INDIANAPOLIS – Indianapolis entered the 2011 season with a streak of nine consecutive playoff appearances and a league-best 138-54 regular-season record since the start of the 1999 season.
The Colts have opened the season at 0-7, and the chance of breaking the record they share with Dallas (1975-83) for the most consecutive playoff appearances has grown more difficult.
The team has dealt with physical setbacks across the roster in the first seven games, and the players are remaining strong in their resolve during these trying times.
Only 13 of the 53 players on the active roster have endured a losing season in the league, thus many players are dealing with a professional difficulty of this nature for the first time. Multiple Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney is one of those players, and he provided a response when asked if it were harder dealing with a losing record when he only had been a part of winning teams previously than if it would be had he never known the feeling of non-winning seasons.
"You know what? I wouldn't know what the other side feels like, because I'm not a part of that," said Freeney. "I would think being in the situation where you're losing and all your career you've lost it's probably easier, because you don't know what the other side feels like. I guess for a bunch of guys who are so used to winning, that's how bad you feel (now). You lose one game, you feel like the world's over. I just know what I'm going through."
Freeney went on to address the fact that he and his teammates through the years never engaged in the practice of looking ahead or looking back in terms of games played or those that waited ahead. For the club, it always was about forgetting games played and focusing intently only on the immediate opponent. For him, it is all about the moment and winning the one game he will play this week.
"It's always that way," said Freeney. "Everyone likes to look at this from the big picture, 'If you win nine more….' It's always been with us, 'Win that game.' Win the game that you're going to play this week. That's all we're ever worried about. With the years with the playoff runs and that stuff and there was talk (by others) about the Super Bowl, we've always been a team where we have to worry (only) about the next opponent. We would worry about 'whatever' when it comes. For us, it doesn't change. We have to win this game, this game. You definitely need to stop the bleeding. This will be a big week, like every week."
Colts players typically function on an even keel. It has been the head coaching nature of the squad since 2002, and the approach has paid dividends. When asked if the club had a 'nowhere to go but up' mentality after a 62-7 loss in New Orleans, tight end Dallas Clark stated the club's vision was broader than that.
"Well, that's not necessarily the whole mindset, because we are doing some positive things," said Clark. "We're not that desperate and we're not that far off, I don't think. When you watch the film, it's just the little things here and there. We're doing some positives. We have some positive play by certain players. We just have to, collectively as a group, improve and get everyone playing better. It's definitely not in the win category, but just the morale and everything else, it's more just honing in on the little things."
The team has had to deal with the frustration of losing, particularly when athletes enter each game expecting to win. Like Freeney, Clark prefers to attack things one game at a time before drawing any conclusions about a season, or being 'shocked' with the year thus far. There is too much football left to play with nine games to go.
"It's one of those things that at the end of the year you will look back. We have blinders (on). We keep it one week at a time," said Clark. "It's frustrating and everything like that. I think guys have done a good job. We've had good weeks of practices. We're staying honed in on whoever we're playing that week. We still think there are a lot of opportunities out there. We're not focused on what's happened, what's ahead. It's really just this week. Then, we'll see if we're shocked or surprised. Then, we will give it the whole evaluation. Now, it's all Tennessee."
Head Coach Jim Caldwell won 24 games during his first two regular seasons to become one of the few NFL field leaders ever to do so. Caldwell appreciates the ethic of his team and the work players are doing in preparation for game days. Sometimes getting a first victory can be the toughest, and he hopes this is the week.
"Winning at this point in time is extremely important," said Caldwell. "Every game, no matter what, if it's our first game of the season, the second game, or the third game or when you're in our present situation, it's just one of the things that, number one we're measured by it. Number two, it's extremely important, because, in particular, when guys have been struggling like our guys have here lately as we have as a team, sometimes one win really can work miracles. We need one (victory).
"We're not going to get help from anybody. When you're 0-7, you've got to claw your way out of it. You're backed against a wall, and the only thing that will get things turned around is a win. All the close games, and the, 'We're getting better,' that's not going to cut it now. We've got to go out there and find a way to win."
Caldwell is an intense follower of routine as it pertains to preparing his team. He believes that despite the record, there is an importance of following routines.
"It's no different. That's what the thing is now, telling all of the young guys that if we were 7-0, then I would want everybody to have that same routine that they would have (now)," said Caldwell. "Even though we're 0-7, they shouldn't change anything up. Come in and stick to your routine and do whatever you can do to prepare for this week's game. Go out there and get the job done. If guys stick to their routine and that same focus, positive attitude and mindset, that when we come into work we have to get better as a team, better as an individual, as a player or whatever the case is. We'll get things turned around. Last week, we weren't in that game by any means, and week one we weren't in that game by any means, but the other five we easily could have probably won those games. So it shows you how close the NFL can be sometimes. It shows you how it can get away from you also. I think guys are coming in, sticking to their routine and doing what they have to do to prepare for this week."
Caldwell and his troops will be walking into an environment in Nashville where the Titans will be looking for the same objective as the Colts. While Indianapolis was falling in New Orleans, Tennessee dropped a divisional game to Houston, 41-7. Every Colt walking into the stadium knows every Titan will be intent on doing what is necessary to win. There will be no let up just because an opponent is struggling.
"You let me know when you run into a team that will (take it easy on a struggling team), as if that's ever been done. Not in this league," said Caldwell. "That's always been a strong, heated rivalry. They've been very, very tough on us over the years. Playing down at their place, the games have always been a real dogfight. I don't anticipate this one to be any different. They're also looking for an opportunity to bounce back. They also had a tough loss last week, so they will be anxious to get rolling as well."