TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- Peyton Manning was in his fourth season in 2001 when he first faced the reality of what NFL life would be like without Edgerrin James. After a 4-2 start, the Colts went into a 2-8 tailspin after James blew out a knee.
"His injury reminded me that a man can get hurt in this game," Manning said. "He's one of the most incredible athletes I've seen. If he can get injured ... If Shaq can get traded ... It just opens your eyes."
The Colts enter what could be a Super Bowl season with open eyes. James, who turned 26 on Sunday, faces a Shaq-like reality after the season. So do the Colts. They kept their franchise quarterback by giving Manning a seven-year, $98 million contract. Wide receiver Marvin Harrison is a free agent after the season and the Colts don't plan to let him leave. And then there's James.
In the salary cap era, it may not work unless the salary cap jumps to $90 million or more per team next year, but that is dependent on a collective bargaining agreement extension. James enters what could be the Colts' greatest season in Indianapolis with the reality that this could be his last season.
"It doesn't matter because I know I can play," James said. "My game isn't dependent on the system. If it was, then it would be a concern. Check out my résumé. Check out what the team does with me and what the team does when I'm not there. Look when the three of us are together and one of us is taken away. It's hard to play without the missing part."
Together, the Colts' Big Three are 47-27. James has missed 15 games over the past three seasons. The Colts lost 10 of those. The Colts' season crashed in 2001 when his knee buckled.
"That's why I'm trying to make it all happen this year," Manning said. "Really, it's been that way for me since his injury. Hey, I wish Ken Dilger and Adam Meadows were still here. Those guys are obviously special. I wish I could have played with them all the rest of my career."
Running backs are on a different biological clock than other football players. Harrison has missed only seven games in nine seasons. He'll turn 32 on Aug. 25, but as Jerry Rice has proven, Hall of Fame receivers can live on the field forever. Manning is 28 and has never missed a game, playing in 96 consecutive contests. James has rushed for 6,172 yards in five seasons. Former Colt Eric Dickerson, a Hall of Famer himself, said a running back has maybe six great years before the pounding starts to catch up to his body.
Stats show that most great backs peak between the ages of 27 and 29. While it's good for James that he's 26 this season, he's already played five seasons and taken a lot of hits. To get the type of $10 million signing bonus he's probably looking for, teams need to give at least a six-year contract to justify the investment. Backs like James love the security of long-term commitments by their franchises, but it's also a risk, especially at a position where careers seem to end so suddenly.
"I don't really consider myself in the category of a back who takes the pounding, pounding, pounding," James said. "My game is just right. At the end of a play, I get low, shift my shoulder and slide for the extra yards, trying to minimize the hits. If somebody is going to come straight on me, I'm going to pick a side, make contact and slide. They made their tackle, but they won't have that straight impact."
"The biggest challenge is personnel," Manning said. "Our biggest challenge is how to get all these guys on the field. We are as deep as we've ever been with play-makers. Brandon Stokley and Troy Walters are healthy. Dominic Rhodes is back and healthy. And all of those guys can fit into the same position in our receiving sets. We have to come up with different packages."
Even the Competition Committee made the passing game healthier by declaring illegal contact a point of emphasis this season. With growing ease over the past couple of seasons, cornerbacks have mugged and grabbed in an attempt to stop the virtually unstoppable Harrison. Cornerbacks or linebackers would jam him at the line of scrimmage. A safety or corner would wait for him about eight yards into his route and then they would grab his jersey or bang his body. But it wasn't being called.
Harrison, perhaps the quietest NFL superstar, rarely complained but even he estimated he was grabbed so much his shoulder pads would come outside his jersey three or four times a game. This season, officials are supposed to call illegal contact penalties for such actions and Harrison will be one of the NFL's biggest beneficiaries.
"As a receiver, I have to get open and make the play regardless," Harrison said. "My strategy is to run at them. They either try to push you onto the field of play or try to take you out of bounds. The amount of catches has nothing to do with the rules. I'm going to get my catches regardless."
How true. He's caught 143 and 94 when enforcement of illegal contact was at its worst.
"I think it's just the way the game is supposed to be played," Colts coach Tony Dungy said of the rules enforcement. "If we get that done, everyone will be happy. Even the defensive players should like it. A good defensive player wants to be able to separate himself from the average guys. What was called by the end of the year allowed average guys to be good. This will make the guys stand out who can really play."
This is as focused of a Colts team as Dungy has had since he arrived in Indianapolis and it's not by accident. The pieces are all in place to make a run this year. Manning exorcized the demons of not winning a playoff game by advancing to the AFC title game against the Patriots. They almost pulled out the game in the end, but the Patriots defense grabbed, clutched and pulled away the victory.
This year, the Colts are encouraged that if they return to the AFC championship game, no one will be able to clutch and grab a potential trip to the Super Bowl away from them.
Senior writer John Clayton covers the NFL for ESPN.com.