INDIANAPOLIS –The Colts opened the 2008 season by playing their first game in the new, state-of-the-art Lucas Oil Stadium. The team closed the campaign by saying goodbye to Coach Tony Dungy, who retired after a successful seven-year run in Indianapolis.
Those were just two of the significant events that created plentiful memories in 2008.
The Colts ended the regular season on a nine-game winning streak, lifting their mark to 12-4 and extending their NFL record with a sixth consecutive year of 12 or more victories. Quarterback Peyton Manning, whose terrific performance elevated the Colts during their nine-game streak, won his third league MVP award. The 2008 season was the last in the NFL for Marvin Harrison, who departed as then the league's number two career receiver with 1,102 catches.
Despite the milestones and highlights, however, the year did not go into the record books exactly how the team hoped. The Colts traveled to San Diego for an AFC Wild Card playoff game and lost in overtime, 23-17. Chargers punter Mike Scifres pinned the Colts deep in their own territory all day, and running back Darren Sproles accumulated 328 total yards and produced the winning touchdown.
"No matter when you lose in the playoffs, you always feel terrible," Dungy said the day after the game. "And you feel worse than teams that were 4-12 and won their last game."
Dungy announced his retirement from coaching about a week later. He left a legacy of winning, compiling an 85-27 regular-season record in Indianapolis. All seven of his Colts teams went to the playoffs, and the 2006 club won the Super Bowl. Including his previous stint in Tampa Bay, Dungy became the only coach since the AFL-NFL 1970 Merger to lead teams into the playoffs in 10 consecutive years.
"He had that magical aspect of leadership," Colts Owner and CEO Jim Irsay said at the team's final news conference with Dungy. "I've always said when hiring a head coach, the number one thing is leadership. That's first and foremost.
"It's been an incredible journey with Tony and with Lauren (Dungy's wife) and both of our families and our whole organization. Like I said, I can't thank him enough. I know he's pushed me as a man and made me a better person. Our conversations together have meant the world to me, and they'll continue. … I just can't thank you enough, Tony, for all you've done and the way you brought the Horseshoe back at such the height that it stands for so many special things."
Dungy coached the Colts to an abundance of memorable moments on the field. But he was notably proud, too, of pushing his players to make inroads with the fans and always conduct themselves in an exemplary manner.
"So I think that's going to be part of it, that I was someone that helped our players in every stop that I've been at, helped them connect back with the community and be the type of role models that our young kids need," Dungy said. "So if I was going to hope (how his seven years with the team will be remembered), it would be something like that and maybe very little talk about what we did on the field."
The Colts' on-the-field start in 2008 was less than satisfying. They lost four of their first seven games, including the opener against Chicago (29-13). The Bears' Matt Forte rushed for 123 yards while the Colts gained only 53 rushing yards in their regular-season debut in Lucas Oil Stadium.
"It is sickening is what it feels like," Manning said after the defeat. "It's a really disappointing feeling to lose a game. First game in a new stadium, 15th game in an old stadium, it is really disappointing to lose. So we have to go to work."
Said Dungy, echoing Manning's concern over how the Colts performed: "We certainly haven't had one like that in a long time, where we got that soundly outplayed. It's disappointing – disappointing to have opening night go like that."
Indianapolis won at Minnesota (18-15) the next week, but that momentum was short-lived. Next came a loss to Jacksonville (23-21). Things looked better with successive victories over Houston (31-27) and Baltimore (31-3), but a dark cloud returned when the Colts lost their next two games – to Green Bay (34-14) and Tennessee (31-21).
But as the Colts headed toward the mid-season mark, something clicked. They defeated visiting New England, 18-15, as Manning passed for 254 yards and a pair of touchdowns, both to Anthony Gonzalez. Adam Vinatieri's 52-yard field goal midway through the final quarter proved to be the winning points.
"We are going to keep fighting. That is all you can do," Manning said, noting the Colts had little time to enjoy the victory in view of their game a week later at Pittsburgh. "Got to stick together. Got to keep fighting and scratching. It's not going to be easy, might not be clean at times, but got to keep fighting and try to find a way. Next week will be a real big challenge."
The Colts rose to the occasion. They battled from a 10-point deficit against the Steelers to win, 24-20. Manning passed for 240 yards and three touchdowns. Reggie Wayne had 114 receiving yards. Tim Jennings and Keiwan Ratliff produced interceptions that led to touchdowns, and Melvin Bullitt preserved the triumph with a last-second interception in the end zone.
"I thought it was a big win for us in a lot of ways," Dungy said at his day-after news conference. "We went on the road and beat a good team, and that's always gratifying. To win like we did, coming from 10 down, that's not easy to do, especially there."
The Colts ran off seven more victories through November and December. They clinched a playoff spot with a 31-24 win over Jacksonville on December 18 with one week remaining in the regular season. Manning set a club record with 23 consecutive pass completions, including six from the week before against Detroit (it was one shy of the NFL record). He passed for 364 yards and three touchdowns against the Jaguars as the Colts came back from a two-touchdown deficit.
"It's pretty fun to watch," Dungy said about Manning's play. "It does surprise you at times. I was kind of amazed (at Jacksonville) because of the situation. You get down 14 and your running game's not going well, usually the other team's teeing off. … To be as accurate as he was and find guys and keep the ball moving, not take any sacks, not have any turnovers in that environment, that was really a great performance."
The Colts rested a number of front-line players for portions of the regular-season final against visiting Tennessee. Indianapolis still won, 23-0, gaining its first shutout since 1997. Manning completed all seven of his passes for 95 yards and a touchdown before turning the offense over to backup quarterback Jim Sorgi.
Manning's passing statistics during the Colts' nine-game winning streak attracted attention around the league: a 72.1 percent completion rate; 2,248 yards; a 109.7 quarterback rating; 17 touchdowns and only three interceptions. He was a runaway winner of the league MVP award, getting 32 of a possible 50 votes from the media panel. Chad Pennington and Michael Turner, each with four votes, were Manning's closest pursuers.
RECAPPING THE 2008 SEASON
Memorable moment, Part I: When Marvin Harrison caught a pass in the Colts' victory at Pittsburgh on November 9, it marked the 184th consecutive game in which he had done so. That was the longest streak to start an NFL career. And after Harrison moved into the NFL's number two position for career receptions (1,102), surpassing Cris Carter in the Colts' final home game, Peyton Manning put it best: "Marvin's career, it's hard to put it into words. He has been so consistent his entire career, so it's nice to have that record broken at home."
*Memorable moment, Part II: *Dallas Clark had 59 receiving yards in the final regular-season game, giving him 848 for the year to surpass Pro Football Hall-of-Fame member John Mackey for the franchise seasonal record for a tight end. Clark's 77 catches in 2008 extended the club's tight end record that he set the year before with 58 receptions. Said Clark: "It's amazing. I thought last year was going to be the best year I was going to have here, and I wasn't even close to it. For that to happen, one, health was a big thing with it. You have to be healthy. You have to play all 16 games, and I was there for 15, and that had a lot to do with it. But it's a tremendous honor."
*Best seasonal performances, defense: *Free safety Antoine Bethea, a sixth-round draft pick in 2006, demonstrated his considerable skills in 2008, as he led the Colts with 126 tackles while also intercepting two passes and recovering a fumble. Strong safety Melvin Bullitt, who signed with Indianapolis as an undrafted free agent in 2007, showed his mettle as he filled in for an injured Bob Sanders and led the Colts with four interceptions, many in game-saving fashion.
Pro Bowl Colts: The Colts saw four players get selected for the 2008 AFC team in the Pro Bowl – Manning and receiver Reggie Wayne on offense, and defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Freeney (10.5) and Mathis (11.5) combined for 22 sacks. They helped the Colts to a number six ranking against the pass in the NFL.