INDIANAPOLIS – While the 2011 season was one of struggle for Indianapolis, it was one of opportunity for a player who never had found his way to the playing field.
Offensive guard Joe Reitz opened nine of 11 games for the Colts last season. It was his first action after being on the practice squads with Baltimore and Houston earlier in his career.
Reitz, a local Hamilton Southeastern product who played basketball at Western Michigan, was a part of an offensive line that reflected the challenges the team faced last season. Indianapolis employed seven different starting alignments on the line. Only center Jeff Saturday and tackle Jeff Linkenbach opened each game, while Ryan Diem (five), Anthony Castonzo (four) and Reitz (five) missed multiple games. Still, Reitz looks back very favorably on last season.
"I think it went decent for me individually, but we didn't do as well as a team as we all had liked. I was happy to get a chance to start in my first year of really playing games," said Reitz. "The biggest thing I learned was you just can't put a price on game experience. You can't substitute that at all. You can get all the work you want done in practice but until you're out there with the bright lights shining down on you, there's nothing like the game experience. I've started for a year, and I have some NFL game experience under my belt. I'm excited for myself and for the team in moving forward to next year."
Reitz missed four straight games at mid-season with a knee injury, along with sitting out the finale. He was comfortable at left guard after having worked previously in his career a little farther away from the ball.
"I played tackle mostly throughout my career when I was in Baltimore (2008-09)," said Reitz. "A couple of years ago in preseason because of injuries, I played guard and felt comfortable at it. I see myself as a guy who can play guard or slide out to tackle and be versatile on the line. I definitely liked playing left guard last year.
"I think I had a pretty good year overall. Obviously, it was fun at the end of the year when got to playing well and winning games. Some of the games we lost we were right in there, like the Pittsburgh game, where one or two plays could have put us on the other end (of the outcome)."
Linemen are notorious self-analyzers, and Reitz is no different. He knows there are areas for improvement as he moves forward. The approach he will take will be one of getting better incrementally, and it was one he learned in high school.
"Overall, I can get a little bit better at everything, a little bit better at run blocking and pass blocking, better with my footwork and technique," said Reitz. "I take the attitude of my high school coach, Rob Cutter of Hamilton Southeastern. He would preach to us every day, 'Just get two percent better every day. If you do that, you'll look back at yourself at the end of the year and see how much you improved.'
"That's my goal for this off-season when I'm working out and training on my own. When we get back together as a team, just keep getting two percent better every day, whether that's taking better footwork, or better pass sets or better punch. Whatever it comes down to, just get better. When the dust settles, I hope I can say I improved a lot this year."
The struggles in personnel continuity along the line last year made each game have almost a different identity for the starting five along the front. Reitz worked through it and knows cohesion is a premium for group performance.
"Last year because of injuries, it seemed like we had a new line out there every week. Hopefully, this year guys will stay healthy. Whoever's in there to start, we can build some continuity," said Reitz. "We (linemen) always look at it that it's not five individual guys playing their own positions. It's all five guys working as a unit, and you're only as good as the weakest link. Everybody needs to be on the same page. That's what we'll be looking forward to, especially with a new system coming in offensively.
"Whenever we can get back to work, (we'll) focus on communication and terminology, and maybe spend a little extra time on that in the off-season so when hit the ground in training camp and preseason we'll be able to really get going."
Reitz looks forward to the opportunity of working with a new coaching staff. Indianapolis will have new line coaches in Harold Goodwin and Joe Gilbert. Goodwin and Gilbert are two of the 16 new faces on the coach staff that includes Head Coach Chuck Pagano.
Reitz believes he will benefit from work in the spring, something players were without last year because of the lockout. He feels fortunate to have the chance, and he is especially appreciative that his opportunity includes getting to play in his hometown.
"It's been awesome for me, a true blessing with my family close by. I've always had a strong support network with family and friends," said Reitz. "Coaches and teachers from high school, I stay in contact with a lot of them. I found it beneficial moving forward in life because I've always had great support from people like that. They can come see me play. It has been a big blessing. I grew up loving the Indianapolis Colts. It doesn't get much better than getting to play for your hometown team. I really am living the dream."