For the 225th time as an NFL head coach, Tony Dungy will strap on his headset and synchronize a sideline in pursuit of victory. He will do this at Jacksonville on Thursday night. And again in the Colts' regular-season finale against Tennessee in Indianapolis.
Then expect this extraordinary man and coach to take a bow.
Take a Hallelujah-moment to reflect on a coaching career that began in 1980 at the University of Minnesota on to an NFL assistant coaching career that began in 1981 at Pittsburgh on to an NFL head-coaching voyage that began in 1996 at Tampa Bay. Reflect, offer respects, then farewell. A gracious adieu.
Top of the world
Dungy's decision to retire from NFL coaching does not hinge on winning the Super Bowl. But I believe he is gone, regardless. Winning it all would cap it all. At age 53, having coached football on some level for the past 29 consecutive years, and to win two Super Bowl championships over his final three coaching seasons would give Dungy added satisfaction and peace with moving on.
Dungy has never thought of himself as simply a football coach or let that title singularly define him. His Christian values have always guided him to a calling, a teaching, especially with youth. He is certain he will find that in the city where he will live post coaching, in Tampa, Fla., but also knows his impact in this effort can be national and even global. His family currently lives in Tampa, while he coaches in Indianapolis.
Leaving a full cupboard
Jim Caldwell, the Colts' assistant head coach, has already been named by Colts owner Jim Irsay as Dungy's successor. Knowing Dungy, he would not want to hang around and leave the Colts' cupboard bare for Caldwell. No squeezing the last drop and driving this team until it is time to rebuild. It is paramount to Dungy to do for Caldwell what Dungy has always sought to do throughout his life: Leave things better than when he found them.
Here is what Dungy has to say about it:
"We just had the worst summer for homicides in Indianapolis, and that has stuck with me; so many of these young boys need direction. Someone to listen to. I have been talking with (Buccaneers) linebacker Derrick Brooks about this four or five times this fall. What can we do? Derrick already does great stuff. But what more can we do?
"So, for the last four years, my wife, Lauren, and I have sat down and talked after the season was over, and this kind of conversation comes up with the football conversation. And the last four years, it has gotten closer and closer all of the time. We will have that conversation again after the season. The decision will be made then, like it has been."
Six seasons as Tampa Bay head coach. Seven now as Indianapolis head coach. A maximum of six more NFL games as head coach, and he is gone.
If so, we should relish watching this coach of intelligence, dignity and compassion shoot for something regal this season. If the Colts (10-4) beat the Jaguars (5-9), Dungy will have earned his 10th consecutive playoff season ('99 through '01 in Tampa; 2002 through this season in Indianapolis). His mentor, Hall of Fame Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll, managed a string of eight (1972-1979). Dallas Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry earned nine (1975-1983).
Dungy now stands with Landry. One more victory, and Dungy reaches the mountaintop.
This season was unlike most of his others in Indianapolis. This team suffered an array of injuries, started 3-4 and looked dead.
"With the big injuries we have had and the nagging ones all season, it's just a miracle we're on the verge of making the playoffs," Colts general manager Bill Polian said. "Fortunately, the coaches kept it together and the players scratched and clawed and came up with ways to win. I had points early in this season where I thought we were looking at anywhere from an 8-8 to a 6-10 year.
"Obviously, we have guys who have been through the mill, hard times, good times. And Tony led the cleanup, the shuffling of players, the reduction in penalties and mistakes we were making early. He does it in an individual way. He does it in a team way. The Tony way. He is a phenomenal teacher."
And their analysis was right.
"Peyton (Manning) had missed training camp with the knee injury, so the early part of the season was like training camp for him," Dungy said. "At Tennessee, we had a few people injured but went ahead in the second half, only to kind of self-destruct. Penalties, turnovers and giving up big plays. Those were the things that hurt us sitting at 3-4. We knew after Tennessee that it wasn't about us not being talented enough. We had to tighten up. Concentrate better in pressurized situations. Tighten all things. And our guys responded."
Throughout his coaching career, Dungy has taught his team, "Next man up." He teaches reserves that practice is not simply practice. Get reps, get coaching and get ready for playing time because you will be the next man up. This team followed. This team was ready when injuries and adversity struck.
His 2004 team won eight straight, the 2005 team 13 straight, the 2006 team nine straight, the 2007 team had separate seven- and six-game winning streaks.
New leaders emerged this time around. One player on defense -- end Robert Mathis -- was a steady rock all season. Another on offense -- tight end Dallas Clark -- has produced a career year in his sixth pro season. Running back Dominic Rhodes spent his first six seasons with the Colts, last year in Oakland, and returned this year -- "the prodigal son" Polian calls him -- to keep the running game afloat during an injury-plagued season for running back Joseph Addai.
In the first five games of Indy's seven-game winning streak, the victory margins were by three points over New England, four over Pittsburgh, six over Houston, three over San Diego and four over Cleveland.
"In our past streaks, our offense was hot," Dungy said. "We would be up 17 points in the first quarter. Out front and playing with the lead all of the time. Not that way this year. We've had to fight and scrap with different running backs and defenders. We've had to build, build, build this year. It's more like it was in Tampa."
Football more back to his roots.
That makes this Colts team, if it reaches the playoffs, a treacherous opponent. They are much more than a sleek offensive machine now. They are scarred and tattered around the edges but full of audacious valor.
They know what to do when things matter.
Consider that the Colts rank last in the league in third-down defense, having allowed 90 conversions in 188 attempts (47.9 percent).
Then realize they are third in red-zone defense -- only 17 touchdowns allowed in 44 attempts (38.6 percent).
Realize they are first in red-zone offense -- 31 touchdowns scored in 44 attempts (70.5 percent).
So, Dungy reaches for another mountaintop Thursday night in game No. 225.
Growing up in the '50s and '60s in Jackson, Mich., that number is significant to him.
"Wow, 225 -- that is a deuce and a quarter," he said. "That was the car when I was growing up that everyone in my neighborhood aspired to have. The Buick Electra 225 -- the deuce and a quarter. That's old-school. Kids today would have no idea what I'm talking about.
"But back then, you had to go to high school until your 18th birthday. On your 18th birthday, you could quit and move on. We had guys who were talented athletes, and when they turned 18, they quit the football team to go work in the GM plant. They quit to go to work and get themselves a 'deuce.' I never quite understood that.
"People are comparing our run of teams now to those great ones in Dallas in the late '70s and early '80s and the great ones in San Francisco in the late '80s and '90s. I hear my name mentioned now with Landry and Noll and Bill Walsh. I'm blown away by that. I guess that says I stand the test of time."
It says that in NFL football, regardless of when he walks, Dungy got his "deuce."