Two years ago, the Indianapolis Colts came excruciatingly close to winning the AFC championship.
Receiver Aaron Bailey had a last-second pass batted out of his hands in the end zone at Three Rivers Stadium, and the Pittsburgh Steelers went to the Super Bowl. Had Indianapolis linebacker Quentin Coryatt caught a Neil O'Donnell pass that hit him in the hands, the Colts might not have needed the desperation pass to upset the Steelers.
The ifs and near misses seemed to be beacons of hope. Bailey dropped the ball, but the Colts appeared to retain their grip on a promising future. Last season they duplicated their 9-7 record and another playoff appearance.
Flash forward to 1997 and all Indianapolis has is the memories of those playoff forays. The Colts enter Sunday's game against the Bucs as the league's only winless team. Apparently, the proximity between NFL elite and doormat is shorter than a porch step.
"It could happen fast in this day and age," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "You lose a couple of people in free agency, you have a couple of injuries _ the difference between the top and bottom of the league is not very much.
"Does that mean they're not a good ballclub? No. It just means they haven't got it going, haven't had it clicking this year. They've had a couple of two-point games and three-point games and just haven't found a way to win it."
The Colts have many of the same personnel they had in 1995, but the players they lost through free agency have had an impact, and some argue the departure of coach Ted Marchibroda hasn't helped.
After guiding Indianapolis to the AFC Championship Game, Marchibroda wanted a long commitment from Colts ownership. When he didn't get it, he departed for the Baltimore Ravens and offensive coordinator Lindy Infante was promoted.
Infante's career record is 33-55 (24-40 with the Packers, 9-15 with the Colts). Since last year's 4-0 start, the Colts are 5-15. Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay gave Infante an endorsement last week and said he's "philosophically opposed to changing coaches in the midseason."
Infante said the difference this season is a missing intangible that prevents the Colts from winning the close games.
"We're not making anything magical happen now," Infante said. "The last couple of years we were 9-7 and in the playoffs. We were a team that figured out a way to win close games. In none of those games, with the exception of two or three in a two-year span, were we a dominant football team. We were a team that could go out there and battle and fight and figure out a way to win the football game in the fourth quarter.
"Some of the magic and some of that confidence that goes along with pulling things out in the last quarter or kicking an overtime field goal hasn't happen for us yet. I'm sure that psychologically, that tends to wear on you a little bit."
Critics point to the loss of key veterans and say the reason the magic is gone is because the Colts lost the team chemistry and leadership so important in those victories. Cover cornerback Ray Buchanan is in Atlanta, safety Eugene Daniel, who has played in more games as a Colt than anyone other than Johnny Unitas, was not re-signed and plays in Baltimore with another former Colt, defensive tackle Tony Siragusa.
The team's 1996 leaders in tackles (linebacker Jeff Herrod) and sacks (Richard Dent) are in Philadelphia. Center Kirk Lowdermilk, considered one of the team's most consistent offensive linemen, also departed.
Indianapolis began 1997 with seven new starters on defense and four on offense. Despite the new faces on defense, the Colts ball- stoppers have been respectable.
With four new starters, however, the offensive line is much-maligned. Starting quarterback Jim Harbaugh earned the nickname Captain Comeback in 1995, but he's been Captain On-His-Back this season.
Running back Marshall Faulk, who went through injuries in 1996 but is healthy now, is struggling, too. The line, which includes rookies Tarik Glenn and Adam Meadows, could take the blame but the Colts are running the ball just 38.2 percent of the time, to 55.1 percent in 1995.
"I really can't say where (the running game) is right now," Faulk said. "There are certain things it's not my place to comment on. It's management's job to decide how much we run, how much we pass."
Infante is trying to keep his team together and prevent the implosion that can come from an 0-8 half-season.
"I'm sure there are a lot of folks out there who aren't worried about us right now and rightfully so," Infante said. "Our challenge is to stay focused, stay together, stay unified as a team and not get a lot of infighting going and that type of thing and just work as hard as we possibly can."
_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.