NFL: Dungy's Colts let him down; is it his finale?
By Bill Plaschke
Los Angeles Times
By Bill Plaschke
SAN DIEGO — The white helmets sailed through the night air. The powder-blue jerseys bounced across the pock-marked field.
All of Qualcomm Stadium shook, screams and soda cups and shock dropping on the devastated, departing Indianapolis Colts.
None of it touched Tony Dungy.
None of it ever touches Tony Dungy.
The coach walked away from the smoking wreckage of his team's 23-17 overtime wild-card playoff loss to the San Diego Chargers as if he were walking out of church.
His shirt tucked tight. His face blankly devout. His eyes red, but that's what happens sometimes when you are saying goodbye, and there is a chance Dungy has just done exactly that.
After spending previous days intimating that this could be his last season, the historic coach did nothing Saturday to dispel the notion that this was his last game.
"I don't know," he said quietly from the bowels of a house gone mad. "I'll let you know in a week."
As the league's first and only black coach to win a Super Bowl, Dungy understands all about the difficulty of beginnings.
Now he knows the equal pain that can be found in endings.
Playing a mediocre, sometimes clueless bunch that sprinted breathlessly just to get here, Dungy watched his proud, sturdy group disintegrate before his cold stare.
Nine straight wins, then one remember-forever defeat.
If Dungy is indeed retiring forever to spend time with family and charity as he has warned, he will leave with the door smacking him firmly and unfairly in the behind.
He will leave with his high-powered offense needing one first down — two yards — to win this wild-card playoff game in regulation.
But Peyton Manning disappeared under the sweaty rolls of Tim Dobbins, the most suffocating of sacks, and they lost.
"We've got to make a first down to ice the game, and we weren't able to do it," Dungy said.
He will leave with the MVP Manning needing only one drive to win this playoff game in overtime.
But the Colts lost the coin toss, and, thanks to the dumbest rule in all of sports, Dungy's leader may have spent Dungy's final moments sitting on the bench wearing a baseball cap.
"It's hard for me to get into that right now," said Manning of an overtime rule that guarantees only one team possession.
He will leave with his defense needing to get one stop of a tired Chargers offense to give Manning his overtime shot.
But three horrific penalties later, that defense allowed backup running back Darren Sproles to sprint 22 yards for the winning touchdown.
"Questionable calls," said defensive back Tim Jennings. "Questionable calls."
The defensive holding on Jennings against Chris Chambers on a wild third-down pass — a flag that gave the Chargers a first down — was bogus.
But an earlier defensive holding call and a later face mask penalty did not seem bogus. It seemed as if the Colts were worn down from the constant din of the crowd and the insistent hammering of the nothing-to-lose Chargers.
The Colts had a three-point lead and the ball with two minutes left in this game. They blew it, period.
The entire evening felt like a giant tailgate party surrounding a sandlot game, with the fans heckling the Colts, and the Colts dancing and taunting in return, and maybe the fans got into those horseshoe heads?
"Are you kidding me?" Jennings said. "That stuff didn't bother us. That stuff just fired us up."
Manning, preparing for his winter nap by doing his postgame interview in what looked like giant gray pajamas, shook his head.
"I think we did some things out of character for us," he said.
If he meant that this didn't look like a Tony Dungy team, well, it didn't.
Nine penalties, and a couple of more late hits that should have been flagged.
An offense that gained only 46 yards after taking a 17-14 lead midway through the third quarter.
A defense that allowed the Chargers to gain 30 easy yards up the middle on three plays in the score-tying drive at the end of regulation.
Then, finally, a disappearing composure on the Chargers' overtime drive, ending with the Colts just trying to stay out of the way of careening, celebrating players.
"Some of it was that we were maybe trying too hard," Colts safety Antoine Bethea said. "Some of it was bad calls."
And, clearly, some of it was Dungy.
Manning brushed aside the question of Dungy's departure as if it had been some sort of irritant.
"He's got to have his heart in it to stay," he said. "That's his deal."
Bob Sanders, the defensive leader, shrugged.
"We just don't know," he said.
Dungy seemed to know.
"I'll try to get over the disappointment of this loss, talk things over with my wife and see where we go from here," he said.
Wherever he goes, we should never forget where he has been, what he has been, the most graceful of pioneers who proved you can break down barriers with as much dignity as strength.
He wasn't only the first black coach to win a Super Bowl, he is the first coach of any color to qualify for the playoffs in 10 consecutive seasons. In seven years with the Colts, and six earlier years with the Buccaneers, he was as good as he was classy.
"Thank you," someone said to him as he was leaving the littered locker room late Saturday.
"No," he replied, typically. "Thank you."