily make me feel young, but my role has changed a bit. I'm more vocal than Marv. When Marv was here, I'd say the little things, but not necessarily out loud in front of the team. Out of respect to his stature, I deferred.

"Now he's gone and I'm the next old head in the receiver room. I can feel comfortable saying stuff out loud in the offensive meeting room or even the team meeting room. That's changed. My role and what's expected of me, it kind of went up another power.''

• I'm sure by now you've gotten wind of how Wayne reported to camp on Sunday, riding in a dump truck while wearing a hard hat and orange vest, and carrying a lunch box. The 2009 Colts are "under construction'' was his theme, and he was trying to set the tone for a down-and-dirty, get-to-wok atmosphere. OK, I'll give him points for trying, but how long did it take him to hatch that particular photo op?

"To be honest with you, it took me 48 hours,'' Wayne said. "I made a few phone calls. It's always good to know people who know people. I was planning on doing something, but I got busy getting ready for camp, and all of a sudden, two days from camp I went, 'Damn, I've got to come up with something real quick.' ''

I told Wayne I was willing to bet he didn't own an orange day-glo construction vest until last weekend. "Exactly. Everything was fairly new except the boots,'' he said, laughing.

Wayne had his initial brainstorm while driving in construction-slowed traffic on I-465 in Indianapolis. What I really wanted to know was how long he had ridden in that dump truck before he pulled up to camp?

"I got on the truck around the block and we drove around to the front,'' he said. "The beauty of it is blowing that horn. That horn, it gives you a little rush.''

• The Colts needed and wanted to get bigger at defensive tackle this offseason, and they did. They brought back veteran Ed Johnson, whom they cut last year due to off-field issues, drafted Fili Moala in the second round out of USC and Terrance Taylor in the fourth round out of Michigan. The rookies are in the 305-pound range, and Johnson is a sturdy 296.

No one is in a better position to assess new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer's emphasis on larger tackles than Colts center Jeff Saturday, who has to bang with the big boys in practice every day.

"Some of the things they're doing defensively are different than we've done in the past,'' Saturday said. "They've got a lot of mass up front and they're looking to stop people from being able to hit it right off the A gap and get big runs. Those guys are going to be hard to move inside, and I think it's going to free up our linebackers to make big plays. I don't think we'll be as predictable as we have been in the past.''

• While waiting to interview Jeff Saturday, I watched him and Manning team up to shoot a cover photo for an upcoming issue of ESPN the Magazine. Manning, maybe the best commercial actor of our time, was on his game once again. Someone in the photo crew wanted to toss him a football for the shot, and asked if he was right-handed or left-handed? (Obviously not a big football fan, that one).

Without missing a beat, Manning channeled his best Yogi Berra and cracked: "I'm right(-handed). Actually, I'm amphibious.''

• As long as you don't too hung up on positions, it's an easy call to predict that Wayne, Gonzalez and tight end Dallas Clark will be the Colts' top three receivers in some order. But there's a great competition unfolding in camp for the role of the third wide receiver, behind Wayne and Gonzalez.

My sense is that the wonderfully named Pierre Garcon (he's "waited'' his turn, get it?) has the pole position. Garcon, a sixth-round pick last year out of Mount Union, made big strides in OTA's, and the Colts love his blend of size (6-0, 210), speed and good hands. But rookie Austin Collie (fourth round) out of BYU has his fans as well (Wayne and Manning are two of them), and he could force his way onto the field. Lastly, the 6-3, 240-pound Roy Hall, a third-year veteran who has struggled to stay healthy his first two years, is a fast and physical receiving option.

Caldwell told me that the position might be handled by committee, but more likely someone will step up and win the job this month. For you fantasy players out there, Garcon might be worth a late-round flyer.

• As soon as Dungy expressed willingness last month to continue mentoring Michael Vick, questions about the Colts and their potential interest in the ex-Falcons quarterback have been somewhat natural. But Caldwell made it clear to me that Indy won't be shopping in that market.

"Our quarterback situation is great right now,'' Caldwell said. "He's a talented guy, and I know he'll find a home somewhere. One thing you know, he's in good hands with Tony. I think you're going to see Tony can really help Mike in terms of the direction of his life, and it's going to be a very positive thing for Mike.''

Due to Manning's knack for staying healthy, the Colts in recent years have kept just two quarterbacks on the regular-season roster, with only backup Jim Sorgi in reserve. But if he looks promising enough this month, Indy might carry rookie Curtis Painter -- a sixth-round pick out of homestate Purdue -- as a developmental No. 3.

• Between the return to health of the offensive line and the drafting of Connecticut running back Donald Brown in the first round, I expect the Colts' running game to rebound considerably from last season's next-to-last ranking. One NFL personnel man I trust told me last April that Brown would eventually be the best runner coming out of this year's draft, and Caldwell sounds as if he's rapidly coming around to that point of view.

I asked Caldwell if Brown has flashed yet as a Colt? "Early and often,'' Caldwell said. "He's coming along. For a young player, he has a pretty good feel for what we do. And our offense is not the easiest to learn. It's a complex system that is enhanced by the speed at which Peyton can operate it, and he's been able to keep up.''

• I asked every Colt I talked to on Wednesday to tell me something about Jim Caldwell that most people wouldn't know. I liked Freeney's answer the best. Besides labeling Caldwell a little more vocal and hands-on than Dungy, Freeney informed me that he has known the Colts' new head coach since his own high school days.

"He recruited me to Wake Forest in high school, when he was their head coach,'' said Freeney, who went to Syracuse. "He came and sat on my couch and said, 'Hey, if you come to Wake Forest, you can play offense and defense.' It was a good pitch. It almost got me. I like to give him a little something from time to time: 'All right. Just remember, you thought I could play offense, so you've got to put me in there one time.' ''

• For a guy who doesn't have much of a high profile within the league's coaching ranks just yet, I found Caldwell knows his way around a good quote. He gave me a couple colorful sound bites on Wednesday.

First, when I asked him about how much the Colts have embraced changes from the way they did things under Dungy?

"It's not like it's an unimaginative replication of what's been done here in the past, OK?,'' he said. "We looked at things we kind of felt that needed to be changed.''

And secondly, when I asked him if he knew yet whether he had filled all of his team's holes this offseason?

"I don't think you ever completely know what you have until they start selling popcorn.''

T.O. couldn't have said it better.