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All Signs Indicate It's a Big Season for Colts

By Desmond Bieler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 8, 2004; Page H15

It was good news/bad news offseason for the Indianapolis Colts, with both revolving around Peyton Manning.

Coming off a 12-4 season that included a division title and a trip to the AFC championship game, Indianapolis wasted little time locking up all-universe quarterback Manning, signing him to a seven-year, $98 million deal. "There was a lot of pressure because we're getting closer to the Super Bowl," owner Jim Irsay said. "If you don't get it done, we're going in a dramatically different direction, and our chances are reduced."

In that deal, however, the Colts, er, ponied up a mammoth $34.5 million signing bonus, which meant that they wouldn't be making any other major signings. So, bad news, a defense that saw key performers such as linebacker Marcus Washington, defensive end Chad Bratzke and cornerbacks Walt Harris and David Macklin depart is going to have to replace them from what doesn't seem to be an especially deep in-house crew.

Ultimately, though, the Colts probably hold a trump card in the form of an offense that shouldn't have much trouble regularly outscoring opponents. Unless, of course, Manning gets hurt. But Manning has yet to miss a start in his six-year career.

Speaking of big contracts, running back Edgerrin James will be playing for one, albeit not likely from the Colts (you got it, that Manning deal). Fully recovered from a devastating anterior cruciate ligament injury, James has plenty of motivation to get back to the form that made him arguably football's most dangerous back in 1999 and 2000.

While the sublime Marvin Harrison anchors the wide receivers, defenses don't get much of a break from the Colts' tight ends, either. Marcus Pollard saw his production decrease last year, but only because Dallas Clark showed so much promise before getting injured in his rookie year.

On the other side of the ball, the central protagonist is defensive end Dwight Freeney, who is looking to improve on his first two years' totals of 13 and 11 sacks. With a depleted secondary behind him, it is especially important that Freeney lead a potent pass rush. He also is feeling pressure to become more of a presence in the locker room. "I think I've probably got to pick it up a little bit on the vocal side because Marcus [Washington] is not here," Freeney told the Indianapolis Star. "Hopefully I can be that total package."

Next to Freeney, literally, the most vital contribution figures to be that of defensive tackle Larry Tripplett. The third-year player will be relied upon to stuff opposing ground games. If he's not up to the task, Freeney's remarkable speed in getting to the quarterback will be irrelevant.

The Colts also happen to have one of the best kickers in the game. After an offseason in which he and Manning exchanged barbs, Mike Vanderjagt could hardly have performed better last year, making all of his field goal and extra-point attempts. It almost doesn't seem fair that Indianapolis can consistently get points on the relatively few occasions when a drive stalls. It's up to its defense to compound that by keeping opponents off the scoreboard, as well.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company