A MENTALITY OF READINESS

Veteran safety Aaron Francisco stepped into the lineup in October and started the final 12 games of the season.

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Aaron Francisco Played a Major Role Defensively After Joining Colts in Mid-Season
INDIANAPOLIS – Aaron Francisco knew well the expectations.

Francisco, a veteran safety for the Colts, had been around the organization essentially the entire season in 2009, so when it came time for him to return this past regular season, the terrain wasn't foreign.

The credo wasn't, either. Next Man Up?

Maybe the saying needed explanation to younger players less familiar with the Colts' approach, but for Francisco – who played extensively during the team's Super Bowl season of 2009 – nothing of the sort was needed.

And neither was Francisco surprised when the motto applied to him, and it applied fairly quickly.

"It's your job as a backup to prepare as if you're going to play every game," Francisco said recently late during the 2010 season, a season in which the Colts won a seventh AFC South title in eight seasons and a season on which Colts.com will look back in the coming weeks.

"You never know when that's going to happen.

But while 'Next Man Up' was the Colts' oft-stated moniker this past season, and while backups and lesser-known players long have played a key role on the team, Francisco took the concept a step further than is the norm this past season.

It's one thing to be prepared while a backup on a roster.

It's another to be prepared when you're not on a team – any team.

It was from the latter situation that Francisco emerged not as a contributor, but a week-in-week-out starter, this past season.

Francisco, who played 10 games for the Colts – mostly as a special teams contributor – in the 2009 season, this past off-season signed with the Carolina Panthers, a team that then released him shortly before the start of the 2010 regular season.

He spent the four weeks afterwards preparing for an opunity.

It came in early October.

That was when the Colts, in the wake of injuries to first Bob Sanders, then to Melvin Bullitt, signed Francisco on October 5. He practiced several days with the team and started the following Sunday.

He didn't miss a start the rest of the season.

"I guess it's kind of harder when you're at home," Francisco said. "That was my first time experiencing that, this year. That was the first time I had ever been home without a job. I was there for four weeks.

"But I knew in my mind I had to keep myself in shape and prepared like I was going to get picked up any day. That's what I did."

That approach, Francisco said, was critical when he did sign.

With Sanders and Bullitt out, Francisco started the final 12 games alongside two-time Pro Bowl safety Antoine Bethea. The duo helped solidify a unit that finished 13th in the NFL in pass defense despite a run of injuries that also featured cornerbacks Jerraud Powers and Kelvin Hayden missing extensive time.

"I think it makes it easier when you do get picked up," he said. "You don't have to work through being out of shape and all of that kind of stuff. It's just the mentality you've had."

Francisco said the reality was that for him, the approach came relatively naturally.

And he said it came because his NFL background was that of a player who rarely had had things come particularly easy.

Francisco, who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Arizona Cardinals in 2005, played four seasons with that franchise, but played mostly on special teams, starting nine games during the span. Francisco said that means a lot of seasons spent trying to earn a roster spot play-in and play-out.

It also meant little room for error, and always being prepared.

"That's the kind of mentality I've had, being a special teams guy early my career," Francisco, a Pro Bowl selection in 2008, said. "Being a nickel-dime safety, a guy that plays a little bit every game and trying to earn a starting role – it's just always your mindset."

Francisco, too, said the reality of 'Next Man Up' is this:

It doesn't apply just to players around the Colts.

As Francisco sees it, any player trying to find his way in the NFL had better take an approach that's based on being prepared regardless of the circumstances of a season – and regardless of a player's spot on a franchise's depth chart.

That's the only way for lesser-known players to continue playing in the NFL.

"You just have to prepare like you're a starter," Francisco said. "I've seen guys come and go around this league in the years I've been in."

Because Francisco has been in the NFL six seasons, his time with the Colts this past season wasn't about proving to himself that he belonged in the league. Though that is a common refrain from rookies, Francisco said confidence never has been an issue – even early this season.

"I know what kind of talent I have," Francisco said. "People don't last six years in the NFL without having some kind of talent or skill. I was always confident in that aspect. I got my shot this year, and that's the way it went."

And if one of Francisco's talent is being prepared – and always having a mentality of readiness – Francisco said that's a talent that's valued around the team for whom he has played a pivotal role each of the last two seasons.

"It's a fact of life here at the Colts," Francisco said. "It's not good for the guys who get hurt, but it's good for other guys who don't have a lot of playing time.

"They get a chance to step up and show what they can do."

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