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Friday, 15 August 2008 18:02
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 TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) -The Indianapolis Colts finished training camp the same way they started it, with plenty of questions.
Peyton Manning has been kept out of public view. Bob Sanders and Dwight Freeney haven't practiced yet, three additional players remain on the physically unable to perform list and a handful of other starters have been hurt, too.
It's not the way a projected Super Bowl contender wants to start a season, but that's the predicament the Colts face after wrapping up camp Friday.
``Everybody can say, 'Oh, if Peyton Manning isn't playing, the Colts are a .500 team,' `` coach Tony Dungy said. ``I don't think anybody here believes that. Is it easier to win without Peyton? No. It's going to be tougher. But if it happens, we'll believe we can get it done.''
The Colts have reason to trust Dungy.
Since 1999, Indy has the league's best record, 102-42. They're 47-10 in their last 57 regular-season games, have been to the playoffs six straight years, won five straight division titles, earned the Super Bowl title after the 2006 season and last year became the first team in league history with five consecutive 12-win seasons.
Teams don't string together those kinds of numbers unless they have capable replacements.
But this summer's injury rash has some people worried.
Local radio talk shows are filled with questions about Manning's status, and autograph seekers at training camp have asked other players, such as Sanders, when they will return.
Manning's left knee, of course, is the biggest question. He had surgery July 14 to remove an infected bursa sac and stayed home when his teammates reported to camp July 24, because team doctors said it would reduce the risk of further infection.
On July 29, Dungy announced the two-time league MVP had finally arrived in Terre Haute. Since then, Manning has been out of sight, and thanks to the league's longest-running drama - The Brett Favre Story - primarily out of mind to anyone outside Indiana.
Manning, who has started all 174 games including playoffs during his 10-year career, was expected to miss four to six weeks after the surgery.
The Colts have repeatedly insisted Manning is on schedule and Dungy explained Thursday morning that Manning has been lifting weights and throwing, promising signs he'll return in the next two weeks. And team owner Jim Irsay believes Manning will play Sept. 7 against Chicago, the night Indy plays its first regular-season game in the new retractable roof Lucas Oil Stadium.
``I think the bottom line is that I expect Peyton to be back. I've been with him, everything is going like we expect it to,'' Irsay said Thursday night during a lavish stadium party. ``Do I wish everyone was 100 percent healthy? Of course. But in this business, you have to be able to fight through it. You have to be able to deal with injuries and go forward.''
If the Super Bowl MVP did miss a start, the Colts certainly would have a different look.
Jim Sorgi has backed up Manning the past four seasons but has thrown only 126 passes, has never started a regular-season game and until late July had little experience working with the starters.
The only other quarterbacks on the roster are NFL veterans Quinn Gray and Jared Lorenzen, who are still learning the system after signing July 24.
The uncertainty surrounding Manning is only part of the equation.
Sanders, last year's defensive player of the year, and Freeney, one of the NFL's most dangerous pass rushers, have given the Colts the defensive playmakers they often lacked during Manning's early years.
Neither was expected to be ready for the start of camp, and neither has yet practiced in pads although that could change next week.
Sanders (shoulder surgery) has proven he doesn't need much practice to make an impact come game day. Last year, he missed all of training camp after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, then was routinely held out of some regular-season practices. The result: He started a career-high 15 games and became the first Colts player named defensive player of the year.
Freeney had season-ending surgery on his left foot in November and, despite his lobbying efforts, still has not practiced. Similar injuries have taken other players almost a full year to get back to 100 percent, and many wonder how much the foot might affect Freeney's patented spin moves and speed rushes.
In May, Freeney acknowledged the foot felt sore after some workouts.
But the Colts have survived without Freeney before.
When Freeney went down last season, the Colts responded by winning six straight games and still finished as the league's stingiest defense (262 points allowed). It wasn't until the playoff loss to San Diego that Indy really missed Freeney because they struggled to pressure Chargers quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Billy Volek.
Their teammates aren't worried.
``I don't worry about that, I leave that stuff up to the training staff,'' Pro Bowl safety Antoine Bethea said. ``Everybody has confidence in each other, so we don't worry about that stuff.''
But could the Colts overcome the loss of Manning?
It's a question Indianapolis hopes it doesn't have to answer.
``You can't look at it as we have a built-in excuse,'' Dungy said. ``If he's not back by the fourth (preseason) game, you've got to handle that. If he's not back for the first regular-season, you've got to handle it. But he's on schedule.''
 

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