In Indy, the 3-2 Colts are waiting for their engines to start

The Washington Post's panel of football insiders look back at the Redskins' comeback victory over Green Bay and preview Sunday night's game against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 6:59 PM


It is a different sort of season so far for the Indianapolis Colts , one in which 12 victories - generally their annual minimum - does not seem quite as certain as usual.

These Colts are talking about finding their way on both offense and defense, and about figuring out what the personality of their team will be.

Such talk is normally reserved for other teams while the Colts are busy piling up wins and dusting off a new spot for quarterback Peyton Manning to display another NFL most valuable player award. But this year, the Colts bring a modest-for-them record of 3-2 into Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field, and it took a triumph over the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend that was led by their defense to keep them from dropping below the .500 mark.

"I understand how it's easy to compare to previous seasons," Manning said after last Sunday's game. "That's one thing we really don't talk about that much, previous seasons. This is the 2010 team. I think we're still trying to figure out what our identity is a little bit. We've still been somewhat inconsistent, playing really good one game and then kind of having a dropoff on one side.

"We're still looking for kind of all three phases of our team to play well at the same time," Manning added. "We've kind of alternated and, as a result, we've kind of alternated winning and losing. So we're looking for that consistency. Hopefully we can put it together from here on out and play really good team football."

It's not like the Colts are playing poorly. They're in a four-way tie for first place in the AFC South. They have the league's third-ranked offense. Manning is the league's fourth-rated passer, with 11 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. Three receivers - wideouts Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie and tight end Dallas Clark - have more than 30 catches each. Another run deep into the playoffs certainly remains a possibility.

But the standards have become oh-so-high for this team with Manning as its quarterback that the Colts' early-season play qualifies as a bit of a surprise and disappointment. They won their first 14 games last season under then-rookie head coach Jim Caldwell, en route to Manning's second Super Bowl appearance. The Colts lost the Super Bowl to the New Orleans Saints, but still achieved an NFL-record seventh straight regular season with at least 12 wins. Manning won his fourth league MVP award, another record.

So eyebrows are raised now that the Colts have lost early-season games to two division rivals, the Houston Texans in the season opener and the Jacksonville Jaguars a week before the victory over the Chiefs. The Colts are ranked 28th in the league in rushing offense, 29th in rushing defense and 23rd in total defense.

Caldwell pressed the right buttons last season after inheriting the team from his retired predecessor, Tony Dungy. He generated a controversy late in the regular season by resting starters instead of pursuing an unbeaten season. But the Colts didn't suffer a playoff letdown.

This season, however, he had to defend a sideline decision to use a timeout with the Colts on defense in the final minute of the Jacksonville game, unintentionally helping the Jaguars have enough time for kicker Josh Scobee's decisive 59-yard field goal as time expired.

It was the Chiefs, not the Colts, who took the field last Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium as the league's last unbeaten team. The Colts took care of that, but their victory wasn't without issues. Manning threw an interception and didn't have a touchdown pass, and the Colts had to settle for four field goals by kicker Adam Vinatieri before finally getting into the end zone on a touchdown run by reserve tailback Mike Hart with a little more than four minutes to play. Hart took over after Joseph Addai suffered a shoulder injury.

"Over the years, we've won a lot of games around here," Caldwell said after the game. "We haven't been in this situation very often . . . Guys were a little bit on edge all week long."

Caldwell's team demonstrated some resolve when facing a rare early-season crisis.

"Yeah, we were 2-2," Wayne said in the locker room last Sunday evening. "You may say it was unfamiliar territory. But don't get spoiled. It's still the NFL - no guarantees. It's a situation we've been in before, but just not normally. We know what we've got to do. A lot of the older guys are telling the younger guys just . . . keep pushing and it's all gonna work out for us."

Said Manning: "Certainly there were some things that we definitely can improve on, and were not the way that we want to do them. But when you can kind of overcome those negative plays or mistakes or kind of ugly series, if you will, then that's what you want to do. We didn't overcome those last week, and were able to overcome them [Sunday] and get a win. That's a good thing."

There won't be any late-season questions this time around about whether it's better to chase an undefeated season or sit down Manning and other key players to keep them healthy and fresh for the postseason. This Colts team doesn't appear, at least for now, to be playing for a place in history among the all-time greats. But Manning and the club's other key veterans don't seem overly worried at this point.

"We're just trying to kind of form the identity of this team. That will progress throughout the season. . . . Just do whatever we have to do to win. I'm looking for wins," Manning said. "We'd like to put a couple wins in a row. We've got a tough game next week against the Redskins before the bye. We're just truly kind of one week at a time, trying to do what we have to do to win."

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