The roster fat has been cut, the inflamed bursa sacs have been eradicated and the infinite kegs of Lucas Oil Stadium have been tapped. Yes, our Colts are back, and are settling in to the warmth of a new home. Thus begins the tale of the 2008 Colts season, with an intrepid hero, a shiny new stadium and enough injuries to leave Bill Polian wishing the stadium had included its very own Clarian Hospital. While Peyton Manning will likely play against the Bears Sunday, many of his Colt confederates will watch helplessly from the sidelines.
Tony Dungy is refreshingly adamant in his confidence that Manning will start the season-opener. “I would be shocked if he wasn’t there on Sunday,” Dungy said Monday. “He would have to have a dramatic setback.” But Peyton may not want to dig in too deeply, considering the frightening surplus of inexperience that will plague the offensive line to start the season, reminiscent of last season’s playoff run.
The greatest cause for concern hits the Colts in the heart of the O-line. Jeff Saturday, the gentle giant and fan-favorite center, will miss the season-opening Super Bowl rematch against Chicago, as his knee injury is clouded in uncertainty. It may be braced and ready for action, or it might require six weeks of rehabilitation or — in a less likely, although possible scenario — may require surgery.
Saturday will have a surplus of overgrown company on the sidelines. Veteran offensive guard Ryan Lilja has been placed on the “Physically Unable to Perform” list, meaning that he will be sidelined for at least the first six weeks of the season. Another of Saturday’s cohorts, Mike Pollack, is also out for at least one game. Manning’s streak of 160 consecutive starts seems to be safe for Sunday, but without the pristine protection of his offensive line, he might be knocked silly by halftime — as a handful of rookies will strap the weight of victory upon their untested shoulders for the first ever game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Colts signed all nine of their draft picks, and rookies Steve Justice and Jamey Richard will compete for the starting job at center, potentially leaving the Colts most vulnerable where Chicago is its most dangerous. Mike Hart, the former University of Michigan standout running back, will be scrapping for reps behind Addai and Dominick Rhodes, who has returned to Indy after a disappointing quest for a starting position in Oakland.
Dungy’s reliance on youth is a matter of necessity, due to the generous dollar amounts invested in his veteran pro-Bowlers. Of a 53-man roster, the salaries of Manning, Harrison and Bob Sanders account for over a third of the Colts $111 million payroll. All three studs start regular season play coming off of major injuries.
“Where we are salary cap wise, we’re going to have to continue to have young players play,” Dungy said of his budget. “So between eight and 13, 14 rookies [on the active roster] is the way it’ll be for the next few years.”
The most exciting budget-friendly face is that of Courtney Roby, a North Central graduate and former IU standout wide-receiver. After two seasons with the Titans, and a short-lived stint with the Bengals, Roby may have found his niche back home in Indiana.
“Courtney has been dynamic on the returns,” Dungy said. “He’s doing an excellent job.” Roby established himself as roster-worthy with an exclamation point last Thursday, making several quality kick returns, including one in which he exploded for a 103-yard touchdown. He grew up idolizing Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, and will now be lining up alongside them, stretching defenses dangerously thin.
Although the Colts are once again subjected to their annual first-place schedule that pits them against the Patriots (Nov. 2, at home), Steelers, Chargers, Ravens and Bengals, the AFC South was propitiously paired with the horrendously weak NFC North this year for inter-conference league play. The Colts defense ended last year’s campaign as the second best in the NFL, despite a vicious plague of injuries and the early-season loss of Dwight Freeney. Expect the healthful 2008 defense to prey on the young and feeble quarterbacking of the NFC North, en route to easy lopsided victories over the Bears, Vikings, Packers and Lions.
The AFC South will be the most competitive it has been since its inception in 2002, and has become the clear favorite as the most dominant division in the NFL. The Colts have won the last five division championships, and have been in first place in the conference for the last 60 weeks of regular season play — but the Horses will have to improve from last year, as the rest of the division has, in order to keep pace.
The Titans are back with a devastating front line defensively, and aggressive free-agent pick-ups that will take some weight off their defense and quarterback Vince Young, who struggled mightily last year. The Jaguars seem to get more desperate and angry with each loss — as the Colts are, according to Jacksonville, their rival team (a fact that Indianapolis fans don’t notice, because the Colts beat the pants off of them nine out of 12 times). Even the Texans are expected to contend for a Wild Card spot; they are a young team that has improved each year with age, finishing last year as the best worst team in the NFL. With an 8-8 record, the Texans were the only team in the division not to make the playoffs last year.
Even if the seemingly contagious injury virus that plagued the ancient locker room of the RCA Dome last year takes hold of the new stadium, the Colts B-Squad is still better than their first eight opponents, before they begin the first-place brawls with the AFC elite in week nine. By then, Saturday and Lilja should be healthy, and the words bursa sac will be wholly forgotten.
If the Horses are to make another Super Bowl run, they will need help from an unknown hero; they won’t be able to do it with their 2007 team. Marvin is getting old, the offensive line’s bones seem to be made of dust, and even Peyton is limping to the starting line. The difference between a Blue Super Bowl Sunday and another year of one-and-done will rely on the uncertain emergence of dark horses.