Fifth of a Position-by-Position Series on the Colts' Roster
INDIANAPOLIS - The Colts' offensive line has been in this situation before.
In fact, during Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy's tenure, off-seasons typically have been about change for the offensive line.
Steve McKinney. Rick DeMulling.
Adam Meadows. Tarik Glenn.
All have started and played key roles on the line during the decade, and all were released, left as free agents or retired. Earlier this week, the Colts lost Jake Scott, an offensive guard who signed with the Tennessee Titans as an unrestricted free agent. Losing Scott, Dungy said, was difficult, but Dungy said the Colts will handle it as they handled other personnel losses.
They'll move a player into the spot.
That player will play well.
And most imantly, Dungy said, so will the line as a whole.
"We'll look at it just the way we did with Tarik," Dungy said recently in an interview with Colts.com for this story on the team's offensive line, the fifth of a position-by-position series that will run throughout this month.
"You hate to see it happen, but the next guy or the next few guys have to be ready to go. That unit will take pride in not having any drop-off in play."
Dungy said that was the case this past season, when Glenn – the team's starting left tackle from 1998-2006 – retired shortly before training camp.
Tony Ugoh, an offensive tackle from the University of Arkansas who was selected by the Colts in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft, had spent mini-camp and summer school learning from Glenn. The idea was he would work as a backup and be the left tackle of the future.
Instead, Ugoh moved into the starting lineup on the first day of training camp, holding the position throughout the season. He missed five games in October and November, but started 11 games and a postseason game, and played solidly, Dungy said.
"Playing that spot and doing it on such a pressurized stage, week-in and week-out, you're getting the best pass-rusher and you're playing high-profile games," Dungy said. "Normally, guys get plugged in at left tackle, you're the fourth or fifth pick in the draft and you're on a team that's growing the same way, so as they learn, the growing pains aren't as much.
"He couldn't afford that. We're playing and winning and every game is a big game. He was able to step in and play at a high level from Day One.
To acquire the selection used on Ugoh, the Colts traded their 2008 first-round draft selection to the San Francisco 49ers, a move about which Colts President Bill Polian said earlier this off-season he had no regret.
"The question last year was would you give up this year's number one to have Tony Ugoh as your starter at left tackle a year early," Polian said. "The answer is, 'Yes, I would,' because you wouldn't get Tony Ugoh with the 29th pick in the draft. Our first pick this year is Tony Ugoh."
The rest of the line last season returned from the 2007 Super Bowl team, with Ryan Diem starting at right tackle for a fifth consecutive season, Scott starting at right guard for a fourth consecutive season, Jeff Saturday starting at center for an eighth consecutive season and Ryan Lilja starting at left guard for a fourth consecutive season.
Diem started the first 10 regular-season games, then returned for the playoffs. His absence, along with that of Ugoh in November, forced reserve tackle Charlie Johnson into the starting lineup. Johnson started five games for Ugoh and five games for Diem, with Scott starting at tackle against Atlanta on Thanksgiving.
In that game, with Scott playing outside, veteran Dylan Gandy started at guard. First-year veteran Michael Toudouze also played four games at tackle, playing extensively when Diem, Ugoh and Johnson were unavailable against San Diego on November 11.
"We did a good job," Dungy said. "We used a lot of different people, different combinations. That's sort of what we're all about. It started with Tony. We said, 'Instead of being that backup guy and learning, you're going to be the starter.' We lost Ryan for a number of games and that caused some things we had to do and adjust.
"It was really just Jeff and Jake and Ryan playing the whole way through the whole time. We made the adjustments and were still productive on offense. That was a real credit to the depth of that group."
Lilja, who joined the Colts off waivers from Kansas City shortly before the 2004 season, started all 16 games, and continued to be one of the league's top young players at his position. The Colts re-signed Lilja to a long-term contract just before the start of free agency.
Saturday, who joined the Colts as a free agent in 1999, continued to be one of the most reliable, effective players on the roster. He started all 16 games for the seventh time in eight seasons, making his third consecutive Pro Bowl. He has started in the Pro Bowl all three times.
"With our system, he has to do a lot," Dungy said. "So much of it happens very fast and happens at the line of scrimmage. He has to be on the same page with (quarterback) Peyton (Manning) in terms of how we're going to call things and how we're going to get things blocked. Then, he has to block his guy on top of all of that.
"It's a task we take for granted, but he has done it for seven years and done it really well."
Dungy said the same is true of the offensive line, no matter who replaces Scott in the lineup. Gandy has started 14 games in three seasons with the Colts, and tackle Dan Federkeil spent eight games on the active roster as a special teams player and backup before sustaining a season-ending concussion.
"Since I've been here, it's been Adam Meadows and Tarik and a lot of other guys (leaving)," Dungy said. "We've replaced guys one after another after another and not had any dropoff. That's because of the pride that that group takes."