INDIANAPOLIS – Indianapolis has endured a difficult 2011 season on all fronts.
The first 13 games have not yielded the on-field objective of winning. For a team that posted the NFL's winningest decade ever with 115 regular-season triumphs from 2000-09, the outcomes have been difficult.
Regardless of the record, what has not lapsed this season is the weekly efforts of the players and coaches. In the wake of adversity, players have hung tough internally and have kept their eyes trained on getting better and changing the results found on scoreboards.
They have done it quietly and firmly. They are doing it with the same dignity with which they comported themselves through more successful times. The quiet conduct is very much a part of the organizational culture.
"For the most part, guys are disappointed," said Head Coach Jim Caldwell. "They're competitive people. They don't like to lose. I think oftentimes people anticipate that to show that a guy (has fire he) has got to kick a door in his locker, throw his helmet and all that. That's the kind of stuff that (observers) like to see, I guess, I don't know. It's not necessarily an indication of a guy's frustration level, his competitiveness or his desire to win. It's never been.
"Oftentimes people are assailed for not doing something ridiculous. Then when they do something ridiculous, they get vilified anyway. Nevertheless, I think that our guys are still just as competitive, just as tough, get just as disappointed when they lose as any other point in time since I've been around here. That hasn't changed."
This time of year in past seasons has found Indianapolis in much different positions. The Colts were 13-0 in 2005 and 2009 at this point in those seasons. In 2007, the club was 11-2 at this point, while it had 10 victories after 13 outings in 2003, 2004 and 2006.
Indianapolis was 7-6 at this time last season, with a one-game winning streak. The Colts ended up winning out to capture a seventh AFC South title.
That same fighting spirit remains with this year's squad because it is an ingrained approach.
Six-time Pro Bowl nominee defensive end Dwight Freeney has embodied that mindset through each of his 10 seasons. Freeney had that indoctrination thrust on him early in Indianapolis.
"It's kind of been drilled into us from day one, and it's just that you've got to take every day one day at a time, one practice at a time and one play at a time," said Freeney. "We go out there and try to perfect our craft. We're professionals and regardless…you're going to go out there and try your best. At the end of the game you see what the score is and whatever happened."
Observers around the club have applied the tag of 'spoiler' to the Colts since the team is in the middle of facing four teams fighting for playoff inclusion or positioning – New England, Baltimore, Tennessee and Houston.
It is not a tag players truly accept. Players are motivated by performance and success for themselves, not for what a Sunday can do to someone else.
"I guess that's kind of how it lined up to be," said Freeney when asked of Indianapolis perhaps hurting Tennessee's playoff hopes. "You never really want to be in that situation where that's all you have to play for is to spoil someone else's chances. I do know what we're trying to do is win, and, obviously, doing that would spoil something for them. We're not going out there saying, 'Let's spoil their chances.' No, we're thinking about winning."
Tight end Jacob Tamme has found the playing field on a consistent basis in the second halves of the past two seasons. Tamme has a thirst for competition and finds no motivation other than to help his teammates and coaches win.
"I honestly don't care about the 'spoiler' (tag) personally," said Tamme. "I really just want to win, and hopefully put a couple together. It starts with this game. I just want to win. I don't think anybody's too concerned with spoiling anything. We'd all like to celebrate on a Sunday.
"I honestly don't know what we can spoil. The fact that I don't know what 'it' (the chance to play spoilers for remaining opponents) is shows how much I care for that (worrying about other teams). I want to win for us. I don't really buy into the spoiler stuff in our situation. I think it's about playing for ourselves."
Veteran defensive captain Gary Brackett has had to watch the past 12 games from the sideline after injuring a shoulder in the Houston opener. A battler for the club since 2003, Brackett would like to return to the field more than anything else. A key part of many winning Colts teams, he knows the only yardstick for the club is for its own accomplishments.
"We don't look at other teams and who we can spoil," said Brackett. "We just worry about ourselves, how we can improve ourselves and how we can win. If we spoil someone else's chances, so be it. At the end of the day, we focus on ourselves and handle our business. There is a lot to focus on and to improve."
Quarterback Dan Orlovsky is a seven-year veteran who has been with Detroit and Houston. He has played in 18 career games and knows the challenges of the game. Orlovsky appreciates deeply the chance to play. Waived by Indianapolis at the conclusion of camp, he returned three weeks later. That recent time away from the game did not create his appreciation of playing in the NFL. He knows how fortunate any player is to have the opportunity.
"I understand how fortunate we are (to play in the NFL)," said Orlovsky. "I understand that eventually this league tells you, 'You're not good enough.' You don't tell the league it's not good enough for you. I was forced to go home for three weeks this year (when he was cut by the Colts), it wasn't fun. I told myself if the opportunity ever presented itself again, I wasn't going to look back with regrets and say, 'I wish I would have…..'. I think that's part of it. We're professionals.
"When you grow up with this sport, you're kind of wired in a way of you move on and you move on (from setbacks). I think you have to have something down inside of yourself to keep getting up and going after it. I think that's why some guys play for two or three years and some guys play for seven, eight, nine (years)."