Colts Center Might Not Always Make Headlines, But Always Makes The Play
Peyton Manning has a reputation in the NFL as one of the toughest quarterbacks for opposing defenses to sack.
And a big part of that is the offensive linemen that protect him on Sundays.
In 12 NFL seasons, Manning has never missed a start. His 192 consecutive games played streak is the second-longest in league history for a quarterback.
Colts center Jeff Saturday, who has lined up directly in front of Manning for the last 11 seasons, described his quarterback as one of the most durable players to ever play the game.
But what the humble Saturday failed to mention is that the Colts quarterback owes a lot of his success to team's offensive linemen, in particular Saturday.
Of Manning's 192 games, he has been sacked one time or less in 130 of them. And when you combine his quick release with one of the savviest offensive lines in the NFL, you get what the Colts produced this season: an NFL-low 13 sacks allowed during the regular season.
It was the sixth time in Saturday's career that the unit has allowed the fewest sacks in the league, and the offensive line has never finished worse than 10th in that category in the NFL with Saturday playing center.
That, Saturday said, is a testament to the unheralded players who protect the Colts quarterback week-in and week-out.
Just days before the Colts take on the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV, Manning looked back on the fortune he has had throughout his career when it comes to his reliable offensive linemen.
"It has been different guys throughout the years, and I am indebted to those guys for how they've protected me," he said.
But there is one player that stands above them all. While the Colts' line possesses veterans like Ryan Lilja, Ryan Diem and Charlie Johnson, no one has been more paramount to Manning's health and success than Saturday.
"I'll always be indebted to (him) for what he has done for me," Manning said.
Manning might feel so close to Saturday because, well, he is.
In addition to lining up behind him on game days and in practice, Manning said he is literally close to Saturday at almost all times.
"Our lockers are next to each other. We ride next to each other on the team plane. We are in constant communication," Manning said. "We are (even) golf partners in the offseason."
But despite how close they are now, a decade ago the two were polar opposites. Who knew they would go on to form one of the most unlikely, and yet most successful, duos in the league.
Manning came out of college in 1998 as one of the top quarterback prospects in recent memory. And thanks to a stellar collegiate career and his well-known last name, the league was well aware of Manning before he ever took a snap.
Saturday, on the other hand, could not have been much more anonymous. He went undrafted out of North Carolina and eventually signed with the Baltimore Ravens as a rookie free agent, only to be cut a few weeks later.
But Colts President Bill Polian saw promise and soon signed him to the Colts. His rookie season, Saturday started two games at left guard. The next season, he started all 16 games at center, soon solidifying him as a mainstay of the offensive line, and later, a franchise cornerstone.
Today, Saturday and Manning are considered amongst the elite of the NFL. Manning's accolades are well documented, including his four Most Valuable Player awards, and Saturday has developed into a four-time Pro Bowl and two-time All-Pro selection himself.
Through endless hours of film study, practice and friendly banter, Manning and Saturday have brewed a chemistry that is second-to-none in the NFL. The two have combined to break countless records—the two have started 154 regular-season games together, most among active quarterback-center duos, and second-most in NFL history behind Jim Kelly and Kent Hull—and the two reminisced this week about just how fortunate they have been.
"I've been extremely blessed and fortunate to be with a quarterback like Peyton," Saturday said. "Just the time and preparation he puts week in and week out, the types of performances he puts on the field, he's one of the best to ever play the game.
"To be able to line up in front of him week in and week out, it's been a pleasure."
Some players look like they were born to play in the NFL.
Others use different skill sets to propel them to the top.
When Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell talks about Saturday, he is quick to point out the center has "great leverage and is extremely athletic."
But that is not what has helped Saturday become an elite lineman in the NFL. At 6-foot-2, and 295 pounds, Saturday's position coach, Senior Offensive Line Coach Howard Mudd, said his star pupil does not possess unique size nor out-of-this-world ability.
But what the center does boast is a brain that let's him process information just as fast as the legendarily smart quarterback that lines up behind him.
"Oftentimes, people talk in terms of Peyton and how much he does at the line of scrimmage and how smart he is," Caldwell said. "But then you think about someone that has to react and set protections and make all the proper calls at the line of scrimmage as quickly as Peyton calls out the signals. Oftentimes you notice the clock is down to around five seconds and Peyton is barking out his last bit of information – Jeff does a great job of handling all that."
Trying to keep up mentally with Manning can cause a system overload for even the smartest players, but Caldwell said Saturday has learned to master the act over the years.
"It takes a very special guy," he said.
It also takes some very special coaches.
Saturday has a nickname for his special coach.
Since he came to the Colts 12 years ago, Mudd has molded the team's offensive line into one of the best in the league. A longtime lineman himself during his playing days, Mudd's boisterous personality and in-your-face coaching style earned him the moniker.
When Saturday says the name, he means it in an affectionate way. It just so happens that the nickname has stuck over the years.
"When he's on the sidelines, he's going through his hair, he's throwing his hat down, he's doing all kinds of crazy stuff," Saturday joked.
But Mudd is hooting and hollering for a reason. The renowned coach knows everything there is to know about being an offensive lineman, something that makes players quick to listen and even quicker to appreciate his sage advice.
"There's a method to his madness," Saturday said. "He truly knows what he's doing as an offensive line coach. He's been an all-decade player, Pro Bowl player; this guy has been in the trenches. He knows what it's about, so I think that lends a little bit of credibility to his coaching style."
Saturday said the style has helped make him the player he is today. While Mudd might not make headlines, the players know just how instrumental he has been to their success.
"He's kept us as one of the top groups every year that he has coached us," Saturday said. "He demands excellence and efficiency. There is no give in him and I have a lot of respect for that."
Due to their intimate relationship, Mudd was asked Wednesday if he sees Saturday as an extension of Mudd on the field.
But Mudd declined the suggestion, instead explaining that Saturday is, "an extension of himself."
"I think maybe one of the best compliments that he has ever had is he is a technician," Mudd said. "There was some award that he got this year that was like an All-Technique Team. So, my gosh, you couldn't have a better compliment as a player."
Mudd said that Saturday is the type of player that always has a will and a way to accomplish the task at hand.
"He is going to get done what he is supposed to get done," Mudd said.
While Mudd is quick to deflect attention from him to Saturday, the Colts center said that the team's long-time offensive line coach is really the orchestrator of the unit's success.
Said Saturday, "He's made us the O-line we are."
Despite not being a team captain, Saturday is looked up to by just about every player in the Colts locker room.
When you ask a rookie about who has led the way this season, Saturday is a common answer. And when you ask who is the most helpful off the field, the answer often comes back the same.
Whether it is his coaches, his teammates, or even his opponents, people speak fondly of the Colts center and his blue-collar mentality.
"He is a great locker room presence," Manning said. "It was scary that we almost lost him this year to free agency. We are very fortunate that he is back with us."
While he is thankful for a mostly-clean jersey, the protection on Sundays, and even the audibles he calls out at the line-of-scrimmage, Manning said he is most grateful having No. 63 as a teammate.
Said Manning, "I don't think we would be here without him."