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November 30, 2023

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Manning pulls out a ‘trust play’ win

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – For all the film study, meetings and practices, schemes and coverages, huddles and even audibles, the Indianapolis Colts’ shot at football immortality came down to something much simpler.


Facing a third-and-seven at their own 23, struggling to protect a 26-18 lead with 1:39 left yesterday at Jacksonville in a game they should have comfortably wrapped up some five minutes earlier, Peyton Manning ‘#38; Co. needed a first down in the worst way. Everybody – the Jaguars defense included – knew what was coming next.

“We’ve got who I think is the best player in the NFL,” was all the explanation Colts coach Tony Dungy needed afterward. “We wanted to give him a chance to win the game.”

We know now how it turned out. The Colts picked up the first down, ran out the clock, nudged their record to 13-0, and locked up a playoff spot and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

And if they go on to win 19 straight games and the Super Bowl – surpassing the 1972 Dolphins in the bargain – that simple 12-yard hitch throw from Manning to Dallas Clark will say as much about their success as anything that happened before or after.

Ahead 26-3 with about seven minutes left, the Colts elected to play prevent defense against a Jaguars team that hadn’t completed a pass longer than 16 yards all day. So, naturally, Jags quarterback David Garrard hooked up with Jimmy Smith for 31 yards on the first play of the drive. Jacksonville went on score, then recovered an onside kick, scored again and added a two-point conversion.

But this time, with three time-outs left, Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio elected to kick off long and see if his defense could get the ball back.

It looked like a smart move when his defense stiffed Indianapolis running back Edgerrin James for three yards on the first play and zero on the second. With the Colts in an obvious passing situation, the Jacksonville pass rushers – who’d already sacked Manning a season-high three times – came flying in fast and furious. Tackle John Henderson collapsed the pocket, then reached out to wrap up Manning with both arms extended – a half-second too late.

“It’s called a ‘trust’ play,” Manning said. “Coach Dungy made the call and I had to backpedal a little because the guy was in my face. You just trust that Dallas will be in the spot, because I couldn’t really see him.

“It’s the greatest feeling when it works,” he added, “because while you can’t see it, you can hear it.”

What the Colts have been hearing daily – and will continue to hear until their journey is done – is advice on how to finish out the season.

Those who think the ultimate goal is winning them all, which includes the Colts players, will be counseling Dungy, team president Bill Polian and the staff to keep the Colts front-liners on the field until each game is safely tucked into the win column.

Those who think the Super Bowl is reward enough will be counseling him to rest as many of those players as he can.

Know, however, that Dungy keeps his own counsel. And that his players, to a man, trust him to make the right call.

“Rest?” James said. “I’ll rest when I’m through playing football. Right now, it’s just a groove that we’re in, and we just want to keep going.”

But for all the bravado, a moment later James conceded, “Whatever Tony wants us to do, we’ll do it.

“It’s not a matter of us lobbying the coaches about playing,” center Jeff Saturday concurred. “Tony and Bill will get together, make their decision and that will be it.”

The closest thing to a dissent vote was cast by Corey Simon.

“I grew up a huge Dolphins fan and that ’72 team is going down in history as one of the great teams to play because they had the undefeated season. Guys don’t want to just stand around. Guys,” Simon said, “want to go out there and play.”

But the man who signs the checks in Indianapolis made clear any debate was academic.

“That’s why I pay Tony,” Colts owner Jim Irsay said. “As an owner you know your coach is the guy who is closest to the pulse of the team. He’s the guy in the best position.”

Not that Dungy is likely to tip his hand. He came up with the mantra, “one game at a time” the first time the question was asked, and he’s sticking to it. He won’t say when or whether he’ll make his decision, other than he promised to try and win every game.

So when someone asked whether he was consumed by the idea of the Colts becoming a team for the NFL ages, and without hesitation, Dungy said simply, “Not really.”

“I know that’s hard to believe,” he continued. And then he paused.

Dungy knows the arguments on both sides. He’s been an assistant or head coach in the league since 1980, right after finishing a three-year stint as a little-used cornerback with San Francisco and Pittsburgh.

“I was a backup guy and that was my time to play. We won two games with me playing,” Dungy laughed, “so I know it can be done.”


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