LAS VEGAS – There was Jeff Saturday, standing in a locker room again. He loves what that place represents – "I wish everybody in America spent time in a locker room," he said this week, "because it's as real as it gets."
And there was something striking about seeing Saturday in that setting again, underneath Allegiant Stadium following the Colts' 25-20 win over the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday.
He belongs there.
In a locker room. As a winner.
This time as a head coach.
"I knew what my role was and I was going to execute my role to the best of my ability," Saturday said, "and I was going to allow all those men to do the same and they stepped up, man."
The first time Saturday stood in front of this team as interim head coach was Wednesday, not in the locker room but in a meeting room at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. That was a group seeking direction and clarity after an emotional 48 hours. Their head coach was let go after a 23-point loss to the New England Patriots, and plenty of players felt personally responsible for the Colts parting ways with Frank Reich on Monday. They were a 3-5-1 football team that hadn't really had a break this year – their bye isn't even for another month. And now they had to figure out what direction things would go under a new head coach.
"The fatigue on these guys has to be insane," Saturday said. "I mean, just insane. The emotional fatigue, the physical fatigue of where we are in the season, all of those things. I just kept telling them, just keep pushing through."
He acknowledged that – and Saturday acknowledged everything that was on the minds of those in that room at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center on Wednesday. He acknowledged how much Reich meant to so many, and how good a man and coach he was replacing. He addressed his lack of experience. He addressed the challenges that lay ahead in getting ready for Las Vegas.
But Saturday did all that with a level of genuine energy, passion and intensity that resonated with the team. And he laid out the expectations he had for every person in that room – himself included.
"He just came in with very real perspective," linebacker Bobby Okereke said. "He's coming in — I'm not trying to be anybody else. I'm just gonna coach, I'm gonna be me. He explained his personality, his viewpoint when he was a player and he was like, that's how I'm going to coach you guys."
The jolt the Colts got from Saturday's speech on Wednesday carried over into walkthroughs, meetings, practices and conversations around the facility during the week. Practices were crisp, focused, intense and – as running back Jonathan Taylor highlighted – fun. Saturday said he felt at peace heading into the weekend, knowing he was confident not only in the plan but in how it'd be executed in Las Vegas.
And behind the scenes, players were following Saturday's directive: While there was a change in head coaching leadership, the Colts had to be a player-led team.
"Earlier in the week, we had a lot of conversations — players, coaches, it was just all about stepping up and answering the bell," wide receiver Parris Campbell said. "A lot of things were said by a lot of different guys. And at the end of the day, we had those conversations — you don't want to let those conversations just be talk. You want to prove that.
"… Jeff brought a different level of accountability to this team. He's really preached that since he got here. That just flowed through the entire team, and player to player. We hold ourselves to a high standard."
The accountability the Colts took in the days leading up to Sunday showed up time and time again on the field at Allegiant Stadium. So many players, as Campbell said, answered the bell.
Campbell did by gashing the Las Vegas defense for a go-ahead touchdown that wound up being the game-winner. Quarterback Matt Ryan stepped back in as the Colts' starting quarterback and picked apart the Raiders with his arm (unsurprisingly) and his legs (very surprisingly). Taylor ripped off a 66-yard touchdown that was sealed on the front side by right tackle Braden Smith and on the back side by center Ryan Kelly.
The Colts' run defense, collectively, was fantastic, holding running back Josh Jacobs to 3.7 yards per carry – over a yard and a half lower than his per-carry average entering Week 10. Cornerback Kenny Moore II stuffed Jacobs for a loss on a fourth down run in the first half, linebacker Zaire Franklin added 10 more tackles and the centerpiece of these run-stuffing efforts – Grover Stewart – notched a sack, too.
And when the team needed plays – plural – to hang on, Okereke popped the go-ahead touchdown out of tight end Foster Moreau's hands; one play later, cornerback Stephon Gilmore won a classic good-on-good matchup with wide receiver Davante Adams, forcing an incompletion that clinched the Colts' win.
After Gilmore's coverage forced Derek Carr's do-or-die pass Adams to fall incomplete, special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone delivered an emphatic high-five to Saturday, who then wrapped his arms around defensive coordinator Gus Bradley for an emotional, extended hug.
"The buy-in from all those guys, the way Jeff handled the week, it's just amazing to me," Ryan said, "to sit here Sunday evening after all that transpired Monday and Tuesday, and for me personally Thursday and Friday, it's incredible to sit here at this point with a win."
Saturday deflected the spotlight after winning his NFL coaching debut, expressing deep gratitude and appreciation for every player, coach and staffer who played a role in the Colts' victory. When Colts Owner and CEO Jim Irsay gave him the game ball, he raised it in the air and promised everyone in the visiting locker room at Allegiant Stadium a game ball of their own for their part in what went down on Sunday.
Because Saturday, who spent 14 years celebrating wins in NFL locker rooms across America, knows winning a football game takes more than one person. It takes an entire organization.
And on Sunday, in his coaching debut, the organization that means so much to Saturday did what he came back to help it do.
"He's very authentic," Taylor said. "Given his history, he just wants the organization to succeed. He doesn't want it to be about him and, hey, I stepped in and I did this and that. He said no, I'm going to step in and do my part, I know I have a great team around me of staff, I know I have great players and I know it's going to be a collective effort.
"So I just feel like he's very authentic because he is a Colt. He'll be a Colt for life. And that's all he wants to do is have the Colts organization succeed."