Another year, another training camp done. Though, I must say, this camp obviously seemed much more special due to the fact that the Colts have a new head coach for the first time in seven years. While many elements of old camps remained the same, the camp did have a different vibe, or frequency, to it. It had new energy, and I'm kind of sad to see camp break.
Last night's practice at Cook Field (a very nice way to close out camp for the fans!) was the last for this year's trip to Rose Hulman. Today, the Colts pack up their gear and head back to West 56th Street in Indianapolis.
While many are bemoaning the state of certain players and injuries, if you all step back and look at the camp, as a whole, it really seems as if it was one of the more successful camps in recent memory. From an injury standpoint, camp did not cause anything that would make you slam your head on your desk. Kelvin Hayden has a strained hamstring. Antoine Bethea and Raheem Brock have hand injuries. Dallas Clark had a minor concussion. Bob Sanders is getting his legs stronger after off-season knee surgery.
These are a far cry from James Mungro's and Rocky Calmus' ACL tears (2006), Booger McFarland's knee injury (2007), and Peyton Manning's bursa sac fiasco (2008). We haven't lost any players for the season (knock on wood) save Roy Hall (who was looking more and more like a wasted roster spot), and we haven't had any players quit for weird reasons that initially don't make sense (Quinn Pitcock). I mean, when you really look at it, the only eventful thing that happened at camp was Tony Ugoh getting benched for Charlie Johnson, and none of us are really certain this was a permanent move. What camp did provide for us is some answers to several questions we'd been mulling since Tony Dungy retired.
What kind of team will we have?
Is Peyton healthy, unlike last year?
Who will play slot receiver?
What kind of defense do we have?
Will the offensive line improve?
Who is playing DT?
The question of what kind of team we have was not answered for the Colts after their first pre-season game against the Vikings. Hell, it wasn't answered for them either, and they won the meaningless game! What it did do was shine some light on the basic framework of the team, the strategy the group will use to win football games. Thankfully, it is not much different from the strategy that has made Indy (arguably) the best NFL franchise the last ten years.
The Colts still run Tampa-2 on defense. They still run a base 2 TE, sometimes 3 WR offense that is no-huddle. They are built on speed, not power. Their strategy is to score, get the lead, and then turn loose their pass rushers on the opponent's QB. They still have the talent for a top 5 offense, top 5 defense, and their should be improved on special teams.
If you've seen Peyton in camp, you know he is healthy and determined. I mean, more determined even for Peyton. He was very much annoyed by his injury last season. This season, he wants to start strong. Considering he was the MVP last year despite playing half the season on one leg, an angry and determined (and healthy) Peyton Manning spells doom for many teams thinking they have a shot at the Colts.
Peyton has also been more chatty his off-season. He's signing more autographs and talking to more reporters in a candid way. Normally, Peyton is very guarded. He's not aloof or anything, but he knows he is the NFL's Michael Jordan. He knows he is the superstar in a league designed to de-emphasize superstars, and because of this he has been guarded. Not so much this year. One of the things Big P candidly discussed recently with a rather well-known reporter recently was the slot receiver position:
I'm gonna kind of whisper this because I don't like rookies to read anything I say. But I think [third-round BYU receiver] Austin Collie's got a chance. He can run. He can really run. He is working the slot only. We haven't had anyone since Brandon Stokley to work the slot only. That's all he practiced. He doesn't have to worry about anything but the slot.
The whole brew-ha-ha over "Who will play third receiver?" is more specifically a question over who will play slot receiver. Right now, as camp breaks, Austin Collie is the slot receiver. When Indy goes three wide, or "Kings" as the coaches say, Austin Collie will be there with Reggie Wayne and Anthony Gonzalez. This doesn't mean second year player Pierre Garcon sucks or anything. Indeed, Peyton has compared him to a young Marvin Harrison. That's pretty damn big praise! But Garcon is not a slot receiver in the NFL; nor is Anthony Gonzalez. These two are more effective on the outside. The only time we will likely see Garcon is if the Colts put Reggie in the slot in case people are doubling him.
Switching to defense, we know are defensive line is indeed stronger. Even after watching the Minnesota pre-season game, it's obvious. This is a much better d-line. Ed Johnson is playing under tackle, Keyunta Dawson has moved to DE, and Dwight Freeney (in some situations) is getting used as a stand-up pass rusher, like an outside LBer in a 3-4. The NT position, so decimated with injury last season, is anchored by a very strong group of players. The Colts should shave roughly 30 yards a game off last season's average per opponent rush.
Speaking of rushing, one of the biggest questions his past off-season was answered in camp: Ryan Lilja. He is healthy, and that is gigantic news! Lilja missed the entire 2008 season, which saw the Colts rank 31st in the league running the ball. He is back. He is healthy. He is motivated to pancake. Also looking good are Mike Pollak and Jeff Saturday. The status of Tony Ugoh is still in question, but as we have stated again and again, and as Ugoh has proven again and again, the best left tackle on this team is Tony Ugoh. Hopefully, he will improve enough to the point where Jim Caldwell will come to his senses and start him again.
Other questions lingering about this team are the health of Adam Vinatieri, the consistency of rookie punter Pat McAfee, the impact of rookie RB Donald Brown, and (of course) what kind of game manager will new coach Jim Caldwell be? However, when you look at these and compare them to the struggles of other teams, you will notice that the Colts actually do not have that many unanswered questions. Talent-wise, this is one of the more talented we've seen. They have great coaches. They have a strong front office. They have the MVP at QB. They have playmakers and difference makers at multiple positions.
This team will do special things in 2009. I know I feel that. What about you? Go Colts!