FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The more time you spend around the Colts the clearer it becomes what it is that makes this football team so successful and so special. To a man these Colts will tell you at every opportunity that it is the team that comes first.
Whether it's the precision and timing that is the hallmark of their top-10 offense or the bend-but-never-break success of their no-name defense, it's all rooted in the idea that the team always comes first.
How do you lose a future Hall of Famer (Marvin Harrison) and the first-round draft choice taken to replace him at wide receiver (Anthony Gonzalez) to retirement and injury in the same season and never skip a beat? Your All-Pro QB Peyton Manning and Pro Bowl WR Reggie Wayne embrace a couple of unknown kids in Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon and commit the time to work the kids relentlessly but compassionately until they're ready to carry the torch.
What do you do when your All-Pro safety and NFL Defensive MVP (Bob Sanders) goes down for the year, followed quickly by your best cornerback (Marlin Jackson) and starting "Sam" linebacker (Tyjuan Hagler)? You embrace the mantra of Tony Dungy, "Next man up," or as current head coach Jim Caldwell puts it, "Pick up the Bayonet," and simply soldier on.
Visiting with the Colts the Thursday morning before Super Sunday, I asked one player after another how their club so consistently seems to speak with one voice and stay on that one message of team first.
From Gary Brackett to Joseph Addai to Antoine Bethea and a dozen more, every single one of them spoke of a culture around their team that has been there from the moment they arrived that they embrace and for the most part make a way of life. Each player made reference to his Colts family and a teammate or teammates who have been there for them and how they've tried to pay it forward.
"I was really shocked when I got here and the first guy to reach out to me and take me under his wing was Dominic Rhodes," Addai explained. "Here I'm coming to try and take his job and he's doing everything he can to help me. And if you remember our last Super Bowl, it really worked and taught me a huge lesson."
So can we assume Addai has taken the same road with Donald Brown?
"Oh, most definitely" Addai said. "I believe the only way you get your blessings in life is to help others get theirs. It seems kind of crazy that now I'm the veteran reaching out and not the rookie but it's the only way I've learned as a Colt."
While Dwight Freeney has been extremely visible and accessible during Super Bowl week, his availability for Sunday is still very much in doubt. Most teams faced with the loss of a player like Freeney on "D" would be climbing a major hill and dreading the trek. But according to Brackett it's just an every day part of being a Colt.
"It's no different from when we lost Sanders, Gonzalez or (PK Adam) Vinatieri, the next guy just has to step up," Brackett said. "Our defense isn't about individual players, it's about playing fast, physical and 11 guys running to the ball no matter who they are."
He also said "(Freeney's replacement) Raheem Brock is a veteran and a great player who knows he has to step up if Dwight can't go and we know he will. Keyunta Dawson is a young guy who's fast and athletic and we're excited to see what he can do, too."
Antoine Bethea is a Pro Bowler now but originally a product of the Colts' next-man-up system.
"Bill Polian does a great job of finding the right guys everywhere," Bethea said. "I was a sixth-round draft choice but around here it doesn't matter. Our team is outstanding at finding guys other teams miss.
"Coach Caldwell and our owner, our president, they all instill in us how important it is to be a tight group," he added. "Offense, defense, we all get along and fight together every single week."
It's hard to imagine the Colts not being severely impacted if Freeney's not in the lineup, and to a man they continue to hope every day that he'll be there at the opening kick. But it's also clear from each and every Colts player and coach that they expect to be fine if Freeney can't go, and if you spend enough time around them it's really hard to believe they're wrong.