Veteran Offensive Guard Lilja Happy to Remain with Colts
INDIANAPOLIS – Ryan Lilja knew where he wanted to be.
An offensive guard, Lilja knew immediately upon joining the Colts in 2004 things were different around the organization. Size didn't much matter. Prototypes sure didn't.
What mattered was performance.
So, when Lilja was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent following this past season, he was prepared to look around and explore options, but he said he knew deep down he wanted to stay with the Colts.
Just before the start of free agency, he got his wish.
"I'm not sorry to say I'm a company man," Lilja said Thursday morning, several weeks after signing a long-term contract to remain with the Colts.
"This is where I want to be. This is a great fit for me. I'm one of the smallest guys in the league at my position, maybe the smallest. And they don't care here.
"And they told me that the first day I got here."
Lilja (6-feet-2, 285 pounds), who joined the Colts off waivers from Kansas City in 2004, started 43 of 50 regular-season games over the last four seasons. He started 16 regular-season games in 2005, and did so again in 2006.
Through that time, he said he took each season as if would be his last. The new contract, he said, will enable him to change that approach.
At least somewhat.
"It's such a performance-based business and it's so competitive," said Lilja, who played collegiately at Kansas State University. "There's always someone out there who can do it who's younger or cheaper or not hurt, so that's just the mindset I had going into each season. It served me well and now it's a little bit different mindset.
"It's a big weight off my shoulders. Now, I can focus on football and I don't have to worry about that other stuff – where am I going to live next year, how am I going to transition after football?
"I've got a few years before I really have to think about that stuff. I can just focus solely on this."
The contract, he said, won't change his desire. He is among several Colts players who have been working out at the facility in recent weeks.
The Colts' off-season workout program begins later this month.
"The last couple of years have been rough," Lilja said. "I've had some injuries and I've had to deal with some stuff, but I'm hoping this is going to be a different off-season. I'm hoping to get better. That's what this team expects. That's what I owe them. That's kind of the only way I know how to work, really. I don't know if I could really lay my head on my pillow at night without trying to be a better football player.
"That's definitely the idea, is to get better every year and focus solely on that."
Lilja also said although the Colts are a good fit for him on the field, there was more to his desire to re-sign. Since joining the team, he has played on four AFC South championship teams, an AFC Champion and a Super Bowl champion.
"I love the culture around this team," Lilja said. "I love how successful this whole organization has been. I love the leadership. It really is everything. I didn't want to go to a new team where I wasn't a good fit, where we weren't going to win as many ballgames, have the opunity to win championships and have the type of leadership we have here."
Lilja, 28, originally signed with Kansas City in 2004 as an undrafted free agent, joining the Colts off waivers late that preseason. He started six of seven games as a rookie, and has been in the starting lineup since, except when he missed 11 starts in 2006 because of a knee injury.
He returned that postseason, starting three games, and was critical to a playoff run in which the Colts outrushed all four opponents en route to a 29-17 victory over Chicago in Super Bowl XLI.
Still, Lilja said he never assumed he would be a long-term, "second-contract" NFL player.
"I didn't want to set myself up for disappointment," he said. "I think when you start assuming stuff like that you're not quite as hungry anymore. You can lose some motivation. That's just my opinion. I always expect the worst and hope for the best. That's just, I guess, my nature.
"I hoped there would be an opportunity to get a long-term deal done, especially here, but there's really no time to start thinking about that in the middle of a season. You're focused week in and week out on your opponent and staying healthy.
"There was no time to start thinking about that stuff – fantasy world for me."
Lilja said another factor played into his situation. The Colts in recent seasons have re-signed players such as defensive ends Dwight Freeney, wide receivers Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison, offensive tackles Tarik Glenn and Ryan Diem, quarterback Peyton Manning and center Jeff Saturday to long-term deals, but had not done so at guard. They allowed guard Steve McKinney to leave as an unrestricted free agent in 2002 and guard Rick DeMulling left in 2004.
After last season, Lilja and guard Jake Scott – a 2004 fifth-round draft choice who started every game the last three seasons – were scheduled to become unrestricted free agents.
"I knew that and I realized that," Lilja said. "I was flattered I was going to be maybe the first guy that sticks around here for more than four years. I knew they didn't want to lose both of us. They didn't want Jake and I both to go and have to fill in two slots. They'd expressed at the beginning of the season of the season that they were going to break that cycle of the revolving door at the guard position.
"That was comforting to me. I knew I was going to have an opportunity to play here."
Scott this past Monday signed with the Tennessee Titans, meaning the Colts again must replace a starter on the offensive line. This past season, three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Tarik Glenn retired shortly before training camp, and rookie Tony Ugoh moved into the starting lineup.
The Colts finished sixth in the NFL in total offense, third in points scored. Lilja said the team's "next-man-up" philosophy again will dictate the approach.
"Jake's played very well for long time here," Lilja said. "He's very consistent. I know from my own experience that's tough to do. Everybody was saying last year when we lost Tarik that it was going to be impossible to protect the quarterback. Tony's come in and surprised a lot of people. I think that with the job the talent evaluators do in the front office, and (offensive line coach) Howard (Mudd) and (offensive quality control coach/assistant offensive line coach) Pete (Metzelaars) – they find the right guys for the system.
"You look at how they've drafted since they've been here and look at who they've drafted. Jake's a perfect example of that. You draft a guy, he becomes successful and you're penalized by the system. You have to do it all over again. This staff is great at that. I'm sure they're working as we speak on finding somebody who's going to come in and won't miss a beat."
That person, Lilja said, won't have necessarily have to be a "prototype" NFL offensive guard, something that he said made him a good fit four years ago and something he said makes him happy he remained where he wanted to be.
"The first day they told me, 'Listen: look around,''' Lilja said. "'Look at (defensive end) Dwight Freeney. Look at (defensive end) Robert Mathis, (middle linebacker Gary) Brackett. Look at these guys: Jeff Saturday. We don't care. If you're athletic, if you're smart, if you're quick, if you can play the game, if you're tough, you'll have an opportunity here.' I love that, because there's so much of a mold that you're expected to fit around the league with different teams.
"This organization has never cared about that. You look at what it's done. They want football players. They don't care what you look like and what your numbers are as much. I respect that."