Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL. It is often said that “NFL” stands for “Not For Long,” and this idea flies in the face of teams who have had sustained success, particularly in the salary cap era. Somehow, someway, the Indianapolis Colts are a team that have found a way to be nearly immune to the forces at play in professional football that exist to make it next to impossible for teams to dominate.
If the Colts are going to continue their success in 2010, it has become clear that they will have to overcome a rash of injuries to key players. In some ways, the task seems insurmountable. The likelihood that the Colts can maintain their record of consecutive 12-win seasons shrinks by the week and by the day. How or why should fans expect the streak to continue, foresee a playoff berth, or have even a shroud of hope that the Colts could actually compete for another chance to play for a world championship?
The reason is pretty easy to locate. Over the last five years the Colts have had to overcome adversity, perform in the face of obvious team weaknesses, and have regularly been considered one of the best teams in the league — and one of the top contenders to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. In all but one of those years they have dealt with the loss of key players for dozens of games. Take a look.
Ryan Diem – Missed 2 Games
Dallas Clark – Missed 1 Game
Lost Divisional Round vs. Pittsburgh Steelers at Home
Bob Sanders – Missed 12 Games
Ryan Lilja – Missed 11 Games
Montae Reagor – Missed 11 Games
Dallas Clark – Missed 4 Games
Adam Vinatieri – Missed 3 Games
Gary Brackett – Missed 2 Games
Ryan Diem – Missed 1 Game
Gilbert Gardner – Starting Linebacker
Antoine Bethea – Rookie
Joseph Addai – Rookie
44 Games (2 Key Rookies, One Weak Starter)
Won Super Bowl
Marvin Harrison – Missed 11 Games
Dwight Freeney – Missed 7 Games and Playoffs
Ryan Diem – Missed 6 Games
Tony Ugoh – Missed 5 Games
Raheem Brock – Missed 4 Games
Tyjuan Hagler – Missed 4 Games
Robert Mathis – Missed 3 Games
Antoine Bethea – Missed 3 Games
Ben Utecht – Missed 2 Games
Anthony Gonzalez – Rookie
Tony Ugoh – Rookie
Ed Johnson – Rookie
45 Games (3 Key Rookies)
Lost Divisional Round v. San Diego at Home
Ryan Lilja – Missed Entire Season
Bob Sanders – Missed 10 Games
Marlin Jackson – Missed 9 Games
Kelvin Hayden – Missed 6 Games
Tony Ugoh – Missed 4 Games
Jeff Saturday – Missed 4 Games
Gary Brackett – Missed 4 Games and Playoffs
Eric Foster – Missed 3 Games
Joseph Addai – Missed 3 Games
Keyunta Dawson – Missed 2 Games
Marvin Harrison – 60 receptions, 636 yards, 5 touchdowns
Dawson/Foster – Starting Defensive Tackles
Gijon Robinson – First-Year Player
Clint Session – First-Year Starter
Jamey Richard – Rookie
Mike Pollak – Rookie
Eric Foster – Rookie
45 Games (3 Key Rookies, 1 First-Year Starter, Harrison Downfall, No Legit Starting DTs)
12-4 (Started 3-4, Peyton Manning coming off of two knee surgeries)
Lost Wild Card Round v. San Diego at San Diego
Bob Sanders – Missed 14 Games
Tyjuan Hagler – Missed 9 Games
Kelvin Hayden – Missed 7 Games
Gijon Robinson – Missed 2 Games
Charlie Johnson – Missed 2 Games
Gary Brackett – Missed 2 Games
Dwight Freeney – Missed 1 Game
Tim Jennings – Nickelback
Pierre Garçon – First-Year Starter
Kyle DeVan – First-Year Starter
Daniel Muir – First-Year Starter
Antonio Johnson – First-Year Starter
Austin Collie – Rookie
Donald Brown – Rookie
Jacob Lacey – Rookie
Jerraud Powers – Rookie
37 Games (4 Key Rookies, 4 First-Year Starters, Weak Nickelback)
Lost Super Bowl
Losing players like Bob Sanders, Melvin Bullitt, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, and Austin Collie for significant portions of the year is not the first thing anyone would list amongst factors that will help a team have an opportunity to make the playoffs, let alone win 12 games, and remain at or near the top of teams in the conference to compete for a chance to get to the Super Bowl, or possibly win it. Yet, the Colts are sitting right in that spot.
In previous seasons the same could be said during portions of the year, and the Colts still managed to win 12 games, get into the playoffs, and had the talent to win and advance. They were eliminated in three of the five seasons in the first round, including one season (2005) where they were by far the healthiest they have been in the four (going on five) years since. In the two seasons they made it to the Super Bowl, with one victory, they suffered key injuries to players like Sanders, former starting left guard Ryan Lilja, starting defensive tackle Montae Reagor, starting linebacker Tyjuan Hagler, and starting cornerback Kelvin Hayden.
In 2006, they played much of the season with Gilbert Gardner as the strong-side linebacker, Cato June as the weak-side linebacker, and the worst run defense in the league. Rookies Antoine Bethea and Joseph Addai were key contributors to the Super Bowl winning season. In 2009 they had two rookie starting cornerbacks for much of the year, one rookie wide receiver and another first-year starter at wide receiver when heir-apparent Anthony Gonzalez went down to injury in Week 1. They had also just lost head coach Tony Dungy and future Hall of Fame wide receiver Marvin Harrison.
In 2007, the Colts lost Harrison for 11 games and Dwight Freeney for 7 games and the playoffs, but still managed a 13-3 record.
The point to all of this is, playing injured, overcoming adversity, and winning games in the face of unfavorable odds are a part of this team’s DNA.
At no time from 2005-2009 did the league, through seven weeks, have as much parity and as little domination by any one or handful of teams as there has been in 2010. This year, there are three teams with one loss and nine teams with two losses. That is 12 teams within one game of having the best record in football through seven weeks. That’s right, more than one-third of the NFL is within one game of each other in the NFL standings. The Colts are one of those teams.
Many of the world beaters and household names are out to rough starts. The San Diego Chargers are 2-5 and last in the AFC West. The Dallas Cowboys are 1-5. The Minnesota Vikings are 2-4. The defending champions, the New Orleans Saints, have three losses. The Green Bay Packers have three losses. The Cincinnati Bengals have Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, they’re 2-4. Teams like the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, and New York Jets are atop the AFC at 5-1 but still, the league is wide open.
The Colts have six games against teams with a winning record in their last 10, including four in the most competitive division in the league. The good news is that three of the Colts four remaining division games are home games. Only three of their remaining games are on the road against teams with a winning record, including trips to Philadelphia, New England, and Tennessee.
The Colts will need to win eight of their final 10 games to keep their streak of 12-win seasons alive. 8-2 would be a pretty tall order for a lot of teams, even healthy ones, but for fans or the league to be surprised at all if the Colts manage to do so, given the team’s history over the last five years alone, it would seem unjustified.
A 12-4 record in 2010, at this rate, all but assures a playoff berth. Winning out in the AFC South contests all but assures the Colts the division. Doing so without Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, and Austin Collie won’t be easy. Then again, it wasn’t easy in four of the five previous years due to injuries. What has changed? Nothing. For the Colts, this is par for the course.