When Super Bowl XLVII rolls around this Sunday, February 3rd, the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers will square off to decide who will hoist the Lombardi Trophy. It will either be John Harbaugh, the Ravens' head coach, or his brother Jim, the head coach of the 49ers. While much of the talk will center around the Harbaugh brothers, the final game of Ray Lewis' Hall of Fame career, and Colin Kaepernick's pistol offense, for fans of the Indianapolis Colts (which us here at Stampede Blue obviously are) this game provides a unique representation of the history of the franchise.
Clearly, the most significant and important event in Colts history was the drafting of quarterback Peyton Manning in 1998. That event was the hinge in the franchise's history (1984-present), as the Manning-led Colts made the playoffs 11 times in 14 years. In the 14 years prior to that, however, the Colts had only three playoff berths - two of them courtesy of quarterback Jim Harbaugh. The current 49ers head coach was the Colts' signal caller from 1994-1997, and during that time he completed 60.7% of his passes for 8,705 yards, 49 touchdowns and 26 interceptions. In 1995, Harbaugh was named the NFL's comeback player of the year, the AFC player of the year, and was named to the Pro Bowl as the "Comeback Kid" led the Colts to a stunning AFC Championship game appearance. On the final play of that game versus the Pittsburgh Steelers, a play that will forever be burned into the minds of Colts fans, Harbaugh's hail mary pass fell incomplete in the end zone. It was even closer than that, however, as the ball appeared for a moment to be caught, which would have sent the Colts to the super bowl. A year later Harbaugh again led the Colts to the playoffs but by 1997, Indianapolis finished a league worst 3-13. While Jim Harbaugh was the greatest quarterback Indianapolis had experienced up to that point, the guy he paved the way for would not only revolutionize the city but the entire NFL as well. The Colts shipped Harbaugh to the Ravens (even more connections!) and drafted a young, can't-miss prospect by the name of Peyton Manning. Though Harbaugh only quarterbacked the Colts for 4 seasons, his tenure was prolific enough to earn him a place in the Colts' ring of honor.
In 1998, Manning was brought in as the new quarterback and Jim Mora was brought in as the new head coach. After a 3-13 season, Mora hired Vic Fangio as his defensive coordinator. The team saw an incredible turnaround of ten games (from 3 wins to 13 in one year) and then made a second consecutive playoff appearance in 2000. In 2001, however, the team struggled to a 6-10 record (the same year as Mora's infamous "playoffs?" tirade) and ranked dead last in the NFL in points allowed with 30.4 points allowed per game. As the story goes, general manager Bill Polian wanted Fangio fired as defensive coordinator but Mora reportedly refused - as a result Polian fired them both. The refusal of Mora to fire Fangio, now the 49ers' defensive coordinator, led to a defensive-minded head coach coming to Indianpolis, one who would win the team its first (and to this point only) Lombardi Trophy.
Tony Dungy was hired in 2002 to fix the Colts' defense and, while the team still had an offensive identity, the defense did improve. Indianapolis complied a 85-27 record (.759) in Dungy's 7 seasons, making the postseason each year and winning the super bowl in 2006 by defeating the Chicago Bears. The Tony Dungy era was the pinnacle of Indianapolis Colts' history, and following the 2008 season Indianapolis' greatest coach announced his retirement. He was replaced by a guy whom the Colts had been preparing to take over for Dungy, Jim Caldwell - the current Ravens' offensive coordinator. In Caldwell's first year the Colts went 14-2 and came within just a few minutes of winning a second super bowl. From there, however, the foundations began to crumble. An injury plagued team made the playoffs with a 10-6 record thanks to the incredible play of their quarterback (Manning), himself dealing with an injury. That injury would grow worse and eventually cause Manning to miss the entire 2011 season, and without their superstar quarterback the Colts finshed 2-14, again with the first overall pick in the draft. Once again, the greatest quarterback in Indianapolis Colts history was replaced by a can't-miss prospect, with Manning being released in favor of the rookie Andrew Luck (who, ironically, played under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford). In Luck's first year, the Colts made an improbable playoff berth with an 11-5 record, setting themselves up for another great run of success.
So basically, the current 49ers' head coach paved the way for Peyton Manning, the current 49ers' defensive coordinator paved the way for Tony Dungy, and the current Ravens' offensive coordinator paved the way for Andrew Luck - all three of which will no doubt go down on the short list of the greatest moves in franchise history. While neither Harbaugh, Fangio, nor Caldwell would have preferred for things to happen the way they did in Indianapolis, all three were tied to key events that led to the franchise going from annual basement-dwellers to annual super bowl contenders - starting with the emergence of Jim Harbaugh back in 1995.
These three men - Jim Harbaugh, Vic Fangio, and Jim Caldwell - each with the Colts at different times and in different roles, helped to set-up one of the most dominating runs in NFL history and set up another decade of dominance that is sure to come.
And for Indianapolis, their beloved "Comeback Kid" finally has his shot at the Lombardi Trophy. Their former defensive coordinator could win it with him. And their good-guy head coach and longtime assistant has a shot to redeem himself from a disapointing loss in his last super bowl and earn another ring. Whoever wins, the ties to the Colts are evident. Without the circumstances surrounding these three men, the history of the Indianapolis franchise might be told quite differently.