Colts Dispute Common Perception That Preseason Is Irrelevant
TERRE HAUTE – In 2003, the Indianapolis Colts took a chance on an undrafted free agent. The linebacker used strong preseason performances to solidify his spot on the team and six years later, Gary Brackett has become a staple of the Colts organization and a defensive captain.
"Definitely, it's huge," linebacker Gary Brackett said when describing the importance of preseason. "A lot of the guys, this is their opportunity that they have to make the team. This is when the coaches really evaluate you, what you do when the lights are on. It's tough during practice. You're not taking guys to the ground. Competition is there, but now is the opportunity to give it everything you've got, leave everything on the field and let the coaches make the decisions."
Colts President Bill Polian has helped engineer the franchise to a 114-46 (.713) record and nine playoff appearances since 1999, both marking high standards in the NFL. With 21 years of NFL experience as a general manager or president among three different franchises, Polian recognizes the importance of preseason.
"The value of preseason is three-fold," Polian said. "Number one, you want to get your team ready to play the regular season. The body has to adapt to the hitting, it has to adapt to the stress and strain of a professional football game and a professional season. You need at least three preseason games to do that because you can't go out there, play a game, get sore, go out and play another game, maintain the soreness and then say, 'Ok, I'm ready to go.' It's not that easy."
Not only is it important for players to adjust physically, but quarterback Peyton Manning believes the preseason is important from a mental aspect as well.
"Anytime you are out there, you'd like to see as many situations as you can," Manning said. "If you can get a couple of third downs, a couple of third-and-ones, maybe get into the red zone and have some goal-line (opportunities)…over the course of the preseason, that would be ideal if we could face a number of different situations and hopefully execute in those situations."
Preseason also is an experiment of sorts. While it is important for players to progress and execute, it is just as important to put those players in position to utilize their greatest strengths.
"You may have a wide receiver who you think will be a good slot receiver and it turns out that he's not," Polian said. "He's a better wide receiver. You need to make sure that those guys all fit into your squad in the right roles, and you need to see them in lots of reps, in practice and in games in order to get them into the right roles."
While training camp helps younger players adjust to the NFL, the best learning experience is playing under the lights in an NFL game. According to Polian, it's important for younger players to get reps in preseason games to be able to adapt to the speed and intensity level of the NFL.
Taking the field for the first time can be a little overwhelming for an NFL rookie or a player who does not see playing time consistently. Having the opportunity to play significant minutes during the preseason allows young players to calm their nerves and become more comfortable with the rapid pace of an NFL game.
"I think there's… a certain amount of it (nerves), no question about that," rookie quarterback Curtis Painter said. "At the same time, preparing these last few weeks, continuing this week, hopefully I'll be that much more prepared and the nerves will be out of the way soon, and I'll just be excited to get out there again and play and compete. That's kind of what you look forward to."
Polian also said it is important as an evaluator of talent to pay close attention to each preseason game as players make progress. While some players come in and play well immediately, some take longer to become accustomed to the Colts' system and show flashes later in the preseason, a theme that is not uncommon.
"Over the course of that time, players get better and players get better at different rates of speed," said Polian. "Invariably, we have found in the fourth preseason game that there are one, two, sometimes three players who make that breakthrough and make our team. That happens virtually every year."
One player Polian pointed out specifically was linebacker Tyjuan Hagler, whose performance in the Colts' final preseason game in 2003 vs. Cincinnati helped him make the team.
"The fourth preseason game, you're wrapping up the whole preseason and you're taking what you learn out here in Terre Haute, then you apply it to the game," Hagler said. "I felt more and more comfortable, and then I felt better as a player. When you know what you're doing, you play a lot faster and it makes things a lot easier."
Preseason action is a prime time for rookies and undrafted free agents to showcase their talents to earn a spot on the roster or further playing time down the road. Heading into Thursday's game vs. Philadelphia, the Colts roster features nine rookies and nine undrafted free agents. All 18 will continue to try and prove that they belong.
The preseason also provides ample opportunity for the coaching staff to not only evaluate the players, but the execution of the game plan as well.
"From my vantage point, it's different," said new Head Coach Jim Caldwell. "I'm excited about it and having an opportunity to see how they work, how they function. Game time is when you find all of those things out."
While the aforementioned goals are important, Caldwell brings an attitude that comes as no stranger to the Colts: winning.
"I think anytime that you go out and you're playing a game, when they stop keeping score, then I'll stop worrying about whether or not we win," Caldwell said. "It's important for us to go out and try to learn as much about ourselves as we possibly can. That's the key. But you also want to win as well."