Late-Season Run Showed Character of Colts, Hayden Says
INDIANAPOLIS – Kelvin Hayden saw it both ways.
Hayden, the Colts' fourth-year cornerback, said there was little question the season that ended this past Saturday night in San Diego, Cal., was a difficult one – not just for him, personally, but also as a team. Injuries and other situations produced a difficult start, and created adversity the Colts spent the season overcoming.
That said, Hayden and others around the Colts said something else was equally true.
Yes, the Colts faced difficult times this season.
Yes, there were injuries. Yes, there were situations they never expected.
But the Colts overcame that adversity and made the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season, and Hayden and others said the result was a season that was memorable before it ended a bit too soon.
"You could say that's life in the NFL," Hayden said shortly after the Colts' 23-17 overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers in an AFC Wild Card Playoff game this past Saturday.
"Injuries are going to come, but you don't expect them to come like that. It was tough, especially for myself – going down (with an injury), (after) having so many high expectations for this year. It was tough, and then (middle) linebacker) Gary (Brackett) went down, the defensive captain, but it also showed the character of these guys around here.
"When one guy stepped out, the other guy has to step in and we were able to respond."
The Colts, Hayden said, showed that character throughout the season.
And they did it despite dealing with a slew of injuries, beginning with the offseason knee surgery that kept quarterback Peyton Manning out throughout preseason and training camp.
Manning, who started every game for the 11th consecutive season, was named the Associated Press' NFL Most Valuable Player for a third time, becoming the second player (Brett Favre, 1995-1997) to do so and helping the Colts win their last nine games en route to the AFC's No. 5 seed.
The nine-game winning streak tied for the team's second-longest under Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy, and Dungy said the circumstances in which it occurred made the season special.
"Every season rolls out differently, but I was proud of these guys for just keeping the focus, for doing what we had to do, for doing our job week in and week out," said Dungy, who has said he will make a decision on whether to return as head coach for an eighth season soon.
"That led to us playing well for that stretch through November and December."
The Colts, after a 3-4 start, went unbeaten through a nine-game stretch that included victories over three AFC Division champions – Pittsburgh (24-20), San Diego (23-20) and Tennessee (23-0). Indianapolis also beat the 11-5 New England Patriots, 18-15.
They did so despite at least eight starters – tight end Dallas Clark, running back Joseph Addai, center Jeff Saturday, wide receiver Marvin Harrison, defensive tackle Keyunta Dawson, Brackett, Hayden, safety Bob Sanders – missing games with injuries. Cornerback Marlin Jackson spent the last nine games of the season on injured reserve and guard Ryan Lilja – a starter last season – missed the season with a knee injury.
The Colts also played much of the season without two projected starting defensive tackles. Quinn Pitcock retired shortly before the season, and Ed Johnson – a 16-game starter as a rookie in 2007 – was released after Week 1.
The defensive effort – late in the season and in the loss to San Diego – drew praise this week from Colts President Bill Polian.
"To think you could go into that game without Marlin Jackson and without Gary Brackett against that high-powered offense and essentially hold them to 17 points in regulation – which should be enough to win in every National Football League game; that's the blueprint – that's an incredible performance by our defense," Polian said. "They were from the Cleveland game (a 10-6 Colts victory on November 30) on among the best defenses in the National Football League.
"To not have their performance rewarded really hurt. It hurts badly."
Said Colts defensive end Raheem Brock, "It was a tough year for us because of the injuries we had and all the new guys who came in. The guys had to learn to understand the defense, why we do this and that and what it means to play 60 minutes. All of the things we went through this year taught the young guys how to do that."
Brock said while the circumstances were difficult, they also could have a long-term benefit.
"We jelled together through the season when we had our backs against the wall," Brock said. "The record wasn't so good. A lot of young guys stepped up with all of these injuries. A lot of new guys came in and helped out. As a defense, we learned how to communicate, understand the defense more. We started playing together well and that will continue on into next season."
The Colts, after finishing in the Top 10 in the NFL in total offense from 1999-2007, finished 15th in the category this season, with Manning and wide receiver Reggie Wayne each making the Pro Bowl. Defensively, after struggling against the run in the first month of the season, the unit improved dramatically in the second half of the season, finishing 11th in total defense with ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis making the Pro Bowl.
During the nine-game winning streak, the Colts twice scored the game-winning points on fourth-quarter defensive touchdowns – at Cleveland and at Jacksonville – and in the victory at Pittsburgh, two of the team's three touchdowns came after interceptions set up short drives.
"We're building," Brackett said of the defense. "We had a lot of injuries. Guys came in and made a lot of strides. Guys came in and played for the first time. (Outside linebacker) Clint Session – what a player he became at the end of the year. At defensive tackle, (first-year veteran) Antonio Johnson became a big player for us. (Cornerback) Tim Jennings, he was able to step up. We had a lot of guys step up – (safety) Melvin Bullitt – we could go on and on.
"I think that helps you. When you have young guys in the locker room making plays, that helps build a team for years to come."
Polian, who on his radio show this week said he thinks the Colts will be "a much better team in 2009 than we were this past season," also on his show told of his postseason address to the team this past Sunday.
"Speaking to the team on Sunday, a couple of coaches reminded me that I coined a Yogism," he said, laughing, referring to baseball Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra. "I didn't even realize it, but I said, 'If we're this close' – and I had my thumb and forefinger a millimeter apart – 'we're not very far away.'
"The bottom line is that this team is a good team and I think we have the makings of a very good team next year. I'm frankly surprised given all we went through that we got as far as we did. What's most hurtful is to play as we played defensively and to improve as much as we did defensively over the course of the season and have that effort wasted . . ."
"That's too bad. But that's on us, so we have to take responsibility for it and get it corrected and make sure it doesn't happen again."