INDIANAPOLIS — It was early in 1998, Howard Mudd had a note waiting for him on his desk.
He had just been hired as the new offensive line coach of the Indianapolis Colts, who had allowed 62 sacks the season prior, the third highest figure in the league. The Colts had just invested the No. 1-overall pick on a quarterback out of the University of Tennessee named Peyton Manning, and Mudd knew his No. 1 objective was to keep that rookie's uniform clean.
But, just in case he needed a reminder, Jim Irsay was happy to oblige.
"I don't want to see dirt on 18's uniform. Not a lick," Irsay recalled writing to Mudd that day. "I mean, nothing. No one touches him."
For the next decade-plus, Mudd — and the offensive linemen he guided — would uphold that standard.
From 1998 through 2009, the Colts would rank no lower than 10th in the league in fewest sacks allowed; more often than not, if they weren't No. 1 in the league in that category — as they were six times under Mudd — they were at least in the top three or four.
The legendary Mudd passed away Wednesday following a tragic motorcycle accident near his Seattle home. He was 78 years old.
Irsay, Manning and several others, including Colts head coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard, offered their fond memories of time spent with Mudd over the years.
In an interview with Colts.com's Jeffrey Gorman, Irsay talked about how his relationship with Mudd far exceeded that of owner and coach.
"It's a very, very, tough one for Colts Nation," Irsay said. "I've been around a lot of coaches for 50 years in this league, some of them are like fathers and uncles and brothers, and as you get older they're like sons, but Howard was very special, and in all three categories: as a coach, as a man and as a great friend. It's a real difficult day for Colts fans, because everyone knows how much Howard meant to the Horseshoe and how much he was loved."
Mudd first gained notoriety as an All-Pro offensive lineman with the San Fransisco 49ers, who selected the All-American out of tiny Hillsdale College in Michigan in the ninth round of the 1964 NFL Draft.
A member of the NFL 1960s All-Decade Team, Mudd would be named All-Pro two times and selected a starter to three Pro Bowls over the course of his playing career with the 49ers (1964-69) — who have since named Mudd to their All-Golden Era Team — and the Chicago Bears (1969-70).
After an eight-year playing career cut short by a knee injury, Mudd entered the coaching ranks as an offensive line coach at the University of California in 1972, spending two years at the school. He got hired onto the staff of the San Diego Chargers in 1974, sparking a decades-long career as one of the greatest offensive line coaches in NFL history.
Mudd was on the staff of the Chargers (1974-76), 49ers (1977), Seattle Seahawks (1978-82; 1993-97), Cleveland Browns (1983-88), Kansas City Chiefs (1989-92) and Eagles (2011-12), but he's perhaps best known for his work with the Colts' offensive line from 1998 through 2009.
A key member of the Colts' Super Bowl XLI-winning staff in the 2006 season, Mudd's innovative ways — he is largely responsible for the silent count methods utilized by most teams today — and ability to teach and develop players up front set him apart from any other offensive line peer.
"As a football coach: he was — and I don't use this term often — he was remarkable," Irsay said. "I mean, people know football and they know the offensive line is the engine that drives your football team; that is the engine. That is the most important thing in determining victories besides the quarterback is the battle at the line of scrimmage, and Howard was a Hall of Fame chief mechanic. I mean, he knew how to get offensive lines to play."
Irsay recalled a game against the Denver Broncos, who had a stud defensive lineman tearing up the rest of the league on a weekly basis. So Mudd decided to move his All-Pro center, Jeff Saturday, to guard, and move his guard to center, knowing Saturday could handle his own against that particular player.
It worked like a charm.
"The guy was neutralized the whole game," Irsay recalled. "Saturday knew he could block him, and he did, and we won the game just because, I mean, you have to understand, at the NFL level, that's very rarely done; that out of the middle of a season you take a guy from center and move him to guard and then move him back like Howard did. But that was Howard."
Not surprisingly, Mudd also grew extremely close with Manning over the years. From 1998 through Mudd's final full season with the Colts in 2009, the Indy offensive line ranked second, first, tied for first, 10th, fourth, third, tied for first, first, seventh, fourth and first in fewest sacks allowed.
"In every game plan meeting and every practice I know he was always thinking about how to protect me as a quarterback in the pocket with different blocking schemes and ways to run the ball," Manning said Wednesday in a statement. "That was always on his mind and he kept that thought process with him throughout his whole career. As a quarterback, I can't tell you how much that meant to me knowing that was on his mind and that was one of his top priorities."
Mudd, Manning said, "was the best offensive line coach in NFL history."
"I would put him on that pedestal any day of the week," Manning continued. "I know all the guys that played for him would feel the same way and a lot of the guys that coached with him would feel the same. He will be missed by many. I know so many like me are grateful to have played for him."
Reich got his break in coaching with the Colts in 2006 as an intern, and quickly moved his way up from there, becoming an offensive assistant in 2008, quarterbacks coach in 2009 and wide receivers coach in 2011.
Usually a very mild-mannered person, Reich recalled today a time when he had a rare blowup at Mudd's expense — and the old football coach loved every second of it.
"I was the offensive quality control (coach) and then I was the quarterback coach. So working with Peyton, I would have to go into Howard's office all the time to talk about the run game and things relevant to the quarterback," Reich said. "I remember going into his office one time and he had pushed me around one too many times verbally, I just finally lashed back out on him. It was a good lashing for me. You guys know me, so you can imagine that for me to get this worked up and to strike back verbally was a rare instance. I let him have it. After I was finished, he just started laughing and he said, 'I love that. That's what I love to see.' He was just an old ball coach. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and Shirley (Mudd) – just have a lot of love and respect for Howard Mudd."
Reich and Mudd's connection came full circle early last year, as he was vetting candidates for his open offensive line coach position. Reich knew Mudd was close friends with Chris Strausser, and wanted to get his honest assessment of his coaching skills.
By the time their lengthy conversation was over — Strausser eventually ended up getting the job — Reich had an idea: he wanted to bring Mudd back aboard the coaching staff, too. He got approval from Irsay and Ballard, and soon Mudd was hired on as a senior offensive assistant coach, helping Strausser get his program off the ground for the next seven months before deciding to step down before the start of the regular season.
"I'm privileged to have had the chance to work with Howard and I learned a tremendous amount from him in the five seasons we coached together in Indianapolis," Reich said. "I consider Howard one of the greatest offensive line coaches in football and I have a tremendous amount of love and respect for him."
Ballard, who has made it no secret how much he prioritizes top-notch offensive line play, said Mudd is "not only one of the game's greatest coaches, but an even better man."
"Howard made a lasting impact not only with the Colts organization, but the NFL in general," Ballard said. "His contributions to this game as both a player and coach are remarkable and span several decades. Howard coached Colts offensive lines that routinely ranked at the top of the league and were a significant reason for the team's sustained success. I'm thankful I had the chance to get to know Howard.
"My thoughts and prayers are with Shirley and his family."
Irsay, Manning, Reich and Ballard were joined by several other former Colts players and coaches to offer their memories of Mudd on Wednesday: