INDIANAPOLIS – Games in the NFL can be decided in different ways, but one truth of the business is that a small number of individual plays here or there usually influences the outcome.
The Colts are looking for their first win of the season as the schedule reaches the second weekend in October.
The last four margins of defeat have been by single digits, including the last three games being decided by a total of 14 points.
In the last two games, Indianapolis has had double-digit leads before falling. The Colts opened 10-0 and 17-10 leads at Tampa Bay last Monday before allowing two touchdowns and falling, 24-17. Sunday at home against Kansas City, Indianapolis worked its way into 17-0 and 24-7 leads before relinquishing the lead on the scoreboard.
On many fronts this is a veteran team. On an organizational level, there is a definite culture of success and the bedrock for that success is work.
'Work' has been a common theme and constant companion for Colts players for many years. With the bulk of the season ahead and challenges quite present, Head Coach Jim Caldwell and his troops know it is time to work some more.
The last three games have been tough. Indianapolis let a halftime lead over Pittsburgh get away before it tied the contest, 20-20, with two minutes remaining. Pittsburgh prevailed with a late field goal. The Colts lost the last of their leads at Tampa Bay late in the third quarter, then yielded the game's deciding score with 3:15 remaining. The Buccaneers controlled the ball for 22 minutes of the second half, while rushing for 136 of its 192 yards in the final two quarters. Kansas City scored a touchdown in the waning seconds of the first half last Sunday to cut the deficit to 24-14. The Chiefs proceeded to rush for 127 of their 194 yards in the second half, while owning the ball more than 21 minutes. The game's clinching score came with 5:15 left, but Indianapolis could not mount another score in falling, 28-24.
The last two games saw Indianapolis open with scoring marches of 11 and 12 plays and while Caldwell and the players were asked today about 'finishing' games, it is something the team has done for years. The team works hard and seriously in practices. Caldwell knows, however, the club must do a little bit better.
"You can (work on it)," said Caldwell about finishing games strongly. "It's something you can talk about, discuss, focus in on and try to get it done during practice. You make sure you finish drills and finish (practice) periods properly. Also the end of practice itself, those are constant reminders that you have to continually go through."
A typical daily reminder for Colts players is to take care of little things so the bigger things take care of themselves. Details such as techniques and fundamentals are stressed daily in individual and team drills. These are things the club must master as it did in past successes.
"The big thing is to make sure your fundamentals hold up all the way through the ballgame. I think that's one thing that is extremely important," said Caldwell. "It's the little things that make a difference. Down the stretch sometimes because things get a little tight you may get a little out of whack here and there. Oftentimes, I think that's the tale of the tape. You can focus in on it. You can talk about it. You can do something about it as well. We just have to do a better job."
The club has been laboring with personnel issues across the roster in the first five weeks and with rotating personnel, mastering the small, but tangible, aspects of the game is critical. The club has lost two team captains (Gary Brackett and Melvin Bullitt) with injuries since the season started. Veteran guard Ryan Diem has missed three games, and Indianapolis started free agent offensive tackle Quinn Ojinnka just days after he joined the team last week. The club's two top draft picks, Anthony Castonzo and Ben Ijalana, are out and against Kansas City running back Joseph Addai and cornerback Jerraud Powers missed time as well.
The nature of the league is that most games are decided by a small margin and in many cases the outcome occurs in the final stages of a game. Indianapolis has been proof of that over the last three games, and Caldwell preaches that every one of the approximately 140 plays in each contest must be executed efficiently.
"I think that's the way it is every single ballgame," said Caldwell about each game being decided by one or two plays. "There are just a few (plays) here and there, and you never know what play it's going to be. That's why it's important that our guys take every single one and play that particular play like it's the last, and then move onto the next play after that one is over with. It's a very, very thin margin. When you look at it from a statistical standpoint, you can see a lot of different things where the games are close, but the bottom-line is who makes the plays."
Through the years, the Colts have won a number of games with last-second heroics. Indianapolis has not been able to get over that hump yet in 2011, and Caldwell knows winning those key moments must be a way of life in the NFL.
"I think that's the way the season goes, and I think that's the way it is in this league," he said. "It's going to boil down to tight games. Either you're going to have the ball and you're driving down the field to get a score to either win or tie, or you're going to be on defense with the same thing being the case, trying to stop them to get the ball back to get in position to score. They all boil down to that. No matter what, they are all going to be tight. We anticipate that, and that's kind of been the lay of the land in this league."
This is Caldwell's tenth season in the organization. He has been a part of many successes. Caldwell has seen players respond in many different situations, and he is not concerned with anything other than precise execution.
"You look at the way in which they play, and that's the key," said Caldwell. "Are we in every game? We are right in the thick of it. We just have to learn how to finish. We've got a lot of men of character, of good focus and integrity. Those guys will fight you tooth and nail. We just have to get it to tip in our favor there at the end."