INDIANAPOLIS –A new era dawned in 2002, one that ultimately would lead the Colts to the pinnacle of the NFL.
After four seasons under Jim Mora produced a 32-32 record and two playoff berths but no post-season victories, the Colts hired Tony Dungy to take over as head coach. Dungy had brought life to the Tampa Bay franchise, guiding the Buccaneers to four consecutive playoff berths from 1998-2001, including a berth in the NFC Championship game in 1999.
He brought a reputation as a strong defensive coach, a proponent of the Cover-2 scheme, and as a motivator able to get the most out of his players. That certainly proved to be the case with the Colts, who improved to 10-6 and returned to the playoffs after a 6-10 finish in 2001.
"Our reputation is that of being an offensive team and it's justifiably so," Dungy said. "There's been a great offense here with Peyton Manning and even before him with the great comebacks of Jim Harbaugh. It's almost as if the offense has always come to the rescue late in games.
"We want to be a complete team. We want the defense and the special teams to catch up to the standard that the offense has set. … The way you win on defense is you get people who can really run and hit. If you do that, you'll be good."
Dungy's defenses in Tampa Bay never ranked below 11th in the NFL in six seasons, while the Colts had only cracked the top 10 three times in 18 seasons. So it was clear his priority would be building a defense that complemented the prolific offense.
One of the cornerstones of the defense was acquired through the draft in Dwight Freeney. Though pundits thought the speedy Syracuse end would be undersized for the NFL at 6-1, 268, he was the prototype for Dungy's aggressive, more athletic philosophy. Freeney would produce 13 sacks in his rookie season, a franchise record, while also forcing nine fumbles.
The Colts' 50th season in the NFL (and 19th in Indianapolis) would also mark their first, after 32 years in the AFC East, in the new AFC South division as the league expanded to 32 teams including new division rival Houston.
"All four of the head coaches (in the division) have been to a championship game or the Super Bowl," said Dungy. "There are Pro Bowl quarterbacks in the division, or quarterbacks who have been drafted number one (overall). You have potential for a great division. The rivalries are going to build as we start playing each other twice a year.
"You are going to have to play defense to win the AFC South because of all the good offenses and the good quarterbacks in the division."
The Colts started quickly under Dungy, winning four of their first five games including divisional road games at Jacksonville and Houston. But slow starts led to a three-game losing streak that dropped the team to .500 at midseason. In those three losses, the Colts dug big first-half holes – 21-0 at Pittsburgh in a 28-10 loss, 20-0 at Washington in a 26-21 loss and 20-0 vs. Tennessee in a 23-15 loss.
"We're sitting at 4-4 now and that is a disappointing first half," said Dungy. "We've got to come back and focus on the second half of the year and see if we can get some of that momentum back."
The Colts put it all together in a 35-13 rout of Philadelphia that launched a four-game win streak that propelled them into the playoffs, where they wound up losing 41-0 to their old AFC East rivals, the New York Jets.
Nevertheless, the foundation was laid for the Colts' dynastic decade.
RECAPPING THE 2002 SEASON
Most memorable game: Under the circumstances – snow in the air and ice on the field – Dungy was prepared to punt to put the Broncos' backs to the wall in overtime, rather than attempt what at best would be an iffy, and long, field goal. Long-snapper Justin Snow prevailed upon his head coach to give Mike Vanderjagt the opportunity and Dungy relented. Vanderjagt nailed the 51-yarder to give the Colts a thrilling 23-20 comeback victory in overtime in what some called "The Mile-High Miracle" game of November 24. Even Vanderjagt was not overly confident about the attempt, though he had made his previous attempt, a 54-yarder in the closing seconds of regulation to force the overtime. "I thought we should punt," he said, "but I wasn't about to say, 'No, coach. Let's not kick.' " With multiple players out, the Colts rode Manning, Harrison (11 receptions for 107 yards) and Vanderjagt to their third straight win. Manning passed for 229 yards and was masterful in the final drive of regulation. Taking over at his own 20 with 100 seconds remaining and no timeouts, Manning calmly guided the Colts into field goal range, capping the drive with a 16-yard fourth-down pass to Qadry Ismail to the Denver 36.
Best seasonal performance: Marvin Harrison produced not only the best season of his career but perhaps the best ever by a wide receiver in NFL history. He established a league record with 143 receptions, becoming the only receiver to have four consecutive seasons with at least 100. He broke Raymond Berry's club record for career receptions in the process. He also led the league with 1,722 receiving yards and produced 11 touchdowns. "He's just a great player (with) a great work ethic," said Dungy. "He wants to win very badly, and he wants to do his part. I've just been more and more impressed every day, being around him. It's amazing. You know teams are going to come in to try to stop him, double-cover him. Then, first play of the game, he's open for a 30-yard gain. He's uncanny. I'm just glad we have him."
Other individual highlights: Manning continued his assault on the record books, becoming the first player in NFL history to pass for at least 4,000 yards in four consecutive seasons. He completed 66.3 percent of his attempts to set then a franchise record (previously held by Jim Harbaugh at 63.7 percent in 1995), and finished with 4,200 yards and 27 touchdowns. … Freeney set a then franchise record with 13 sacks and also forced nine fumbles in his remarkable rookie season. … Edgerrin James passed Eric Dickerson to set the club record for 100-yard rushing games, breaking the century mark twice on his way to 989 yards despite injuries to both ankles, his ribs and hamstring. … Vanderjagt extended his scoring streak to 71 games, a franchise record, and moved to second in club history with 137 field goals.
Turning point: The Colts literally and figuratively limped into Philadelphia for their November 10 matchup. Riding a three-game losing streak and missing their top two running backs (James and backup Ricky Williams) due to injuries, the Colts faced a powerful 6-2 Eagles team featuring a defense that had yielded just three offensive touchdowns in its previous three games. But everything clicked for the Colts in an impressive 35-13 rout. Manning passed for 319 yards and three touchdowns including bombs of 57 and 43 yards to Harrison (who had 137 receiving yards) and rookie running back James Mungro pounded his way to 114 yards and two touchdowns. Mungro was the sixth Colts rookie to rush for at least 100 yards in his first start. While the offense was racking up 446 yards and five touchdowns, the defense shut down the Eagles' vaunted running game. In his first career start, Freeney forced three fumbles and had a sack along with seven tackles.
Significant moment: As was the case much of the season, it was not easy and it was not pretty, but the Colts were happy with the result. Their 20-13 victory in the regular-season finale against Jacksonville earned a Wild Card playoff spot, thus beginning a long streak of consecutive post-season berths. Thought Manning was held to a season-low 146 passing yards, he directed yet another fourth-quarter comeback, hitting Marcus Pollard for an 11-yard score with 2:26 remaining to give the Colts a 20-13 lead. The Jaguars then drove to the Indianapolis 38, but cornerback Nick Harper batted down rookie quarterback David Garrard's last-ditch pass attempt in the end zone as time expired.