Colts Look at Steelers for Improvement

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 23, 2006; 12:06 PM

Offseason Roundup: Indianapolis Colts

Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy has told his players to look no further than the team that beat them during last season's playoffs, the Pittsburgh Steelers, as the model for the approach the Colts should take to next season.

The Steelers, after going 15-1 during the regular season in 2004, lost to the New England Patriots during that season's playoffs. But they didn't sulk about the disappointing end to their would-be magical season. They worked harder and got tougher and, even though the regular season was a struggle for them at times last year, they were at their best when it mattered the most and they gave Coach Bill Cowher his first Super Bowl triumph.

Can the Colts be next season's version of those Steelers, regrouping after their run toward a possible perfect season last year ended oh-so-imperfectly? It's possible. But the Colts won't be as dominant a team as they were last season after losing tailback Edgerrin James in free agency.

The Colts decided they couldn't afford to keep both wide receiver Reggie Wayne and James, so James was the one they allowed to leave. Wayne was signed in February to a six-year, $40 million contract extension, including $13.5 million in bonuses, to keep him off the free agent market. The Colts also managed to re-sign defensive end Raheem Brock and linebackers Rob Morris and Gary Brackett.

But that left James exiting as a free agent to sign a four-year, $30 million deal with the Arizona Cardinals. James was a 1,500-yard rusher in each of the past two seasons, and the most impressive thing about the Colts during their 13-0 beginning to last season was that they could beat an opponent any way they chose, playing any style. They could strike quickly with quarterback Peyton Manning throwing darts to Wayne and fellow wideouts Marvin Harrison and Brandon Stokley, or they could craft long, meticulous drives featuring James.

The offense becomes more one-dimensional now. The Colts still have decent runners. Dominic Rhodes was an 1,100-yard rusher in 2001, and the club used its first-round draft pick on LSU tailback Joseph Addai. They likely will split carries, with Rhodes entering training camp as the starter. But neither is the runner that James is, and defenses probably will dare the Colts to run the ball.

The major addition that the Colts made in free agency was the signing of kicker Adam Vinatieri, the Patriots' two-time Super Bowl hero. There was no reason to believe when the offseason began that Vinatieri would leave New England. The Colts didn't even bother to negotiate with him initially. But when Vinatieri made a visit to the Green Bay Packers and stayed just a little bit longer than one might have expected, the Colts suspected that perhaps something was up. They struck quickly after that, first determining that Vinatieri indeed was willing to leave the Patriots and then completing a deal with him without him even making a free-agent visit.

The Colts thus have added the greatest clutch kicker in league history to replace a kicker, Mike Vanderjagt, who was highly accurate but hardly at his best in high-pressure situations. That probably won't mean much during the regular season. Vinatieri likely will have a terrific season with his home games being played indoors at the RCA Dome, but it will be difficult for him to be any more accurate than Vanderjagt was in recent seasons. When the upgrade will matter will be during the playoffs.

The Colts' season ended when Vanderjagt's game-tying field goal in the closing seconds against the Steelers sailed ridiculously far wide. Neither Dungy nor the other Colts players blamed Vanderjagt for losing a game in which the team had played miserably most of the day. But, with Vinatieri, that's a game the Colts might have somehow won anyway.

The defense loses linebacker David Thornton and tackle Larry Tripplett, who exited via free agency. But tackle Corey Simon should be even better than he was last season, when he got to the club late after being released by the Philadelphia Eagles because of a contract dispute.

No, the Colts aren't the team they were last season. And no, things probably never will set up for them as well as they were in last season's playoffs, when the Colts had home-field advantage and could have reached the Super Bowl without having to beat the Patriots.

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