In the old days an offensive line would stay together for five
years, maybe longer. Free agency has ended that. Linemen move
around now if they're young and skilled, going wherever they can
earn big bucks. Or they become salary-cap casualties when even
bigger bucks go to the so-called skill-position players.

An unsettled line, manned by marginal and hopeful players, can
cause an offense to be torn apart, especially a quarterback.
Just ask the Colts' Jim Harbaugh. Last season the Patriots broke
his nose in one game and wrenched his knee in another. The Bills
bruised and battered him with six sacks. In the AFC wild-card
game, a 42-14 loss to Pittsburgh, he suffered a chipped tooth, a
deep gash in his mouth and a pinched nerve in his neck.

Harbaugh says that the punishment he absorbed in '96, when he
was sacked 36 times, was even worse than what he suffered in his
final season with the Bears in '93, when he was sacked 43 times.
"And you know what? I dodged a lot of bullets last year," he
says. "There could have been some season-ending things in there."

The offensive line will be marginal again this year, with a
group of players who are promising at best. How could
Indianapolis have let this drag on so long?

Give the Colts this much credit: They went for linemen with
their first two picks in the draft. The team's top choice,
tackle Tarik Glenn from Cal, didn't sign until midway through
the preseason--and if there's one position at which you want a
young player working and learning as soon as possible, it's the
offensive line, which depends on coordination and timing.
Second-round choice Adam Meadows, from Georgia, got considerable
practice time while Glenn was holding out, and he could even be
a starter at guard or tackle on the side opposite Glenn. (Center
Kirk Lowdermilk has retired, so positions on the line will be
shuffled.) Still, there are no cornerstones here, no serious
free-agent pickups. Coach Lindy Infante admits the line is an
"area of concern," and he keeps mentioning guys who must "step
up." But, hey, they can't all step up.

O.K., we'll stop griping. It's nice to hear that running backs
Marshall Faulk and Zack Crockett are healthy again, and
Indianapolis is expecting even bigger things from wideout Marvin
Harrison after a fine rookie year. At tight end Ken Dilger is an
emerging force.

On defense the three top performers are gone: tackle Tony
Siragusa to the Ravens and cornerback Ray Buchanan to the
Falcons by way of free agency, and middle linebacker Jeff Herrod
was cut in June to clear room under the salary cap. Three free
agents arrived: end Al Fontenot from Chicago and defensive backs
Carlton Gray and Robert Blackmon, both from a Seattle defense
that ranked 24th in the NFL. In short, even with consistent
players like end Tony Bennett, tackle Tony McCoy and free safety
Jason Belser, the defense has not improved.

But here's the thing about the Colts, and it's probably as good
a reason as any why when no one gave them much of a chance in
the playoffs, they came one play away from the Super Bowl two
years ago; and why when they were banged up and struggling, they
made the playoffs again last year: They play hard, relentless
football. They win games they shouldn't. Who can forget the
Thursday-nighter last December when the Colts had five defensive
starters out and played like wild men, running the Eagles out of
the RCA Dome 37-10? Or how about the September game in Dallas,
when they had seven starters out and upset the heavily favored
Cowboys 25-24?

These guys are well coached. They'll win their share--somehow,
someway--but they'll face a lot of exotic zone blitzes and a lot
of pressure. I don't envy Jim Harbaugh.


COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER A retooled offensive line has to come together in a hurry if Harbaugh and the Colts are going to make any headway. [Jim Harbaugh carrying football in game]

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