TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) -Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy have finally shed the burden of being unable to win the big one. Same for Bill Polian, who until last February held the unofficial title of ``best executive never to win a Super Bowl.''
No wonder the Indianapolis Colts were considerably more relaxed in training camp this year than last after finally winning that elusive championship.
Dungy was accepting congratulations for hitting the top of the best-seller lists with his book (``crossover appeal for sports, religion and African American,'' he joked.) And Manning was chortling about losing to Tiger Woods in the semifinals of ESPN's ``Who's Now!'' competition. (``Did I lose? OK,'' he said. ``I didn't pay much attention.'')
But the low-key atmosphere doesn't mask the Colts' problems as they approach the 2007 season, ranked in most preseason analyses (for what they're worth) no better than third in AFC behind San Diego and New England. The reasons: free-agent losses (linebacker Cato June and two starting cornerbacks); injury (defensive tackle Anthony McFarland) and, most important to Manning, the retirement of left tackle Tarik Glenn.
Not to mention the absence of an experienced running back behind Joseph Addai.
Still, relaxation has been the norm so far.
Take Polian, who built that Buffalo team that lost four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s.
A year ago, he was replaying the final agonizing minutes of the 20-19 loss to the Giants in the 1991 game (Scott Norwood, wide right). He did it again in early December, when the Colts, struggling to stop the run, hardly looked like a team that might finally get him his elusive ring.
This summer, he is all smiles, brushing off the free-agent losses. ``That's the NFL,'' he says. ``We choose the players to spend big money on (Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney) and draft to fill the holes when we lose others.''
But let's give Manning, Dungy and Polian their time to bask in victory.
After all, for the last four years or so, they had to endure the endless chatter about being unable to win the big one: regular-season success only engendered more criticism of postseason failures, perceived and real.
It turns out Dungy was prescient.
Citing Michael Jordan's early failures to get by conference championship games, he said a year ago: ``People always take snapshots of people before their careers are complete. Peyton will win. He just has to finish it once and he'll keep going.''
Being Dungy, who sometimes seems without ego, he never mentioned himself. But he suffered from the same label, especially since his ``failures'' were perception more than reality.
As coach in Tampa Bay, for example, Dungy did one of the great coaching jobs ever in the 1999 NFC championship game, going into the St. Louis Rams' dome and holding Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and ``the Greatest Show on Turf'' to an 11-6 win. It was achieved only in the final minutes by an offense that had averaged 33 points a game in the regular season and by an ``incomplete'' pass to Bert Emmanuel on the Bucs' final drive that would have been complete under today's rules.
But in today's simplistic media world, Dungy was ``a loser'' for never getting to a Super Bowl - although Tampa Bay's 2003 win was achieved with his players and Bucs have gone backward since under Jon Gruden.
Manning always seemed to save his worst for last - especially in critical playoff games against New England. Not last season, when he threw for 349 yards in rallying Indianapolis from an early 21-3 deficit to a 38-34 win in the AFC title game.
``It's supposed to be a team game, but the quarterback and the coach take the hits for the team'' Manning chuckled this year. ``Now they're giving us all the credit and it's still a team game.''
The ``team'' part is the problem this season for coach and QB. If Manning is to ``keep going'' this season - as Dungy predicted a year ago - he'll have plenty to overcome.
The biggest blows are the unexpected retirement of Glenn, who protected his blind side for his entire nine-season career, and the injury to McFarland.
Polian foresaw the need on the offensive line, moving up in the second round of last spring's draft to take Tony Ugoh, a left tackle from Arkansas. But that was to replace Glenn in the long run, not this year - left tackle is not a position at which rookies succeed very often. Ugoh is starting right now, but if he fails, one option is second-year-man Charlie Johnson, who filled in well on the right side in the Super Bowl.
``The one thing about our offensive line system is that everyone seems to fit into several slots,'' center Jeff Saturday says.
There's also the hole at running back left by the defection of Dominic Rhodes, who split time there last season. Right now none of the four backs behind Addai has so much as one NFL carry.
Filling the holes in the defense seemed easier - Kelvin Hayden, who had an interception return for a touchdown in the 29-17 win over the Bears in the Super Bowl, fills one cornerback spot, and Marlin Jackson, a one-time first-round pick, takes the other. Antoine Bethea, a playoff hero as a rookie, beat out Mike Doss at safety midway through last season and Doss was allowed to leave. Freddie Keiaho, a third-round draft pick in 2006, takes over for June - Polian's success is often drafting to fill needs a year before he will have them.
But he didn't anticipate losing McFarland for the season with a torn patellar tendon in his knee - with no immediate replacement in sight. A few days before he was hurt, Dungy had cited McFarland, obtained from Tampa Bay in a trade, along with safety Bob Sanders as the two players most instrumental to the improvement of the Indianapolis run defense in the playoffs.
all need lives outside of football.''
Manning also talks about perspective and the labels with which he's been saddled. He laughs at the idea that he is no longer ``a loser,'' except perhaps at ``Who's Now!''
``When we lost big games, I got the blame, which might be fair, but it's still a team game,'' he says. ``Now I get the credit. But would we have won if Antoine (Bethea) hadn't gotten that interception against Baltimore? Or if Adam Vinatieri hadn't made all his kicks?''
We know Vinatieri, whom Polian signed last season just for that reason - to make big kicks in the playoffs.
Despite that playoff interception, he wouldn't have made it close to the ``Who's Now?'' competition. The folks who run networks usually think of the NFL in stargazing terms - 50 stars and 1,800 other guys.
Manning, of course, is one of them.
If the Colts don't win this season, it likely won't be because he fails.
But he'll certainly take his share of the blame.

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