Rewriting History: Dungy’s Legacy in Indianapolis Inflated Post-Retirement

Tony Dungy greets Dwight Freeney prior to being inducted into the Colts Ring of Honor in 2010. (Darron Cummings | AP Photo)

When Peyton Manning underwent neck surgery at the beginning of the 2011 season, even more attention turned to a highly criticized coaching staff. Head Coach Jim Caldwell is attacked for his conservative play-calling, questionable timeouts, and inability to lead the team to improvements on both sides of the ball.

The special teams have been terrible, and Ray Rychleski (a Caldwell hire) is also under fire for a unit that may be the worst in the league. Lose Manning’s presence and gain more separation from the 2006 World Championship season and criticism of management and coaching will be rife. It’s expected.

But what about the team’s history? What about prior coaching staffs? Is Caldwell drastically worse than Tony Dungy? Post-retirement, much of the fan base seems to think so.The problem with this perspective is how much it has changed since Dungy was coaching.

Shortly after joining the team in 2002, there was a great deal of pressure on him to improve the defense. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl in 2002 with the defense Dungy built. Fans in Indianapolis had the expectation that Dungy would build the same defense for the Colts.

We’ll get to the defense and overall team performance quick enough but just to get one constant out of the way, the special teams units under Dungy and his Special Teams Coach Russ Purnell were among the worst in the league throughout his tenure.

The defense?

Even after fielding teams fans in Indianapolis were confident could win the Super Bowl in 2003 and 2005, Defensive Coordinator Ron Meeks and Dungy came under fire in 2006. A good scoring and pass defense did not placate fans.

The Colts run defense ranked 17th in 2005 and 31st in 2006 against the run, in DVOA. The calls to move on from Meeks and a soft defensive philosophy were extremely loud. In the link above, Dungy defended his defensive coordinator and suggested that the defense wasn’t as bad as some thought.

When Meeks was let go (resigned) in 2009 after Caldwell took over, his seven year tenure was called inconsistent. His former boss Tony Dungy, the defensive mastermind, oversaw that defense as well.

The team’s performance in the playoffs during Dungy’s tenure was as follows:

2002 – First Game Loss at Jets 41-0
2003 – Loss in AFC Championship at Pats 24-14
2004 – AFC Divisional Round Loss at Pats 20-3
2005 – First Game Loss v. Steelers 21-18
2006 – Super Bowl Win v. Bears 29-17
2007 – First Game Loss v. Chargers 28-24
2008 – First Game Loss at Chargers 23-17

Do not misunderstand. Dungy led the Colts to record wins, record playoff appearances, two AFC Championships, and a Super Bowl. However, during his tenure in Indianapolis he was questioned numerous times for conservative play-calling in the playoffs and lost a lot of fan confidence after the Steelers beat the Colts at home in 2005.

Fans today complain about Jim Caldwell’s unwillingness to throw challenge flags at appropriate times. This was a similar criticism of Dungy throughout his coaching tenure.

What made Dungy different from Caldwell was not necessarily putting together teams that did not get complaints from fans for their weaknesses, conservative style, soft labels, or lack of playoff success.

It was his leadership style. The city going through the adversity of the loss of his son with him in 2005. An unwavering player support for the quiet coach.

Dungy was and is a more present community leader, and team and player leader than Jim Caldwell has been in his three seasons as head coach. When Dungy decided to retire, a lot of fans, and members of the media, still agreed it was his time to move on.

Indianapolis Colts fans have had good reasons to question some of the decisions made by Jim Caldwell since he took over as head coach in 2009. They have good reasons to be disappointed in recent drafts. These observations are not intended to deflect criticism.

Instead, these observations should bring Colts fans back to a reality that it seems some have departed. Dungy and Caldwell are and were extremely similar coaches on the field.

The fan base needs to stop rewriting history. Dungy struggled in many of the same ways as Caldwell, and drew many of the same criticisms while he held the reins.

Not a whole lot has changed.

Dungy deserves a shining reputation for being a great man and credit for helping coach the team to a Super Bowl win. He deserves credit for coaching the team to franchise and NFL records. He also deserves credit for his shortcomings.

It is unlikely any of this will change until Manning’s career is over. When that happens a new philosophy may be instilled. Until then, the Dungy philosophy — in many ways — still remains.