INDIANAPOLIS – The 2011 season and the events leading into it were unlike any of the previous 12 years that Jeff Saturday had witnessed in his Colts career.
While the NFL's players were absent from mini-camps and organized team activities during the spring, Saturday toiled tirelessly in labor negotiations with league representatives. When labor peace was established and training camps opened on time, Saturday headed to Anderson University with his teammates to attack his 13th season with Indianapolis.
What Saturday knew when he arrived at camp, that veteran quarterback Peyton Manning would not be available due to neck surgery, made the season different from the outset.
He and Manning had combined to start 170 games as a center-quarterback tandem since 1999, the most ever by a duo in NFL history. Saturday knew Curtis Painter would get a heavy indoctrination. He observed seven-year pro Dan Orlovsky join the team in camp, then depart when 17-year veteran Kerry Collins was signed near the preseason's conclusion.
Saturday ended up starting with all three signal-callers during the season, Painter eight times, Orlovsky five times and Collins on the other three occasions. Saturday had upheaval on his unit, too. Indianapolis employed seven different opening alignments on the line, with players such as Ryan Diem (five), Anthony Castonzo (four) and Joe Reitz (five) missing multiple starts.
Saturday and tackle Jeff Linkenbach were the lone linemen to start every game. They and the rest of a team battled weekly in facing adversity. In the end, it was only the second losing season in Saturday's career, but he held his teammates in great regard.
"If you look at the guys we have, each and every one of them played to the final whistle," said Saturday. "I have a lot of respect for the ways guys showed up and prepared. The results weren't what I wanted, but I can't find any fault in how we prepared. I have a lot of respect for who I played with."
Indianapolis picked up its victories in the 14th and 15th games of the season. It was a team that never gave up and batted regardless of circumstance. Along with teammates, Saturday believed the coaches fought to the fullest as well.
"The reality is they (the coaches) coached us to play better than we played," said Saturday. "Guys just (didn't) make the plays. I think we had a lot of players who went down not just Peyton (Manning), but a lot of players at other positions that made it difficult for us to compete. Each and every week guys put forth great effort."
Saturday was a strong veteran presence, as always, on the offense. Though Orlovsky had prior experience, Saturday's guile came as an aid.
"It (his experience) was an immediate comfort (for me). It would have been a lot different if I were stepping in behind a guy who had been there for a year," said Orlovsky. "Jeff has seen everything and basically played against everything and every kind of player. So many moments this year, just little things in games that him helping me communicate (were big), things like who was the guy who would cause protection issues, or who we wanted to be 'hot' off of. In the huddle, (him) communicating and being positive in certain situations, (saying), 'Hey, we have to go get this,' or 'This is a big-time drive.' Just staying positive and encouraging was his style.
"I looked at Jeff as a cornerstone. I told him after the season it really was an honor to play with him. I know the kind of player he has been for 13 years and what he has meant to the NFL. He's an example of a guy who probably played like he was 24 years old and it was his first year.
"He's as impressive a player as I've ever been around. He's as impressive a man as I've ever been around. It was just a lot of fun to play with him."
Saturday, 36, is the second-oldest Colts player. He has seen dozens of teammates during his years, and his career has been a special time.
"I love all these guys, and I hope every one of them is back," said Saturday. "I love this place. I love all the guys I've fought with for years. I have the utmost respect for the way we've run our organization, the way we've dealt within the community. This is a group of great men beyond the field. I'm excited for the future (for the Colts)."
After a taxing off-season followed by the grind of 16 games, Saturday is looking forward to getting away. First up is family time after a year-long period of boardrooms and locker rooms.
"I am (looking forward to getting away). I definitely am. I told someone the other day that it's been two years since I had a true vacation with all the negotiations," he said. "I'm excited to take time to be with my wife and my family and be able to sit back and not focus on anything except them and our lives. It will give me some real good time to reflect, see what I want to do, if I want to keep playing or move on. I'm looking forward to the time."
The family time came earlier than Saturday had wished. Playoff games have been near-annual events for him. Even after 13 seasons, he still notices the suddenness of a season when it ends. Saturday also counts himself fortunate to have a job that involves every emotion in his body, plus the being able to have a career that has happened in Indianapolis.
"Whether you're 2-14 or 14-2 and it ends with a playoff loss, when it closes, it shuts down," said Saturday. "You're so amazed at how fast everything comes to an end. Guys scatter, flights are planned the next day and you don't see a guy again for three of four months. That's always the way it's been in the NFL. You don't know who your teammates are going to be next year. There's always surprises of who gets let go or who gets brought in. That's the nature of our game. The finality is always crushing from a player's perspective because you're so united for so long. Then, it gets split. You start again the next year and it all comes back together. It's a pretty amazing process.
"When you look at the opportunity we have to play this game, I could not have asked for a better job. God could not have put me in a better place to do what I love to do. You have the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. You get taught lessons along the way. I think we get taught that this is a special job to have."