INDIANAPOLIS – Seeing was believing.
“I knew it was very special,’’ said the running back.
“I was so lucky to have those guys as teammates,’’ added the quarterback.
“We knew almost immediately that a) they were Triplets and b) they were something special,’’ offered the architect.
One piece already was in place when Bill Polian, the long-time architect of the Indianapolis Colts, used the 1st overall pick in the 1998 draft on Peyton Manning and the 4th overall pick the next year on Edgerrin James.
How fitting that when James is enshrined as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020 Saturday evening in Canton, Ohio and Manning joins him the next evening as a member of the Class of 2021, Marvin Harrison will be waiting with open arms. The first leg of the Colts’ Triplets welcomed them to Indy after being selected by Bill Tobin with the 19th overall pick in ’96, and preceded them to Canton as a member of the Class of 2016.
Hall of Fame wideout.
Hall of Fame running back.
Hall of Fame quarterback.
The final two were selected by a Hall of Fame team president.
“Man, it was a tough combination to beat,’’ Polian said. “It’s nice to see guys honored for the careers they had.’’
Tough to beat? In their seven years together, Manning, James and Harrison were on the field for 95 regular-season games. They were 70-25 (.737), and reached the playoffs six times.
Yes, there’s the glaring hole of that trio not reaching the Super Bowl. There are reasons we could delve into – the most wrenching was the death of James Dungy, son of the head coach, which delivered an emotional blow the 2005 team never completely overcame – but the week-after-week, month-after-month, year-after-year excellence was as rare as it was undeniable.
“You do it with great players,’’ said long-time offensive coordinator Tom Moore. “They were beyond good. They were the epitome of greatness, and that’s why you won.
“Someway, somehow they’re going to do something during the course of the game that’s going to turn the tide because of their ability and their work ethic. When the opportunity comes, they’re so geared up and prepared for it that they’re going to make it happen.”
Individually, they were brilliant. Each was named to the NFL ‘s 2000 All-Decade team. Manning and Harrison were included on the NFL’s 100th anniversary team recognizing the league’s top 100 players.
Manning earned two of his league-record five MVPs during his seven-year association with James and Harrison. He was named first-team All-Pro three times and broke Dan Marino’s single-season touchdown record when he essentially drew up a play in the dirt and delivered No. 49 to Brandon Stokley in week 16 against the San Diego Chargers.
James is one of five players in league history to win the rushing title in each of his first two seasons and was on his way for a third straight before suffering a season-ending knee injury in week 6 at Kansas City. Despite the debilitating interruption, he’s one of four backs to rush for at least 1,500 yards four times. The others: first-ballot Hall of Famers Barry Sanders, Walter Payton and Eric Dickerson.
Harrison led the league in receiving yards twice – both during the seven-year span (1,663 in 1999, a career-high 1,722 in ’02) – and obliterated the single-season reception record with 143 in ’02.
“This game is about players,’’ Moore stressed.
Manning: leader from the start
Manning was the face of the franchise from the day he walked into the team’s West 56th Street complex. He also was the starting quarterback from that first minicamp practice and the first day he reported to Anderson University for his rookie training camp.
It must be pointed out Manning missed the start of camp while his contract was being finalized. In his absence, Kelly Holcomb ran the No. 1 offense.
When Manning showed up, Holcomb took a significant step back.
“He came in right away and took ownership,’’ Moore said of Manning. “Everybody knew he was committed. Everybody knew he was going to be accountable.
“He held out for a couple of days but as soon as he walked on the practice field, I said, ‘Hey, Kelly, out.’ He knew. We all knew. We still laugh about that. This was Peyton’s team.’’
Moore realized that from the first time he talked with Manning during the pre-draft process.
“He had the ‘it’ factor,’’ he said. “He was born with it with Archie and his high school coach who was such a big influence. David Cutcliffe at Tennessee furthered it along. That’s all he knew.’’
If there was internal resentment that the bulk of the attention always gravitated to Manning, it never surfaced. In fact, two-thirds of the Triplets preferred it that way.
James and Harrison routinely stood together when practice turned from offensive work to special teams. They were in agreement how good they had it that Manning was comfortable in front of the media and with a microphone or tape recorders in his face. That allowed his star-laden supporting cast to go about their business with fewer distractions.
“We always talked about that,’’ James said. “That worked in our favor because that’s not our personality. Our personality was we came in to play football and do a job. I didn’t come in to become this person or that person. Same thing for Marv.
“Peyton always was the one grabbing the mic for us. That took the pressure off us. Peyton was polished, and he knew how to handle so many situations. We didn’t care about grabbing the mic. We wanted to play and produce.
“Who cares who gets the credit? As long as we’re making money – and we always want to make some money, you know? – and we get a chance to do what we set out to do when we came here, that’s all that mattered.
“It all worked. We orchestrated a nice plan that Bill put together. It couldn’t have worked any better.’’
Moore described his Triplets as “R&R players.’’
“Results, not recognition,’’ he said.
Manning was the triggerman, the one who ultimately decided whether the Colts would hammer away with James or slice ‘n dice with Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Stokley and others behind an offensive line anchored by left tackle Tarik Glenn, center Jeff Saturday and right tackles Adam Meadows and Ryan Diem.
“I was just so lucky to have those guys as teammates,’’ Manning said. “(Triplets) was a nickname that other people used, but it wasn’t something we used. But it certainly was special to play with both of those guys.
“Look, both of those guys were competitive guys, but they were unselfish guys. Marvin wanted the ball, but Marvin wanted the ball because he felt it would help us win if he got the ball. And you know what? He was right.
“Edgerrin wanted his carries and his touches, but he also knew because of his presence that brought eight guys down in the box and that allowed Marvin and Reggie to be one-on-one. Edgerrin took pride in that. We always had a team-over-self approach, and the common goal was to try to win games.’’
James: missing piece?
Harrison was in the process of emerging as one of the NFL’s elite wideouts and Manning was the young gun with unlimited promise when James was added to the mix in ‘99. The fan base demanded Heisman Trophy-winner Ricky Williams. Polian gave them Edgerrin James.
“Edgerrin was the linchpin,’’ Polian said. “He let us do what we wanted to do. He could run, he could catch, he could generate big play after big play after big play. That allowed us to operate the passing game. That’s why the play-action game was so successful.
“And if we to a drop-back game, he was perfectly willing and able to block. He was as good a blocker as I’ve ever been around for a running back, and that goes unnoticed. But guys on the team knew it and linebackers knew it, too.’’
In the high-profile Manning vs. Brett Favre showdown in 2004, Moore dialed up Manning passes on the Colts’ first 23 plays. James was a play-action decoy and a stonewall in pass protection. His first carry came on the first play of the second quarter. That unselfishness contributed to Manning’s 393 yards, five TDs and a 45-31 win.
Two weeks later, Moore turned James loose against Oakland, and he pounded the Raiders for 136 yards and one TD on 32 carries.
“He was as complete as it gets and that allowed us to have the kind of balance we really needed,’’ Polian said. “It allowed Peyton to operate the offense at the line of scrimmage because anytime he saw something that didn’t comport with the play call, he’d just check out of it.
“He had the entire playbook at his disposal because Edgerrin could do everything.’’
James’ Colts’ debut remains etched in the minds of Polian and Manning. A contract holdout forced James to miss the entirety of training camp in Terre Haute, but he signed his rookie deal in time for the third preseason game in New Orleans. Despite the lack of camp reps, he handled 10 carries for 77 yards and 12- and 16-yard TDs.
Polian was situated in one booth in the Superdome pressbox and owner Jim Irsay in another as James ripped through the Saints’ defense.
“I could see Jim through the window,’’ Polian said. “I turned and looked at him, and we both gave a thumb’s up. It was like, ‘Hey, it’s exactly what we thought. Here we go.’’
“Edgerrin comes in as a rookie, and he’s such a dominant player,’’ he said. “I still remember his first run against the Saints in the preseason. Nobody was blocking, and he spun out and somehow got a positive gain out it.
“You just knew. You could see it.’’
Colts’ Triplets in Canton
Let’s not dismiss the magnitude of the moment Saturday and Sunday in Canton. It’s rare for a set of triplets – or Triplets – to share the NFL’s grandest stage.
Over the past 60 years, only six sets have bronze busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
- Manning, James and Harrison (Wayne is knocking on the door in Canton). They posted a .737 winning clip, best among the Hall of Fame Triplets. But again, the Super Bowl eluded them.
- The St. Louis Rams’ Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce (Torry Holt might soon join them). They were together for 47 games (34-13, .723) with two Super Bowl appearances and one world championship.
- Buffalo’s Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed, with a dash of James Lofton. They were 82-35 (.701) as a group with eight playoff appearances in nine years and the four Super Bowl trips.
- Dallas’ Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. An 83-38 (.686) record, eight playoffs in nine seasons, three Super Bowl championships.
- Pittsburgh’s Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Lynn Swann/John Stallworth. They were 98-38 (.721) with four Super Bowl titles.
- The Baltimore Colts’ John Unitas, Lenny Moore and Raymond Berry. They were 73-43-2 (.632) with two NFL championships.
“Without a doubt you don’t get there without support and the people around you,’’ said Kelly, whose Bills are the only team to reach the Super Bowl in four consecutive seasons, albeit ending with losses. “Troy Aikman wouldn’t be the way he was without Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. I wouldn’t have been the way I was without Thurman and Andre.
“Some guys were blessed with triplets. For me, it was great. Yes, (the Hall of Fame) is an individual honor, but I don’t think there’s a player that would say he got there all by himself.’’
Warner insisted “it’s really hard for me to fully grasp the idea of it being an individual achievement. Over the years I’ve realized it’s the ultimate team sport.
“Nobody can do it on their own. There are just so many people involved in your journey. Most great quarterbacks were surrounded by great players. So much of their success is dictated by the players around them.’’
As Manning’s football career was taking root, his attention always seemed to drift toward teams that featured a quarterback surrounded by elite skill players.
“The Cowboys were always fun for me to watch, to watch Troy and Irvin and their timing and Emmitt doing his thing,’’ he said. “I always liked watching quarterbacks who had timing with their receivers: Kelly and Reed; Montana and Young with Rice and Taylor; Marino to Duper and Clayton.
“That first year I just felt a real connection with Marvin. Some receivers you just have a timing with them right away. It doesn’t take long to understand when he’s going to break and what angle he’s going to take. Marvin and I established that.’’
The end result of Manning, James and Harrison? Collective success, individual honors and the transformation of a city.
“It’s pretty dope that we came in and we created something that wasn’t there, and we turned that thing around instantly, and we actually did something for that city that a lot of people probably didn’t expect,’’ James said. “It was a small market, but we turned that market into a market to watch.
“That’s actually a beautiful thing. It’s actually pretty cool for all of us to be there. And then we get Reggie in, that’s going to be even better.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.