SECOND-YEAR LINEBACKER WANTS TO KEEP IMPROVING
Question: Growing up did you play football and who were some or your football heroes?
The league's labor situation had been agreed upon early enough to allow players a few days at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center before reporting to camp.
As Sunday arrived, the Colts and quarterback Peyton Manning agreed on a five-year contract, a move that allowed the team a chance to sign other veteran free agents like running back Joseph Addai, offensive tackle Ryan Diem and defensive tackle Antonio Johnson.
Owner and CEO Jim Irsay, vice chairman Bill Polian and Manning conducted a press conference that day at 2 p.m., an hour before the team meeting, the first official camp-opening meeting. From there, camp was open for business.
Vice President and General Manager Chris Polian was a key figure in all the club's dealings throughout a difficult off-season, then the quick onset of camp. He paused to address the first week at Anderson University.
"I think we survived, as did the other 31 teams. It was a unique experience," said Polian. "Thankfully, a large part of it was a lot of our own players wanted to come back. It took a little time to put that together and get it done but because the intent was there mutually that we wanted them, they wanted to get back, that certainly made things a little easier."
Polian has been part of an organizational process for the past 13 years that has created a great football culture in Indianapolis. In addition to the team producing the winningest decade in league history from 2000-09 (115 regular-season wins), the environment for players is among the best in the NFL. A commitment to winning from top to bottom in the organization has helped forge an extended period of success.
Still, Polian's job is not easy. Personnel planning to remain under the salary cap as the league year ensures is a deft process. Players are targeted for return, but the system does not allow everyone to be retained. Among all his duties, that one is one of the most challenging.
"The cap at $120 million was a little bit restrictive, but it was negotiated and we knew that a couple of weeks going into it," said Polian. "Particularly we had some guys on our UFA (unrestricted free agent) list that we had to sign to help survive the injury situation last year. Some guys contributed (last year), but you're never going to get 100 percent retention. Either way, whether that's by our choice or whether the player has the opportunity to go on and get a little bit more reward somewhere else."
The nature of this past off-season was different from any other. Outside of the draft, there were no other regular activities like the free agency period, rookie camps, mini-camps and OTAs (organized team activities). The lack of those things created a different business model for Indianapolis as it hit Anderson.
During the first week of camp, the Colts signed three veterans from other teams who had been former first-round draft picks. A team that normally refrains from such heavy activity caught raised eyebrows from observers with the additions of linebacker Ernie Sims (Detroit), defensive end Jamaal Anderson (Atlanta) and defensive tackle Tommie Harris (Chicago). While their signings may have departed a bit from the norm, Polian explained the background.
"They have fits (in the Colts system). Both Tommie (Harris) and Ernie (Sims) have played in the defense," he said. "Ernie was drafted high in Detroit when Coach (Rod) Marinelli was there and they were putting in the Tampa-2. Tommie was drafted very high at Chicago playing the Tampa-2 under Lovie Smith, then had some injury problems, some significant bad luck at Chicago. It was a situation where we're one of the few teams left playing this in its true form. We had some room to do things. In reading (articles), I think it's taken on a little bit more of a storyline, a little bit more magnitude than what's actually there. Some of this in the past we would do at the cut to 53, or maybe during the year. I think (the) unique timing and circumstances that we find ourself in this year may have added to the ability to do that. As well, the draft was before free agency this year. I know that's going to happen for the next 10 years under the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement). It's a unique set of circumstances that came together this year."
Something else that was unique to this year was that any player signing a contract prior to camp made him unavailable for practice until 4:00 p.m. on August 4. For those veterans, it meant mental practice only in camp until then. For young players, it meant a greater chance for exposure in practice. For coaches, it may have meant value.
"That's the silver lining. In some ways, it ended being a rookie camp, which was good, said Polian. "They (young players) got a lot of time, a lot of attention, a lot of coaching and getting caught up a little bit, obviously having missed the off-season work. Anybody who signed a new contract within the last week or so was ineligible to practice as part of the rules. So, 'Next Man Up,' and a lot of people got work, but we'll be excited to see the varsity back out there."
NFL fans will benefit from the new labor agreement that officially became law around noon on Friday. The agreement will provide labor peace for a decade.
"I think that was important to ownership, and they expressed that to the players and their leadership," said Polian. "The longer the deal is gives them stability to grow the business, for teams to plan long-range, not only on the field but off the field – stadium construction, marketing, business opportunities, TV contracts, all those things coming up. It is going to be beneficial to us, and, hopefully, we have a good return in 10 years as well."
Part of the agreement was to re-work practice schedules for players, somewhat lightening up the load in some markets, but not so much in Indianapolis.
"The rules have not been that big of a change for us. We've had some tweaks," said Polian. "It's not as big of a change for us as it has been for other people because this is a little bit of our schedule in the past, and I think that's what some of Jeff Saturday's thought process was going into the negotiations. We'll get more players back. We've had pretty good fortune injury-wise this week. We've had a few small muscle things, but nothing big. The veterans will be able to go full-time next week. They'll get a day or two in this week. It will be good continuing to work."
Colts center Jeff Saturday played a huge role in the labor talks. He was a visible presence during the process, and his intellect, negotiating savvy and dedication to long-range good helped bring an end to the matter. Saturday has been lauded nationally, and Polian added his thoughts.
"Because it's occurred on more of a national level and has occurred over a three-to-four month period over the off-season, I think people are just finding out what we've had the great fortune of knowing," he said. "One, what a good person he is. Two, how intelligent and what a good listener that he is. He can weigh all of the things that are mixing, then do what's best for everybody involved. The players certainly had the right representation. One thing that's been said to me, it's been said to Mr. Irsay, it's been said to Coach (Caldwell) and anybody we've talked to across the league…everybody involved had glowing things to say about Jeff, and that we would not be here on the field today if not for his involvement."