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Dungy Must Choose Between Greatness and Immortality

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Dungy Must Choose Between Greatness and Immortality

By Vito Forlenza, Comcast.net Sports Editor

December 15, 2005

vitosview.jpgOne man is at history's doorstep. But he might not even knock. One man holds the keys to immortality. But he might resist the urge to turn them. One man stands on the cusp of pure excellence. But he might turn away from that threshold.

This journey to perfection has evolved into an interesting predicament for Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy--one that has captured unyielding interest with almost everyone trying to predict the mindset of one man. The fashionable question "What will Tony do?" is surpassed in popularity only by those who ask "What should Tony do?"

Dungy is fielding unsolicited advice from every outlet on how he should handle his squad--and that was before the Colts became just the fourth team in NFL history to open a season 13-0 with last Sunday's 26-18 win over Jacksonville. The victory also meant that no one is pushing the Colts for postseason positioning. Indianapolis clinched its third straight AFC South crown and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

asset-25805.jpg Dungy has said he's undecided on how he'll approach the final three weeks of the regular season. So now, from his players and peers to fans and the media, just about everyone has an opinion on what he should do next. It's an ironic twist of normalcy that sees the coach of the NFL's best team under the most pressure, the most scrutiny.

The issue appears to have two simple sides: Go for broke, play the front-liners, keep them sharp, build momentum, and shoot for a 16-0 regular season. Then worry about winning the Super Bowl, a triumph that could then punctuate the first 19-0 campaign in NFL history. Or, take the cautious approach, sit the starters, keep them fresh, protect them from injury, and focus squarely on winning the franchise's first championship since 1970.

The two decisions aren't mutually exclusive, of course. It's much more complicated than that.

"I know it's hard for people to believe, but while 16-0 would be a nice footnote and we'd love to do it, it's not the ultimate thing," Dungy said. "We didn't come into this thing thinking, 'We want to go undefeated.' We want to get ourselves ready in the best possible way for the playoffs. That could involve 16-0, and, hopefully, it does, but that's not the goal."

Despite that public stance, Dungy finds himself is in a no-win situation. The only way out is by winning it all with perfection intact. But until then, he will be second-guessed more than a rookie detective.

With a win Sunday over San Diego, Indianapolis would become just the second team in NFL history to reach 14-0. The only other team that opened with a 14-game winning streak is the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who went 17-0 in winning the Super Bowl.

From Peyton Manning directing a potent offense that also features Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison, and Reggie Wayne, to Dwight Freeney leading a suffocating defense that includes Robert Mathis, Cato June, and Mike Doss, Dungy finally has the firepower on both sides of the ball to win a Super Bowl.

Indianapolis leads the league in points per game (30.2), ranks second in points allowed (13.8), has won 11 straight at home dating back to last season, hasn't trailed since Week 6, and has won seven of its last 10 by at least 17 points.

The talent-level is so high that Colts have the ability to go down in history as the best team to ever take the field--a distinction that is widely held by the 1985 champion Chicago Bears. That team went 18-1, proving that perfection isn't the only criterion in establishing greatness.

But there's a difference between greatness and immortality. The Bears are one of 39 teams to win a Super Bowl. Only the Dolphins finished with a perfect record. Can the Colts trump both?

"They are just a complete football team," '72 Dolphins coach Don Shula said in a teleconference with reporters earlier this season. "You know, right from ownership on down. . . . I just think that they are a team right now that's got a real chance of running the table, and the key is to stay healthy."

Exactly.

When there's a chance to achieve something that no one has ever accomplished, temptations sometimes cloud judgments. Choosing to play his stars in meaningless games could turn out to be an irresponsible decision for Dungy.

Imagine the scorn he'd face if Manning cracked his throwing hand on a helmet, James sprained his ankle trying to make a cut, or Harrison suffered a concussion from a cheap hit. Immediately, 19-0 would become an afterthought as the Colts tried to salvage their best chance yet of winning a Super Bowl.

And this season, anything less than a title would be deemed a failure. Critics would hammer Dungy and Manning as a pair that puts on a great show in the regular season but fumbles its lines during the encore.

In both Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, Dungy has enjoyed some great regular-season runs. But he is just 5-7 in playoffs, never reaching the Super Bowl. He was fired by the Buccaneers in 2001 after six seasons because of postseason futility, only to watch them win it all the next season.

Meanwhile, Manning is revolutionizing the no-huddle offense and emerging as an all-time great. The two-time league MVP has racked up gaudy numbers, including a single-season record 49 touchdown passes last year. Yet, he feels the burden of a 3-5 postseason mark.

Together, Dungy and Manning have been bounced in the playoffs the last two seasons by the New England Patriots. While they beat their nemesis 40-21 in Week 9 this season, the real question is whether they can clip Bill Belichick and Tom Brady at crunch time.

Dungy must weigh those factors when deciding which path to choose. He must also consider that perfection might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sometimes, so are Super Bowls.

There's only one certainty: the decision to chase history or hope it happens to happen while cautiously approaching the Super Bowl rests squarely on Dungy's shoulders.

"That's why I pay Tony," Colts owner Jim Irsay said. "I know Tony will talk with (Colts president Bill Polian), and talk with myself, and the players and the staff. The whole emphasis is on how you get the team ready.

"I know Tony will take it all into consideration and make the right decision."

As if Dungy needs another voice thrown into the fray, I believe that decision, though very difficult, is clear after studying all the angles: Protect the players at all costs, exorcise the postseason demons that haunt you and your team, and aim to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February.

What would you do if you were Tony Dungy? Would you play for perfection or focus on the Super Bowl? Send your view to vitosview@comcast.net.

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