INDIANAPOLIS -- To officially begin a 2007 campaign in which his defending Super Bowl champions will be perched atop the hit list of every opponent on their schedule, Tony Dungy chose to symbolically close the books on the old one.
With the Indianapolis Colts gathered at the 50-yard line of their indoor practice facility on Friday morning, just before they took the field for the initial session of a weekend minicamp, a staffer unfurled the Super Bowl XLI banner that now hangs high on the wall at the east side of the facility. The first nine banners, commemorating, from left to right, the franchise's other postseason appearances since infamously relocating from Baltimore in 1984, all feature white lettering on blue backgrounds.
The 10th banner, though, is different in a lot of ways. And not just because the background is white, with the Super Bowl citation laid out in blue, block letters.
It represents, to be sure, the validation of one of the great stretches of the salary-cap era, with Indianapolis having won four straight division crowns and having qualified for the playoffs in every season of Dungy's remarkable five-year tenure with the franchise. Since the NFL implemented a salary cap in 1993, only four other franchises have won four straight division titles.
For a few seconds as the banner dropped, the players whooped and hollered, and then they did what Dungy always expects them to do.
They got back to the business of viewing football through the windshield of what might lie ahead and not through the rearview mirror of history.
"The letters on that banner might read 'Super Bowl,' but anyone who has been around Tony for a while knows what they really said," Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday said. "It was like, 'OK, last year is over. That's it. Commit it to history. It's time to move on now.' I mean, it really doesn't take a rocket scientist, you know, to get the message."
Short of collecting their Super Bowl rings, which are scheduled to be distributed at a mid-June ceremony, the Colts are finished with the celebrating. Or, in the mind of their single-minded coach, they had better be.
There was the welcome-home parade, winding through the avenues of the downtown area, that traditionally accompanies a Super Bowl triumph. And a visit to the White House. Lots of banquets and backslaps and, as defensive end Dwight Freeney noted, "a bunch of meals being 'comped' for you, because basically every restaurant that you walk into, every maitre d' knows who you are." There were the free agency defections every champion confronts anymore -- Indianapolis, as usual, lost a Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker, and both starting cornerbacks, along with some key role players -- and additions through the draft (the Colts, as a rule, don't dive into the free agency waters for quick-fix help).
Essentially, the Colts followed the offseason script acted out by most Super Bowl champs.
But in case anyone missed the hardly subtle message meant to be delivered by the unveiling of the new Super Bowl banner, Dungy stuck to his well-rehearsed annual script.
Which really hasn't been altered, even entering his 12th season as a head coach, very much.
In recent springs, coming after seasons in which Indianapolis always stumbled short of its Super Bowl expectations, Dungy delivered his minicamp address amid the specter of aspirations unfulfilled. This time around, his monologue was presented after a season of finished business. But the Colts' coach emphasized the finished element, along with the business component as well.
A lot of coaches are about revisionist history. Dungy is about revising history, not so much by revisiting it, but rather adding to it.
So as he does annually, Dungy exhorted his charges on Friday to live in the present and in the future. And, perfectionist that he is, he provided a road map for continued success and, even after a season that couldn't have been much more successful, for improvement.
Dungy pointed out deficiencies in special teams play, particularly in the coverage units. He noted the Colts' glaring regular-season shortcomings on run defense, where Indianapolis was statistically the NFL's worst unit. He reminded his team that its yearly goal is to be among the league's top five in fewest penalties and in takeaway/turnover differential. The Colts were sixth in the league in both categories in 2006. Not quite good enough, Dungy said.
"Tony isn't one to drive home a point," said middle linebacker Gary Brackett after the Saturday morning practice. "But he can sure make a point better than just about any person I know. He's a great teacher, in that sense."
Dungy is incredibly well spoken and possesses an uncanny knack for communication and connection. People literally lean forward to listen to him and, when you transcribe a tape from one of his press sessions, it is difficult to whittle down the quotes. Dungy frequently speaks in parables but he isn't preachy.
Tony isn't one to drive home a point. But he can sure make a point better than just about any person I know. He's a great teacher, in that sense.
Gary Brackett, Colts linebacker
As was the case with Dungy's often-cited mentor, Steelers Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, he rarely misses an opportunity for a tutorial.
Standing on Saturday afternoon in the corridor between the practice fields and the locker room, a long hall in which both sides are lined with Colts' team photographs from the past, Dungy helped some local media members identify players whose names they had forgotten. One of the reporters mentioned to Dungy that only a dozen players from the 2002 squad, his first season in Indianapolis, still remain on the roster.
Countered the Colts' coach, barely missing a beat: "That's one of the things I reminded our guys about [on Friday]. About 15 or 16 faces, on average, change on your team every year. So in a three- or four-year period, a lot of your roster turns over. It just doesn't last."
How much longer Dungy lasts in the coaching gig is anyone's guess. He is under contract through the 2009 season, it is believed, but his "life's work" (a favorite Noll-ism) includes plans for so much more beyond his NFL years. For now, the Colts, from owner Jim Irsay to team president Bill Polian, to quarterback Peyton Manning, down to the custodians who take care of the small details at the club's complex, consider themselves lucky to still have Dungy around.
Leaning again on Noll, while chatting with the media Friday before practice, Dungy said: "He used to say that every team is like an automobile. The 2006 version and the '07 version, even though it's the same automobile, it's a different car. He never really talked about repeating. He always talked about what this [year's] team is capable of doing."
Winning consecutive Super Bowl titles is, of course, no small feat. It's been done only eight times in four decades, and just twice in the salary-cap era. But if the Colts have a chance of carving out back-to-back championships, it is in large part because of Dungy's presence.
There is no denying that Manning is the Colts' leading man. And there is no dispute, either, that Dungy is the man from whom this team takes its lead.
Even some veteran players speak in near-reverential tones about their coach. On Friday, five minutes into the stretching period that preceded practice, Dungy slowly walked out onto the field, weaving his way through the queues of players going through the usual contortions. And, for just a moment, one could sense that everyone and everything kind of stood still, all eyes on the universally respected coach.
Asked about the possibility of another Super Bowl title, kicker Adam Vinatieri, who won three championship rings in New England before signing with Indianapolis, said: "Unless you're a boxer, you're not defending a title. The game changes too much now, and you're never the same team one year to the next. ... With football and other sports, everybody's starting at the bottom and just trying to get back up that mountain."
Fortunately for the Colts, they've got one of the best Sherpas in the business trying to guide them back to the NFL's summit.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.