INDIANAPOLIS — Take a quick look at Joe Philbin's coaching career, starting in 1986 at Worcester Tech High School in Massachusetts, and two words definitely stand out: offensive line.
As he worked his way through the coaching ranks — going from a high school assistant coach to a head coach in the NFL in a span of 26 years — it was Philbin's high-quality work with the big men up front that consistently allowed him to advance throughout his career.
So it might come as no surprise that after his three-plus-year stint as the Miami Dolphins' head coach came to an end last season, several teams across the league reached out to Philbin to gauge his interest in joining their coaching staffs. And, in the end, Philbin narrowed his choices down to two franchises: the Indianapolis Colts and the New York Giants.
On Jan. 15, Philbin made his choice official — he was going back to his roots to serve under Chuck Pagano as the Colts' offensive line coach.
"You make decisions that are best for you, your family," Philbin told reporters last week at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. "I have great respect for Coach Pagano and what he's done here, what he stands for. I thought the organization was really committed to winning a championship here."
Philbin has guided offensive linemen in just about every step of his career, serving as offensive line coach at Allegheny College (1990-93), Ohio University (1994), Northeastern University (1995-96), Harvard (1997-98) and Iowa (1999-2002) before entering the NFL ranks as an assistant offensive line coach with the Green Bay Packers in 2003, a title he held until taking the reigns as the primary offensive line coach in 2006.
The 2016 season will represent Philbin's first as a straight-up offensive line coach in 10 years, however, as he was promoted to be the Packers' offensive coordinator from 2007-2011 and was the Miami Dolphins' head coach from 2012-2015.
Philbin's No. 1 objective with the Colts is simple: shore up some of the issues that have affected the Indianapolis offensive line in recent seasons, most notably last year, when five Colts quarterbacks were hit a combined 118 times throughout the season, a figure that was the second most in the league.
If Philbin and his lineman have their way, just one quarterback, Andrew Luck, will see the field in 2016 (barring any Colts blowouts, of course). Keeping No. 12's uniform clean will no doubt be a major goal throughout the year, and Philbin said his group is already on the right track after about a month of offseason workouts underway.
"It seems like a really outstanding group of men to work with," he said. "(I've) really, really enjoyed just being with them in the meeting room and being with them on the practice field. It seems like their work ethic is outstanding. They're real serious about what they do. They're good people."
That feeling has been mutual for the Colts' offensive linemen, particularly the veterans of the group.
"Oh, he's been awesome," tackle/guard Jack Mewhort said of Philbin. "You know, I've said it before: we all know what he's done at every level that he's coached at. He's a guru; he's the best at what he does, and to be able to go out there and learn from him every day is a pretty cool experience. He's got a good command of the room."
Philbin will count on his veterans to lead the way to turn the tide as well as bring along a deep group of rookies brought in this offseason to add much-needed depth and competition up front.
Colts first round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft - Ryan Kelly.
The Colts selected center Ryan Kelly with the 18th-overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, but certainly didn't stop there, selecting three additional offensive linemen — tackle Le'Raven Clark (third round; 82nd overall), tackle Joe Haeg (fifth round; 155th overall) and center Austin Blythe (seventh round; 248th overall) — over the next two days of the draft.
But whether you're a rookie or you're a sixth-year veteran like left tackle Anthony Castonzo, Philbin said his entire program is built first upon the fundamentals. The various schemes that are included — like whether the team will employ more zone- or man-blocking elements in its running game, for example — haven't even really entered Philbin's mind.
"The things in blocking that I want us to be known for are really fundamentally-related first and scheme second," he said. "So it's really about how fast and decisive our guys can play. Can they get to their target? Can they play with leverage? Can they get movement? I don't care really what the scheme – gap, man, zone, lead, turn – there are umpteen different schemes, but the real emphasis still for us even when we get to that stage is going to be moving people and creating space for our running back."
So as Philbin continues to get his bearings in Indianapolis, he knows he has the pieces in place to see immediate improvement from his new unit. Taking it step by step, the 54-year-old Springfield, Mass., is confident the Colts can once again become one of the top offensive lines in the league — which was one of their staples when the team was a consistent title contender for more than a decade beginning at the turn of the century.
"I lived in the Midwest for 13 years out of the last 17 and loved every minute of it," Philbin said, "so this is where I wanted to be. I just feel very, very fortunate to be part of this staff."