INDIANAPOLIS –Replacing one legend is a daunting challenge. Entering the 2009 season, the Indianapolis Colts had to overcome the absence of two.
Tony Dungy, who guided the team to a victory in Super Bowl XLI and compiled an 85-27 regular-season record in seven seasons as head coach, retired and was replaced by longtime assistant Jim Caldwell.
Marvin Harrison, one of the most prolific wide receivers in NFL history with 1,102 receptions, 14,580 yards and 128 touchdowns was released at his request in February when a contract agreement could not be reached.
"It's certainly different," said Peyton Manning when training camp opened. "It's an adjustment when you lose two guys that had that big of an impact on our team and certainly on me. It will take a lot of getting used to, to line up under center and not see number 88 out to the right. And I think everybody's adjusting, even the coaches, to not having Coach Dungy around."
A former head coach at Wake Forest, Caldwell had been on Dungy's staff since 2001 in Tampa Bay. Like Dungy, Caldwell brought an unassuming, low-key personality to the sideline but nonetheless had an obvious presence and a backbone of steel.
Though comparisons with Dungy were obvious and could have been overbearing, Caldwell did not duck them. He dealt with them in his own way. He used a story from his days as an assistant to Joe Paterno at Penn State as a metaphor for his situation.
Paterno and Muhammad Ali were seated next to one another at an autograph signing. Paterno noticed Ali had a longer queue waiting that included a large contingent of women.
"Joe was over there and he had a few in his line, so he made a comment, 'Hey, Ali, why do you have the long line with all the girls and all the guys that are interested in talking to you?' Ali looked over at Joe and says, 'Because you haven't whupped anybody.'
"I haven't whupped anybody yet. So when that time comes and we get this team doing the things we certainly anticipate they can do, I think you will see things even out a little bit."
Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark would step forward in Harrison's absence as each had 100 receptions and 10 touchdowns. Manning was his usual remarkable self with 4,500 passing yards and 33 touchdowns and earned his NFL-record fourth league MVP award.
The defense was led once again by bookends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who combined for 23 sacks and six forced fumbles. Safety Antoine Bethea led the team with 120 tackles and four interceptions to earn a Pro Bowl berth, while linebackers Gary Brackett (115 tackles) and Clint Session (104) were major contributors. Brackett topped 100 tackles for the fifth consecutive season.
The draft produced a number of players that would become key contributors, including second-rounder Fili Moala (defensive tackle), third-rounder Jerraud Powers (cornerback), fourth-rounder Austin Collie (wide receiver) and seventh-rounder Pat McAfee (punter and kickoff specialist).
The team also welcomed back veteran assistants Tom Moore and Howard Mudd, who both played their usual key roles in helping one of the league's most dynamic offenses.
The transition proved seamless as the Colts bolted out of the gate, became then just the third team in NFL history to win its first 14 games (following New England in 2007 and Miami in 1972) and finishing the regular season with a 14-2 mark. The Colts then advanced to the Super Bowl for the second time in four years, falling to New Orleans, 31-17.
It all made Caldwell's rookie season one of the best in NFL history.
RECAPPING THE 2009 SEASON
Most memorable game: For the first time in 16 years, the top seed in each conference reached the Super Bowl and the Colts and Saints put on a show that lived up to its billing. The Colts jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but New Orleans got a pair of second-quarter field goals from Garrett Hartley to cut it to 10-6 at halftime. Then came one of the biggest surprises in Super Bowl history, as Saints Head Coach Sean Payton opened the second half with an onside kick. The ball bounced off Colts wide receiver Hank Baskett, the Saints recovered and promptly marched 58 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Though the Colts answered with a 76-yard drive capped by a four-yard scoring run by Joseph Addai to retake the lead, 17-13, they would not score again as the Saints rallied to take a 31-17 decision.
Trailing 24-17, the Colts had a chance to tie but Tracy Porter intercepted a Manning pass and returned it 74 yards for the clinching touchdown with 3:12 remaining. "I certainly know how it was three years ago when we won," said Manning, a New Orleans native whose father Archie was the Saints franchise's first true star. "I know the people of New Orleans and the Saints have that same feeling right now."
Best seasonal performance: In winning his league-record fourth MVP trophy (and second in a row), Manning not only rolled up remarkable numbers, he continued to build on his legend as one of the greatest clutch performers ever. He guided the Colts to seven victories after they trailed in the fourth quarter including five in a row – another NFL record. In that critical streak, the Colts won those five games (over San Francisco, New England, Baltimore and Houston twice) by a grand total of 18 points, an incredibly narrow margin that kept alive their remarkable 14-0 start. Manning reached 4,500 passing yards for the second time in his career to that point and his 33 touchdown passes were his second-most in a season. He wound up to a 99.9 passer rating, the fourth-best of his career.
"It certainly was a different year," Manning said. "I have to believe with the changes that we faced this offseason with a new coach … any time you have a new head coach that's a major change, even though Coach Dungy left things so fundamentally strong around here and Coach Caldwell continues his coaching style and continues with his outstanding leadership. And you've had some major changes in personnel. When you lose a receiver that's been such a constant performer like Marvin Harrison and you replace him with young guys, there's change there.
"I have to believe that the way our team responded to that change, that our veterans like Jeff Saturday and Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark and Ryan Diem, Joseph Addai, the way these guys just came to work every day and didn't let all these changes affect them, I think the way our team responded to these changes had a lot to do with the kind of season that we've had. We've just stuck together as a team, we've fought together, we've come out with some very close wins, and I've just been fortunate to be a part of that."
Turning point: With an 8-0 mark at the midpoint of the season, the Colts were threatening New England's perfect season (16-0) in 2007, so the Patriots were even more highly motivated than usual for their trip to Lucas Oil Stadium. The two rivals staged one of the most remarkable regular-season games in NFL history. The Patriots led 31-14 in the fourth quarter but another Manning comeback and a fateful decision by New England Head Coach Bill Belichick enabled the Colts to pull out a 35-34 stunner. Late in the game, nursing a 34-28 lead, Belichick opted to go for fourth-and-two from the Patriots' 28-yard line with 2:08 remaining. Tom Brady threw a pass in the flat to running back Kevin Faulk but safety Melvin Bullitt stopped him short of the first down. The Colts took over and Manning tossed the game-winning one-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne with 13 seconds remaining.
It was the first time a Belichick-coached team lost after leading by at least 13 in the final period, and was the Colts' fifth win in six games in the series. "Give the Colts credit," Belichick said. "That's why the Colts are the Colts. They're a good football team. That's about as close as it gets." Caldwell became the first NFL coach ever to win his first nine games as the Colts, in the midst of their five-game streak of fourth-quarter comebacks, withstood the biggest challenge to their perfect start.
Significant moments: Manning's 65-yard pass to Reggie Wayne capped the seventh fourth-quarter comeback of the season as the Colts won, 35-31, in Jacksonville to become the third team in NFL history to win its first 14 games. They also extended their regular-season winning streak to an NFL-record 23, including 11 in a row on the road. Manning completed his first 13 passes and wound up 23-of-30 for 308 yards and four touchdowns, while Wayne had 132 receiving yards. The victory also marked the 115th regular-season win of the decade (2000-09), setting a new NFL record. Ten franchises have combined to produce the 12 100 -victory decades in NFL history.
The Colts ended the season with consecutive losses to the New York Jets and Buffalo. The team entered the post-season in full health.
That approach certainly paid dividends as the Colts whipped Baltimore, 20-3, to advance to the AFC Championship game for the fourth time since the franchise moved to Indianapolis, a re-match with none other than the Jets. Manning passed for 377 yards – his NFL-record seventh playoff game of at least 300 – and three touchdowns as the Colts rallied from a 17-6 second-quarter deficit by scoring the final 24 points in a 30-17 victory that sent them back to the Super Bowl. Young wide receivers Pierre Garcon (151) and Austin Collie (123) both topped 100 yards. Caldwell became the fifth rookie head coach to reach the Super Bowl. This would be the Colts' fourth appearance in the Super Bowl (III, V, XLI and XLIV), with all four games played in Miami.