INDIANAPOLIS – After the Colts completed their 13-3 regular season in 1999 for the biggest turnaround in NFL history, Head Coach Jim Mora explained how that record-breaking improvement affected the work environment at team headquarters.
“It’s like night and day in this business,” Mora said after the Colts flipped the numbers from their 3-13 mark in 1998. “When you’re winning, it just makes coming to work much easier. You get along with people better. You have a better attitude. It’s easier to coach the guys, and your practices are better. Everything is better and so yes, it’s a lot more enjoyable.”
To be sure, the 1999 season produced plenty of smiles for the Colts and their fans. It was a magical year. It also sent some messages to the rest of the NFL. Like:
-- Look out for quarterback Peyton Manning, who started in the Pro Bowl after only his second Colts season.
-- Watch out for rookie running back Edgerrin James and receiver Marvin Harrison, both Pro Bowl picks, who combined for a record 3,806 yards from scrimmage in 1999.
-- And look out for the Indianapolis team that won the AFC East title in 1999, got its first taste of a home playoff game and then set its sights on the next step.
“Now people are going to be expecting so much more of us,” Mora said after the Colts lost to Tennessee, 19-16, in the 1999 postseason. “There is going to be more hoopla surrounding the team and media attention. It’s going to be a whole different atmosphere. We’ve got to learn to deal with that, and we will. ... We’re at the top of our division, and teams are going to be talking about us as a definite contender, as they should.”
Following a 2-2 start in 1999, the Colts reeled off 11 consecutive victories. Having a 4,000-yard passer (Manning, 4,135), a 1,000-yard rusher (James, 1,553) and a 1,000-yard receiver (Harrison, 1,663) made it happen on offense. Having veteran leaders such as end Chad Bratzke (12 sacks) and linebacker Cornelius Bennett (114 tackles, five sacks) made it happen on defense.
The 1999 winning streak began October 17 against the host New York Jets as the Colts rescued a 16-13 victory. Colts cornerback Jeff Burris intercepted a Ray Lucas pass with the Jets at the Indianapolis two-yard line. Burris’ 55-yard return set up the winning score – a 27-yard field goal by Mike Vanderjagt in the final minute.
“That interception,” Burris said, “was as big as any play I’ve made as a Colt.”
James rushed for 111 yards, including 25 that kept the clock running on the last drive.
“I’m not a fortune teller and I can’t see the future,” Manning said, “but I could tell before the game that (James) was determined. ... He was ready to go.”
The Colts returned to the RCA Dome for three straight games. They knocked off the Cincinnati Bengals, 31-10, as Manning passed for 284 yards and Harrison caught eight passes for 156 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown to open the scoring. It was the 100th victory of Mora's NFL coaching career.
“It’s nice to get that win,” Mora said. “It doesn’t happen often. The key thing is that I’ve been able to survive for a number of years. If you’re able to hang around long enough and get with a couple of good programs like New Orleans and here, then you have a chance to achieve that goal. ... I’ve been very fortunate to be around some good people. I’ve been around some great offensive coaches and some outstanding players.”
The next weekend, the Dallas Cowboys came to Indianapolis. James’ considerable talents were on full display as he rushed for 117 yards and caught seven passes for 92 yards as the Colts rallied to win, 34-24.
“I think we have a special team,” Mora said after the game. “I think we have some special people in that locker room. We were down 17-6 at halftime and we still came out and outscored them 28-7 during the second half. For me, that shows a lot of character. It shows a lot of toughness (and) togetherness.”
The Colts lifted their midseason record to 6-2 the next week when they toppled the visiting Kansas City Chiefs, 25-17. James cracked the 100-yard rushing mark again with 109. Manning stayed on his hot streak, passing for 290 yards. And Harrison (93 receiving yards) and James (90) continued to excel as targets for Manning.
“This three-game winning streak at home is big,” Mora said. “When you’ve got an opportunity like this, if you’re going to be a successful team, it’s really important to take advantage of it.”
The Colts were just warming to their task. They traveled to the Meadowlands on November 14 and used four takeaways to facilitate a 27-19 victory over the New York Giants. Two of those New York turnovers came on late drives into Indianapolis territory.
“We’ve been knocked for not getting enough turnovers, and we picked the right day to get the turnovers,” Bratzke said.
The Colts visited Philadelphia the following week and thumped the Eagles, 44-17. Manning, who passed for three touchdowns, left the game in the fourth quarter with his team in full control. It ended his streak of 1,590 consecutive snaps from scrimmage that started with his first rookie game in 1998.
“If it was going to happen, I’m glad it was because of a big lead,” Manning said of his exit. “I’m glad it wasn’t because of an injury or because we were getting blown out. You’d love to have these games every single week, but they don’t happen very often. When they do, you enjoy them.”
In a November 28 game against the visiting Jets, the Colts suffered three turnovers but generated just enough offense to win, 13-6. The Colts’ scoring came on a two-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Marcus Pollard and a pair of Vanderjagt field goals. The Colts’ defense held the Jets to 214 yards and 14 first downs.
“It’s good that we have a defense that will step up and meet the challenge,” James said. “Our offense made turnovers and our defense stepped up there. That just says a lot about this ballclub.”
The Colts’ eighth consecutive victory came on December 5, thanks to a 53-yard field goal by Vanderjagt as time expired in the 37-34 outcome against host Miami. It marked the longest game-winning field goal in team history. James rushed for 130 yards and Harrison caught eight passes for 125, making it the fifth time in 1999 that the Colts had a 100-yard rusher and receiver in the same game.
The club’s ninth, 10th and 11th straight victories of the 1999 season came over New England, Washington and Cleveland. Another Vanderjagt field goal – from 21 yards with four seconds left – produced the 29-28 triumph at Cleveland.
Harrison, with 14 catches for 138 yards against the Browns, reached 100 receptions for the season, which had happened then only 25 times previously in NFL history. James, with 103 yards rushing and 18 receiving that day, became the 19th NFL player to surpass 2,000 yards from scrimmage. James’ rushing total against the Browns represented his 10th 100-plus game of the season, an NFL rookie record.
“It’s nice for the offensive linemen. It shows they’ve done a great job,” James said. “Plus, it just goes with the territory. We have a quarterback like Peyton and a receiver like Marvin, so things like that are bound to happen.”
The Colts’ streak ended the next week when they lost, 31-6, at Buffalo. But Indianapolis had already secured a bye week in the playoffs.
“I’m not going to start losing hours and hours of sleep over one game,” Mora said afterward. “This team did win 13 games this year and our offense has played pretty darned well. I’m just saying today we got pretty well dominated by a good football team.
“We’re glad that we’ve got a bye in the first round. Hopefully, it’ll help us.”
The Colts’ post-season opponent on January 16, 2000, was Tennessee. After the teams combined for five field goals, the Colts led 9-6 at halftime. Tennessee’s Eddie George changed that in the first two minutes of the second half, breaking off a 68-yard scoring run. The Colts, trailing by three late in the game, tried an onside kick in the final two minutes, but Tennessee recovered and ran out the clock for its 19-16 victory.
“Their defense played well against our offense,” said Mora, whose Colts were outrushed by a 197-78 total. “They’ve got a talented defensive team. We just had a hard time getting anything going in the running or passing game.”
RECAPPING THE 1999 SEASON
Significant moment: Edgerrin James rushed for 112 yards in the season-opening victory over Buffalo on September 12. It was the first of 10 100-plus rushing games for the Colts’ rookie running back, who went on to become the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year. Said Head Coach Jim Mora: “I’ve been kind of shocked by Edgerrin, just like everyone else. You don’t see players that young having that kind of impact on a team, and a league. He’s talented and special, obviously. But beyond that, he has something that isn’t as obvious. He’s just so, so, so tough.”
Best seasonal performance: Peyton Manning, in just his second season as the Colts’ starting quarterback, was the NFL’s most popular player among fans who voted for Pro Bowl participants. He was named on 124,346 ballots. Manning also was named the AFC Player of the Year by Football News. Manning credited Mora. “He runs a tight ship,” Manning said about the coach. “He wants things done his way, but his way is the right way. It’s been done before. It’s been proven. When you buy into that, which I think our team has, you have a good chance to do well.”
Unsung hero: Ratcliff Thomas quietly went about his work virtually every weekend. At season’s end, the backup linebacker was the Colts’ leading tackler on special teams, totaling 31 stops. He was rewarded by being named to Dr. Z’s NFL All-Pro Team for special teams.
Unsung heroes, Part II: Tight ends Marcus Pollard and Ken Dilger combined for 74 receptions in 1999. Their teammates knew exactly how important they were to the Colts’ high-powered offense. Said Manning: “Those two guys are big targets and hard to miss. Having two guys like Marcus and Kenny really helps us a lot with our formations and personnel. (Offensive coordinator) Tom Moore doesn’t have to substitute to a three- or four-wide receiver package on third down. We can stay with our tight ends because they run so well.”
Turning point: It came on October 17 when Colts cornerback Jeff Burris picked off a Ray Lucas pass and returned it 55 yards, setting up the winning score in the 16-13 victory over the New York Jets. The outcome marked the beginning of an 11-game winning streak.
Memorable moment: As the Colts defeated Cleveland, 29-28, on December 26, wide receiver Marvin Harrison cracked the 100-reception mark for the year. His reaction was low-key, as usual, to a milestone that had been reached then only 25 other times in NFL history. “When you’re in the flow of the game,” Harrison said, “you just go out there and try to make catches and make plays.” He finished the regular season with 115 receptions.