End to Season Almost Always Too Sudden, Colts Players Say
INDIANAPOLIS – Defensive tackle Darrell Reid walked to the parking lot, belongings in hand and under arm.
Cornerback Kelvin Hayden spoke with reers, and nearby, safety Melvin Bullitt threw away a season's worth of equipment. On another side of the room, veteran defensive end Josh Thomas sat near veteran offensive guard Ryan Lilja as the latter stuffed items into a trash can.
This was Sunday at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.
It was getaway day, the day NFL players clean out lockers following the final game of the season, and Colts players on Sunday said the day was particularly tough.
Not just because of the nature of the previous night's loss. And not because of the cross-country, early-morning plane ride home, but because as was the case last season, the day was unexpected.
And once again, it came far too soon.
"It's a strange day," Hayden said Sunday, a day after the Colts (12-5) lost an AFC Wild Card Playoff game, 23-17, in overtime, to the AFC West Champion San Diego Chargers (9-8) at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Cal.
"It's a sour feeling. You see everybody just cleaning out their lockers and things like that. At the end of the year, you do clean out your locker, but we were hoping it would be in February."
The loss meant the Colts' earliest postseason exit since the playoffs following Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy's first season in 2002. They made the AFC Divisional Playoff Round from 2003-2007, qualifying for the AFC Championship Game following the 2003 and 2006 regular seasons and winning Super Bowl XLI following the 2006 regular season.
"I thought our team had a fine year, a great regular season – capped off by one disappointing playoff game," Dungy said. "They're all tough. They're all the same that day and the next day. You feel bad no matter when it is."
Dungy said the Colts likely will focus on improving in the offseason the way they typically do – through the draft and by improving from within rather than making wholesale changes.
"I think we'll continue to work to get our team to improve and hopefully get back in that situation next year and play a little bit better," Dungy said.
The Colts this season extended their NFL record streak of seasons with 12 or more victories to six.
"It's definitely uncomfortable," Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett said of Sunday's locker-room scene. "But it's definitely something we've been through every year since I've been here except for one. This is more the norm. You would love to say you went ahead and won so many Super Bowls and championship games, but there's only one winner every year and for the rest of the league – for 31 other teams – they're going to be in the locker room, clearing them out and getting ready for next season. . . .
"You're never really prepared for it. I definitely had my schedule open for the next month or so. It's always a tough reality."
Brackett said it will take time to adjust to a routine without football.
"Probably for the next week you wake up at 7:30 in the morning with nothing to do and you wonder," said Brackett, who missed the final four regular-season games and the playoff game with a fibula injury. "That's just the nature of the business.
"I think that's what drives you going into next season and that's what you have to let it do."
The Colts, who won nine consecutive games at the end of the regular season to qualify for the playoffs for a seventh consecutive year, on Saturday took leads of 7-0, 10-7 and 17-14 before the Chargers rallied in the fourth quarter.
Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding kicked a 26-yard field goal with :33 remaining in regulation, then running back Darren Sproles' 22-yard touchdown run 6:20 into overtime gave San Diego its fifth consecutive victory.
The Colts have been eliminated by the Chargers in each of the last two postseasons, and Saturday's loss – coming in overtime in a game in which Colts players said too many opportunities were squandered – made for a difficult Sunday.
"You probably want to give me a few weeks before I start looking back on the season and what I'm going to take away," Colts center Jeff Saturday said. "Right now, I don't take away a whole lot. Obviously losing to an 8-8 team out there is frustrating. We didn't do what we had to get done."
Said Hayden, "Unfortunately, things didn't go our way. It's a tough deal, but it's part of it. There's a lesson learned behind everything, that if you don't get the job done this is what happens.
"We didn't get the job done, but at the same time, a new year will come upon us and hopefully, we can get the job done then."
After the lockers were empty, Dungy met with Colts players for a final time this season.
"I just talked about the way we feel today," Dungy said. "It's funny, but no matter when you lose in the playoffs, you always feel terrible. You feel worse than teams that were 4-12 and won their last game. That's good and that's one of the reasons you're in the playoffs is you have a lot of guys who feel that way. We've got to use that feeling to build on next year and to use that as incentive in the offseason, to come back to work and get a little bit better.
"I told them we're not going to make wholesale changes. We don't think there are things that need to be fixed about the team. We just need to continue to improve. Most of our improvement will be made by the guys who are on the team now. Them getting better is how we'll improve.
"That's what we have to focus in on. They'll get a couple of months off, then come back in March to start doing that."