INDIANAPOLIS — The notion will begin simply enough, perhaps as nothing more than an innocent observation in an idle conversation in a random office. From there, it will graduate to a passionate debate in the bars and the restaurants and on Internet blogs. Eventually, it will make it all the way to a hard-core argument on a radio sports talk show.
So, is Jim Caldwell about to win the Super Bowl with Tony Dungy's players?
Soon, the debate will start, and, if the past eight years in Tampa Bay are any barometer, it will never end. Did Dungy set up this success? Was it time for a new voice such as Caldwell's? These days, fans don't just want to see their teams conquer the world; they want to help split up the credit.
Caldwell or Dungy?
Dungy or Caldwell?
Yes, it has happened again. Dungy has left another franchise in good shape, and another coach has taken over and delivered it to the Super Bowl. What that says about the new coach, and what it says about the old ones, is about to be debated in Indianapolis, too.
Of course, the easy answer, and the one that never seems to satisfy anyone, is that both coaches deserve credit. That was true when the conversation was about Dungy and Jon Gruden in Tampa, and it is true about Dungy and Caldwell in Indy. Why quibble about success? Why word-wrestle about the concept of "credit?"
Considering Dungy won the Super Bowl with the Colts three seasons ago, perhaps you thought this sort of debate would have worn thin. Yet, an hour after the Colts advanced to the Super Bowl by beating the Jets, the opinion was raised that maybe Caldwell was a better coach than Dungy. (Personal opinion: Get back to me in a few years and a few more playoffs.)
As for Caldwell, he doesn't seem to have any problem with Dungy's fingerprints being on the franchise. Monday afternoon at the Colts' practice facility, Caldwell was effuse in his praise of his predecessor.
"First of all, we're talking about an iconic figure who really transcends coaching," Caldwell said. "I think you've been able to see that through the impact he's had on our country. When you talk about what he's done not only for our sport but for our communities as well, it's incredible.
"Never in my wildest dreams have I ever considered trying to measure up to all of those things. I can't do it. I am who I am. I never had to do it alone. Our assistant coaches have done a great job, and our franchise is on solid ground because of (owner) Jim Irsay and (president) Bill Polian. We have a great staff and great players. All I had to do was sort of make certain I was keeping my promise. I wanted to keep (his players) hungry, fresh and make certain that they were well-prepared."
So is Caldwell aware the last coach who replaced Dungy won a Super Bowl?
"I'm very aware," Caldwell said, smiling. "He's left a couple of places in pretty good shape."
It sounds easy, doesn't it? After all, Caldwell inherited quarterback Peyton Manning, and he inherited a team that has had a winter home in the playoffs since Dungy arrived.
Still, seasons are different and teams evolve and circumstances change. Caldwell has been able to put his own imprint on the Colts. For one thing, he fired his defensive coordinator and his special teams coach, the kind of decisive moves that Dungy always resisted. For instance, Dungy lost three coaches in his seven years in Indy, and two of those were quality control coaches who left for full-time assistant positions.
Then there was this season, when the Colts came from behind to win seven times, when Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie became two of Manning's strongest threats, when Caldwell was criticized for resting his starters when the Colts were undefeated. Yes, Caldwell has earned his applause.
"Any time you have a new head coach, there is change," Manning said Sunday. "The team has bought into his philosophy, his principles and we have followed them. It's led us in a good direction."
As for Dungy, this has to be a better journey to witness. This time, he was in control of stepping aside, and, this time, it was an eight-year assistant (one of those in Tampa Bay) who took over for him. Even now, Caldwell and Dungy swap messages every week. Caldwell says he uses Dungy as a sounding board.
"I wouldn't be very smart if I didn't," he said two weeks ago.
Yes, there are differences between the two coaches. But there are similarities, too.
"I told him that I used to think I had poise until I met him," Caldwell said. "I used to think I had a sense of self-control until I met him. I used to think I was somewhat unflappable until I met him. There are a lot of things he does that there's no way I can emulate because it's just not my character. But there are some things that come very naturally to me.
"The biggest thing that I probably learned from him is one thing he told me one day. In terms of making decisions, he said, 'It's not about me.' Oftentimes, head coaches really try and draw a line in the sand sometimes and you pound on the podium and sort of demonstrate your control with certain actions. He never wanted to step out into the spotlight where it became about him. It was all about the team. And I think I've tried to keep that going."
For instance, after the Colts' victory Sunday night, someone asked Caldwell how it felt to reach the Super Bowl as a rookie coach, and Caldwell stepped around the question. The reporter asked it again, and again, Caldwell talked about everyone else but himself.
"I've never been one to look for any special attention," he said. "I don't need anybody to tell me I've done a good job. The great thing about this league is we have a great barometer that tells you what kind of job you've done. That's the win-loss record."
With one game to go, the record suggests the transition has been fine. It suggests that Dungy's shoes fit Caldwell comfortably. It suggests that the Lombardi Trophy is big enough to make both men happy.
And it suggests both Caldwell and Dungy are well under the credit limit.