INDIANAPOLIS –Coming off consecutive winning seasons under Head Coach Jim Mora, including the AFC East title in 1999, the Colts had one goal in mind entering 2001: advancing in the playoffs.
They were stunned by Tennessee, 19-16, in 1999 in the first home playoff game since the franchise moved to Indianapolis in 1984, and followed that with a 23-17 first-round loss at Miami to cap the 2000 season.
With their own version of the "Triplets" in quarterback Peyton Manning, running back Edgerrin James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison, the Colts certainly had the weapons to strike fear into opposing defenses.
The defense had veteran anchors up front in end Chad Bratzke and tackle Ellis Johnson, proven talent at the linebacker spots with Mike Peterson and Marcus Washington but had five new starters.
"Complacency is a problem if you've won back-to-back Super Bowls," said Manning before the season. "We're a hungry team. You hate to admit it but we haven't won a playoff game the past two years. With this team, complacency isn't an option."
The draft yielded a promising young complement to Harrison in Reggie Wayne, though he suffered a high ankle sprain in training camp that slowed his progress.
Things certainly started well as the Colts rolled up 87 points in routing the New York Jets 45-24 and Buffalo 42-26 but consistency proved problematic. The Colts failed to score more than 18 points in dropping their next three – including two lopsided losses to New England in the first and fourth starts of Tom Brady's career at quarterback – then bounced back with 65 points in consecutive road wins over Kansas City and Buffalo.
But injuries piled up including the loss of James (knee), promising young wide receiver Jerome Pathon and defensive stalwart Peterson. The injuries would prove a daunting burden and the Colts lost seven of their final nine games to finish 6-10 and miss the playoffs.
James was lost with a torn knee ligament in the fourth quarter of the Kansas City victory, while Pathon – who had 22 catches for 318 yards in the first three games – missed 12 of the final 13 with a foot injury. Peterson missed seven of the final eight games after tearing a knee ligament November 11 against Miami.
The Colts averaged 37.0 points in their victories, scoring at least 29 in each, but just 19.1 points in losses, scoring fewer than 27 every time.
The finish prompted a coaching change as Tony Dungy replaced Mora, who had a 32-32 record in four seasons at the helm.
RECAPPING THE 2001 SEASON
Most memorable games: All was right with the world in first two weeks. Manning passed for 231 yards and two touchdowns, James rushed for 135 yards and two scores and Pathon had career-highs of eight receptions and 93 yards as the Colts demolished the New York Jets, 45-24. Terrence Wilkins took a punt back 78 yards for a score and defensive end Chukie Nwokorie picked up Vinny Testaverde's fumble deep in Colts territory and rumbled 95 yards for a touchdown that killed the Jets' hopes. The Colts followed that up with a 42-26 demolition of Buffalo in which the offense racked up 555 yards of total offense, averaged 9.3 per play, and scored touchdowns on six consecutive possessions. James set a club record with his fifth consecutive 100-yard rushing game (111), while Manning passed for 421 yards and four scores, three to Harrison, who had 146 receiving yards. Pathon continued to pile up career numbers with nine more receptions for 168 yards.
Best seasonal performance: Dominic Rhodes did his best to ease the pain of James' absence, racking up 1,104 rushing yards, an NFL record for an undrafted rookie, and scoring nine touchdowns on the ground. He joined James and Marshall Faulk as the only Colts to rush for at least 1,000 yards as a rookie. Rhodes had an impact right away, scoring on an 88-yard kickoff return and a 77-yard run in the 35-28 win in Kansas City, becoming the first player in club history to have TD plays of at least 70 and 80 yards in one game. He broke loose for 177 yards in a 41-27 win over Atlanta, 141 in a 29-10 win over Denver and 126 in a 29-28 loss to the Jets. "There's nothing I don't think I can do on the football field," said Rhodes, of Midwestern (Texas) State. "When I get the ball in my hands I think I'm up there with the best of them. As long as I have a hole to get into and some space to get into, I can do what's needed to make yards. I'm not Edgerrin. Edgerrin does his special things and I do my special things."
Other individual highlights: Manning led the AFC in passing yards with 4,131 and his 26 touchdowns were second in the conference and marked his club-record fourth consecutive season of at least 20. He was tied for eighth in the NFL with a passer rating of 84.1. … Harrison was third in the NFL in receptions, second in yards (1,524) and fourth in touchdowns (15), earning another Pro Bowl nod in the process. He extended his streak of games with at least one reception to 92, at least one in every game of his career. … Tight end Ken Dilger also made the Pro Bowl after grabbing 32 passes for 343 yards. … Bratzke battled injuries but led the team in sacks for the third consecutive season with 8.5. … Kicker Mike Vanderjagt made 28-of-34 field goals and ranked third in the NFL with 125 points, finishing the season as the most accurate field goal kicker in league history (.877). … Marcus Pollard caught eight touchdown passes, one shy of the club record for a tight end set by the late John Mackey in 1966. … Wayne returned from his early ankle sprain to start nine games, finishing his rookie season with 27 receptions for 345 yards. He picked up his first career start and first reception on October 14 against Oakland.
Turning point: After two big road wins over the Chiefs and Bills, the Colts were 4-3 and looked to be on the rebound heading into a November 11 home game against Miami. They emerged from that game not only beaten but battered. Already without James, they lost Peterson in the 27-24 loss and had several other players – including Manning – leave the field in pain. Manning suffered a hairline fracture to his jaw on a fourth-quarter hit that was flagged a personal foul. He was only out briefly but it was long enough for things to unravel. Veteran backup Mark Rypien took just one snap but his handoff to Rhodes was mishandled, the Dolphins recovered and Jay Fiedler followed with a 29-yard touchdown pass that put Miami ahead for good. That launched a five-game losing streak that took the Colts out of playoff contention and ultimately led to Mora's departure.
Significant moment: When James left in the fourth quarter of the Kansas City game on October 25, he did not think his injury was serious and told teammates he thought he would be fine. The leading rusher in the NFL his first two seasons, James was well on his way to another dominant performance in 2001 with 662 yards in six games, as well as 193 receiving yards. Not only would James not play again in 2001, he would not return to form for more than a year. Though Rhodes filled in admirably, the offense lost one of its linchpins and the team struggled the rest of the season. Said Manning, "There is no replacement for Edgerrin James anywhere on this team, anywhere in this league."