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BENNER: No 'new era' for Colts as long as Manning's here

August 10, 2009

Until No. 18—that, of course, would be Peyton Manning—retires (more on that in a moment), this will probably have to suffice for as much of a “new era” as we can have for the Indianapolis Colts, who are now toiling away in training camp at Rose-Hulman Institute in Terre Haute.

Head coach Tony Dungy has moved on to continue his good works away from the sidelines and Marvin Harrison is thus far unsuccessfully looking for work elsewhere in the National Football League, reinforcing the notion that the Colts were prudent in their decision to not re-sign him.

Unlike last year at this time, Manning is at full strength and the only goal for the preseason should be to get him to the regular season in the same condition. The point has been made time and again, here and elsewhere, that the vaunted NFL does a mighty disservice to both its paid talent and the paying customers by subjecting them to at least four preseason games. The good news is that the next labor negotiation with the league’s players’ association may reduce that number to two. Here’s hoping.

As for Manning, it seems difficult to believe he is beginning his 12th season in Indianapolis and that he’s now 33 years old. I remember being among the gaggle of media types who greeted him upon his arrival at Anderson University for his first training camp in 1998, when many still were wondering if the Colts had made the right choice between Manning and Ryan Leaf.

Of course, Leaf turned out to be a bust. Meanwhile, Manning has never missed a start, 176 overall in the regular season and 15 more in the playoffs. That includes the beginning of last season when, following two knee surgeries and a staph infection, he was in far worse shape than anyone let on until much later.

It was a dual reminder of his toughness but also his vulnerability, and we have to consider how much upside remains in the downhill side of his career. That’s why this time—this era—truly belongs to him. That’s also why it makes it somewhat easier to bid farewell to a Dungy or Harrison and welcome the new coach, Jim Caldwell, with a life-goes-on shrug of the shoulders.

Yes, football is the most “team” of team games and the head coach is anything but window dressing. Still, Caldwell knows—especially after having served as Manning’s position coach—that his success rides on No. 18’s taking the snaps.

That said, it will be interesting to see what type of personality the Colts assume under Caldwell. When it comes to personnel both on the field and on the sidelines, team President Bill Polian keeps the mistakes to a minimum. Thus, it speaks volumes that Caldwell was designated the head-coach-in-waiting.

My exposure to Caldwell has been limited, but he seems affable, capable and more forthright than Dungy. Anyone expecting a Dungy clone will be mistaken. Caldwell is his own man, and stoic he’s not. But for sure, this isn’t Wake Forest University, where he last was a head coach.

And while Dungy was (well, almost) universally respected, there were times I wished for some swashbuckler in him. Methinks Caldwell may be inclined to take a few more chances than his predecessor.

Certainly, that may be reflected in the defense under new coordinator Larry Coyer, who promises more blitzes and the like. The presence of added beef on the defensive front—in particular from 305-pound second-round draft choice Fili Moala out of the University of Southern California—is something to look forward to.

I guess if you want to fret, worry about the status of kicker Adam Vinatieri, who is coming off hip surgery, and the loss of punter Hunter Smith.

Some in the national media have the Colts ending their playoff run at six straight this year. With what little objectivity I can muster, I don’t buy it. That’s because as the Caldwell era begins, the Manning era continues. Just keep the guy healthy.•

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Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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