Pressure. It makes cracks start to show in even the most simple, stable structures. Apply enough, and it breaks. Then again, absent any pressure at all, no structure can be deemed reliable. There has to be some testing in order to prove mettle. The question, then, is where to draw the line. At what point does pressure turn from a refining force to a destructive one? At what point does the hum of parts working together to withstand resistance turn into the abrasive, unending grind of those same parts being worn to the breaking point? And how long do you get to skate that line before everything falls apart?
A lot of people forget that the Indianapolis Colts were once a pretty bad football team. The drafting of Peyton Manning, and the subsequent culture shift brought on by Tony Dungy and staff changed all that. For the last decade, few teams have been as consistent as the Colts. This is certainly due to continued management brilliance in terms of player personnel (if you had told me when it happened that losing Edge would make this team champions, I’d have laughed at you), but at least some of the credit has to go to the stability of culture that infuses every aspect of this team. Marvin Harrison might be the best receiver of his generation, yet unlike his less talented (or, perhaps in the case of only Randy Moss, equally talented), his career was never marred by the sort of ego driven, team distracting antics that go with the diva tendencies of the position. Peyton Manning is the standard for traditional pocket passers (Brady’s game is much more mental and less reliant on his arm), breaking down defenses and forcing them to adapt to his game (this explains why, when teams can outwit the Colts’ blocking schemes, Manning has problems). Hell, even the defense has managed to pull it together over the last couple of years, certainly when it has to. It’s a reliability that wears teams down and has defined the team.
But this year, after last year’s small cracks, the pressure may have risen to a crisis point. Marvin Harrison, always known for staying out of trouble, is being followed by his past (whether or not that’s his fault is yet to be determined). Peyton Manning is struggling with a the offseason’s most shadily covered up injury. The offensive line is relying on Tony Ugoh to step into his role as the franchise left tackle. All of this raises some very difficult questions for an offense that was fifth best in the league in terms of yardage last year but has no real backup plan for when things go wrong. The defense figures to be good again, but we all saw how this team seemed to be missing something when Harrison was out, and in a division, let alone a conference that looks to have gotten even more competitive than last year, Harrison’s presence across the field from Reggie Wayne is going to be a difference maker. After so many years of unwavering consistency, time looks like it’s pressing down on the Colts, and that may be the one problem that all the cool, level-headed thinking in the world can’t solve.
Pause. Rewind. Let’s take it back to 2006, a year after the Vanderjagt shank. A year in which the team was dead in the water because they were facing an AFC filled with quality running backs while they had the worst run defense in the league. A playoffs in which, at one point, against the rival whose quick rise to power and unshakable swagger had made a mockery of their whole slow-and-steady persona , the Colts were down 21-3. That’s pressure, too. And everyone had the same rallying cry of “they’ll fall apart” that had been following the team for years. Instead of folding, as they had in so many previous playoff outings, the Colts rose to the occasion and grabbed a Super Bowl ring. That game against the Pats wasn’t just the turning point for the team; it was a definitive statement that yes, in fact, the plan had been working all along, and that every one of us shortsighted, gratification-seeking infants could back the hell off.
Sure, it could have been in spite of the pressure surrounding the team; after all, Bob Sanders came back and taught us all the meaning of smash mouth defense, regardless of what talking heads were saying. But I think it was because of that added pressure that this team was able to succeed. Maybe the problem that had followed this team before was that everyone already took it for granted that Peyton was a legend, that Marvin was the best receiver nobody talked about, and Dungy was a genius. Maybe these guys needed someone to spit in their faces a little, to make them wonder whether or not they had the juice. This year, with the question marks surrounding so much of the team’s key components, the stage is set for the empire to strike back yet again. Of course, none of this takes away from the realities of the situation, and the team needs all of those parts to come back and play up to their potential. But if they’re healthy, and if this team is not dead, but just a little dusty from the long road to this point, then everybody better watch out, because the gang may be a little older, but they’re still all here. Care to bet against them?