Jim Mora was prepared for a sizable rebuilding job when he took over as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.
Today, just shy of two seasons later, Mora has seen the planets line up perfectly for him and his organization.
What looked like a long, hard struggle to NFL contender status has turned into a rapid convergence of three of the brightest young stars in pro football.
Peyton Manning. Marvin Harrison. Edgerrin James.
Those three budding household names have led the Colts to the greatest one-year improvement in NFL history. The Colts have gone from 3-13 to 13-2. They will try to make it 14-2 when they bring their young superstar act to Orchard Park Sunday to meet the Buffalo Bills.
"I feel very lucky," the Colts' 62-year-old coach said Wednesday by phone from Indianapolis. "There's a lot of luck involved in this business because there's a lot of good coaches. Some of them don't get this kind of opportunity. Those three have exceeded our greatest expectations.
"I certainly didn't anticipate we'd be in this situation," Mora said. "I thought if we could go 8-8 this year it would be a pretty good accomplishment."
There's nothing pretty good about the Colts' offense. It is nothing short of great.
The 27-year-old Harrison isn't just leading the NFL in catches and receiving yards. He's having one of the greatest receiving years of all time. His 111 catches rank as the eighth-most ever. He needs 12 catches Sunday -- not an impossibility -- to break Herman Moore's mark of 123, the most in a single season.
The 21-year-old James isn't just leading the NFL in rushing. He's having the best rookie year of any runner since Hall-of-Famer Eric Dickerson in 1983. James has 2,056 yards rushing and receiving and is on pace to have the 10th-best season ever in combined yards. He needs just 56 yards rushing and receiving Sunday to surpass Thurman Thomas' best combined yardage season.
The 23-year-old Manning ranks fourth in the NFL in passer rating, second in completion percentage and third in touchdown passes. He has dropped his interception total from 28 as a rookie to just 15 this year. He is the fourth youngest quarterback ever to be named a Pro Bowl starter, behind only Dan Marino, Drew Bledsoe and Brett Favre.
The addition of James this season put the Colts' offense in perfect balance.
James, whom the Colts chose over Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams with the fourth pick in April's draft, is the workhorse back who sets up the passing game.
"It's not through their passing game that they have such a good running game," Bills coach Wade Phillips said. "Their running game opens up the passing game. They have great play action."
"Edgerrin has got really good change of direction," Mora said. "He can be going one way and -- bam -- plant his foot and go the other way. He's got the speed and quickness to get outside. Plus, for a guy who's only 215 pounds, he's real strong, especially in the lower body. He can slash it up inside and break tackles."
The Bills found that out in Week One. They stopped James most of the day. But he broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and got free for a 40-yard gain.
Harrison had been good each of his first three NFL seasons. But James' threat has made him better.
"Most of the time our deep ball success with Marvin has come off the play-action on first and second down," Mora said. "Every game we play, people do things to take Marvin out of the game. So we have to devise ways to get him open. And he has done a great job. We're patient enough that we will take what they give us."
Manning is the key to the offense, because of his ability to put the ball in the right places.
"Everything I've ever heard is it takes a guy five or six years to reach a really good level at quarterback," Mora said. "He's exceeded that."
"It's amazing what he's done, not only passing, but in the quick decisions he makes and in his ability to not be sacked," Phillips said. "He's beyond his years. He's amazing for a second-year quarterback."
"I think I'm doing a better job this year of going to different positions," Manning said. "Obviously you try to get the ball to your playmakers, but last year I was just throwing the ball to the outside receiver on the right or the outside receiver on the left. This year I'm using my layoffs better. I'm taking Kenny Dilger, who a lot of times may be the third read, or Edgerrin (James) out of the backfield. When defenses see that on film, they know they can't just cover the outside guys. They have to cover everybody."
The remarkable season by the Colts' "Triplets" has drawn inevitable comparisons with the most successful threesome of the decade -- Dallas' Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin.
"Potentially we are like them, but we haven't done anything yet," says James. "They have three Super Bowl rings. We don't have anything. All we have is a lot of hopes and dreams. We have a long way to go. We can get a lot better."
That's a scary thought for the NFL.