Colts unravel; all signs point to Dungy's departure

Following the Colts' 28-24 playoff loss to the Chargers, many Indianapolis players and coaches were fearing the worst -- that head coach Tony Dungy will step down and head off into retirement. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS -- The defending champion Indianapolis Colts lost more than a playoff game on Sunday to the San Diego Chargers. The vibe coming out of the Colts' locker room following their devastating 28-24 loss to the Chargers was that Tony Dungy might have coached his last game.

As expected, fans said goodbye to the RCA Dome on Sunday -- a new stadium is rising in the dome's parking lot and opens this summer. Dungy, meanwhile, wouldn't say anything Sunday night about his coaching future. He will continue his discussions with owner Jim Irsay about returning next season, but he's probably going to say goodbye this week.

"We love coach Dungy,'' safety Bob Sanders said. "We definitely want him around here. I don't know the situation. I don't know what's going to go on. We'll know and we'll see.''

"He's a great coach and a great person,'' cornerback Kelvin Hayden said. "I really don't know to give a call on it. I hope he does come back. He didn't say anything after the game. We don't know. I'm concerned about it because he's the guy who brought me in.''

Some assistant coaches were teary-eyed as they left the RCA Dome. They sensed Dungy could be stepping down. He hasn't even said anything to the coaches who have been around him the longest. They honestly don't know. Two years ago when Dungy lost his son to a suicide, everyone sensed he wanted to continue coaching. He did and the Colts won a Super Bowl last February.

Maybe the thought of losing Dungy short-circuited the Colts against the Chargers. The Colts pride themselves on efficiency, but their offense made many uncharacteristic mistakes.

Leading 7-0, Marvin Harrison fumbled after making his first catch of the game at the Chargers' 25. At the end of the first half, Peyton Manning threw high to Reggie Wayne. The ball slipped off Wayne's hands and into those of cornerback Antonio Cromartie for an interception (it was returned for a touchdown that was negated because of a holding call). In the third quarter, rookie RB Kenton Keith bricked a quick pass from Manning at the Chargers' 2 that was intercepted by safety Eric Weddle.

Three turnovers in scoring position don't typically happen to a Tony Dungy-coached team. Those weren't the only blunders by the Colts. Defensive breakdowns allowed Darren Sproles to race 56 yards for a touchdown after catching a screen pass and Legedu Naanee to gain 27 yards on another screen. Sanders drew a 15-yard penalty for jumping on his former college teammate, Chargers place-kicker Nate Kaeding, after a missed field goal. Cornerback Marlin Jackson committed a costly facemask penalty on a third-down incompletion during the Chargers' game-winning touchdown drive.

"We said all week it would be a matter of moving the ball well and we felt confident about that.'' Dungy said. "We couldn't allow them to win the takeaway battle and we didn't get points in the red zone. We got down there a few times and had some giveaways and that is what they thrive on.''

Like his mentor, Chuck Noll, Dungy teaches professionalism and efficiency. Noll's Steelers were almost always the best prepared team on the field and rarely faltered in big games. In Tampa Bay, Dungy turned a one-time expansion team into an annual playoff contender with a Cover 2 defense and a consistent offense. In Indianapolis, he turned a team built around Manning into a winner.

His formula works. His teams force turnovers and annually rank at the bottom of the league in penalties committed.

Dungy teams win with class, poise and skills. He drills into his players not to use anything as an excuse. Pro Bowl left tackle Tarik Glenn retired unexpectedly before training camp opened. Dungy preached no excuses, and the offense ran smoothly without Glenn. The Colts lost defensive tackle Anthony McFarland to a knee injury, but the team's defensive tackle play improved this season. They lost defensive end Dwight Freeney to a season-ending injury, but overall, the team had a great year on defense.

"It's pretty well documented through the years of the things I've said about coach Dungy,'' Manning said. "It's clear how I feel about him as a person and a head coach for what he's done for our team and for me in my career since his arrival.''

The most-telling stat about the Dungy-Manning relationship is that they are 73-23 in their six regular seasons together. Each helped the other to a Super Bowl ring.

For a while Sunday, all signs appeared to be pointing to the Dungy-Manning relationship lasting at least one more week. Manning, who finished with 402 yards passing with three touchdowns and two interceptions, was particularly sharp early. He completed his first 14 passes and gave the Colts a quick, 7-0 lead.

After Harrison's fumble, however, the Colts failed to display some of those
Dungy-like qualities. To help stop the Chargers' running attack, the Colts used less Cover 2 and had eight men near the line of scrimmage. They blitzed a little more than usual on third down, but they couldn't get to Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who fought back with a three-touchdown performance.

On some third-down plays, a Colts defender was slightly out of position, giving Rivers the chance to make plays. The lead changed hands seven times. All the team needed was one more Manning drive to win the game in the fourth quarter.

How could the Colts lose? LaDainian Tomlinson and Rivers were on the sidelines for a good portion of the second half because of knee injuries. Tight end Antonio Gates, playing with a dislocated big toe, wasn't much of a factor.

To everyone's surprise, the Colts' defense let backup quarterback Billy Volek and backup halfback Michael Turner march 78 yards in eight plays to take a 28-24 lead with 4:50 left in the game.

Manning drove right down to the Chargers' 9, but he threw three incompletions and the Colts lost the ball on downs. After holding the Chargers to a three-and-out, the Colts got the ball back at their own 32 with 90 seconds left. But they couldn't get a first down.

"We did a good job of moving the ball,'' Manning said. "San Diego tightened up there in the red zone. Of course, it's disappointing that we couldn't get it in there in the end. We got down there, did a good job getting it down there and just couldn't quite finish it. That was certainly disappointing.''

As he dressed by his locker, Manning looked lost, almost out of sorts. If this was Dungy's last game, too many players will feel as though they let their coach down.

"This game won't really affect anything,'' Dungy said of the loss' impact on his decision about coming back. "You are always disappointed when you lose your last game. We'll analyze it, sit down and talk to my wife, talk to Jim and come to a decision.''

The Colts fear the worst. There's a good chance they could have lost their coach Sunday.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.