In Fourth NFL Season, Hayden Feeling More Confident Than Ever
INDIANAPOLIS – As Kelvin Hayden sees it, this is his time.
And if he hasn't had quite the opunity this season to show just how true that is, and if the season didn't play out – yet – quite as he had hoped, Hayden said other things are true, too.
Yes, Hayden said, he was frustrated earlier this season, when he missed six games with knee and hamstring injuries. And yes, he wanted to be on the field. But Hayden said he learned from his experience.
And now, he said, he's a wiser player for it.
And one with more perspective than before.
"It was tough," Hayden said as the Colts (9-4) prepared to play the Detroit Lions (0-13) at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis Sunday at 1 p.m.
"But it was also a humbling experience, letting you know that, 'Hey, you never know when that time is up. You want to just cherish every moment out there.'
"Right now, that's what I'm doing."
Hayden, a fourth-year veteran cornerback, is doing more than cherishing the moments.
He's using them to continue doing what he has done in the past few seasons – that is, to develop from a player who played just one year at cornerback while at the University of Illinois into one of the NFL's top young players at his position.
"First of all, he's our best cornerback," Colts President Bill Polian said early this week when asked how Hayden's return has helped the Colts' defensive improvement in recent weeks. "No. 2, he's really a playmaker."
Hayden, a second-round selection in the 2005 NFL Draft from the University of Illinois, this past Sunday showed just how true that is.
In the Colts' 35-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, Hayden not only defended a pass in the first half, he intercepted one late in the second quarter that led a touchdown that gave Indianapolis an 11-point lead.
With just over five minutes remaining, Hayden cut in front of a pass by Bengals quarterback Jordan Palmer and returned the ensuing interception 85 yards for the Colts' final touchdown.
They were memorable plays, big plays – the sort of plays Polian said he envisioned when first scouting Hayden at the University of Illinois. At the time, Hayden had played just one year of cornerback at Illinois, having transferred there from junior college.
"Kelvin's a good example of . . . player development," Polian said. "He only played one year at corner at Illinois. (Senior Consultant to Player Personnel) Dom Anile and I went to see him and we loved him. We just jumped out of our skin about him. We said, 'This is the guy we've been looking for.'"
While Polian and Anile liked what they saw, Hayden said he wasn't thrilled with what he saw of himself in the NFL. Not at first.
"It was tough on me, honestly," Hayden said. "I felt like once I'd got here, I'd never played the position of corner. I didn't know the ins and outs. I didn't know the fundamental things. It was tough on me, but I never lost confidence. I felt like, 'Hey, just continue to work, continue to work.' The coaches told me the same thing, 'Don't get discouraged.' That's my whole thing: just continue to work hard, continue to work on the little things. You want to get better each year, and at the same time, you want to get better week in and week out."
Said Polian, "He came in here and it was difficult for him in the early going with not a lot of experience. He . . . didn't have a lot of experience at the position. Then, the Super Bowl year he just blossomed."
After playing sparingly in 2005, Hayden played extensively at nickelback late in the 2006 season. In the Super Bowl following that season, his 56-yard interception return clinched the Colts' 29-17 victory over the Chicago Bears.
"He grew and grew and grew and of course made the interception that cinched the Super Bowl," Polian said. "Since then, he has just been a topnotch player who really is a guy who does everything well in a Dungy Defense scheme."
The offseason following the Super Bowl, then-Colts starting cornerbacks Nick Harper and Jason David signed as free agents with Tennessee and New Orleans, respectively, and along with Marlin Jackson, Hayden moved into the starting lineup. He started 16 games there in 2006, then started four more this season before sustaining a knee injury against Houston in Week 4.
He missed six games and has returned in recent weeks to continue developing into what Polian this week called an ideal fit for his position in Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy's Tampa 2 defense.
"He tackles well," Polian said. "He supports the run well. He's physical. He's a great pass defender and he turns the ball over. That's an ideal description of a Dungy Defense corner, and Kelvin has it all.
"He really has made himself into a very fine player."
Said Hayden, "I feel very confident out there now, but it just comes from preparation. I try to prepare myself week in and week out to have that confidence, to have that swagger about yourself. Hopefully, I'll continue to work and the plays will continue to come."
And if he still considers himself a young, developing player, he also said that the player who didn't like what he saw from himself early in his career is a far more confident player now.
"There are still a lot of things I can work on and there are still areas I can improve on, but I think the big part – as far as anticipation, knowing the game plan – I think I'm on top of that," Hayden said. "I think I'm a veteran at that, but as a player, you always look for room to grow.
"That's what I always do, look for room to grow: 'Don't get caught up on the things you do well. Get caught up on the things you don't well.' That's where you're going to improve."