Fifth of a Position-by-Position Series on the Colts' Roster
INDIANAPOLIS – As Jim Caldwell sees it, there were plenty of positives.
Caldwell, entering his first season as the Colts' head coach, said while team's offensive line struggled at times – and while it may not have been as consistent as past seasons – there were plenty of reasons.
Not excuses, he said. Reasons.
"One of the things people don't want to hear is excuses," Caldwell said recently during an interview for this story on the Colts' offensive line, part of a position-by-position series scheduled to run on Colts.com this month.
"So I'm not making an excuse, but these are the facts in this case that we did have quite a bit of shuffling going on, just in terms of being able to get a unit together like (Colts offensive line coach) Howard Mudd typically does."
Mudd, Caldwell said, had a particularly busy time this past season, with the Colts having to "shuffle" all but one player on the line throughout a season that began with a pair of key veterans injured, a situation that never was resolved fully.
Center Jeff Saturday, a Pro Bowl selection the past three seasons, missed the first two games of the season with a knee injury, and Ryan Lilja – a starting guard since 2004 – began the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list with a knee injury.
Saturday returned in Week 3, and although he missed two more games later in the season, he provided leadership and a high-level of play throughout the season. Lilja missed the entire season, necessitating some of the shuffling to which Caldwell referred.
Charlie Johnson, who started 10 games at tackle in 2007, moved inside to start 12 games at left guard, with left tackle Tony Ugoh starting 12 games at left tackle. With Ugoh out of the lineup in September and October, Johnson started four games at left tackle.
The shuffling didn't end there. Rookie center Jamey Richard started four games at center, and three games at guard, and rookie Steve Justice started a game at guard.
Rookie guard Mike Pollak started the final 13 games at guard, before which three-year veteran Dan Federkeil started the opening three games.
The lone Colts lineman to start all 16 games at the same position?
Ryan Diem, a nine-year veteran who started the entire season at right tackle after missing six games the previous season.
"Often, he (Mudd) will have a unit in place, and you'll see them just continue to grow and develop and get a good sense of one another and move along and not miss a beat," Caldwell said.
And while that wasn't the case throughout this season, Caldwell said, "Once we kind of got it going, we were productive in some areas, but not as consistent as we'd like to be."
That was true of the offensive line, and true of the entire offense as well.
The Colts, after ranking no worse than 19th in the NFL in rushing in eight of the last nine seasons, finished this past season 31st of 32 teams, rushing for an average of 79.6 yards per games. Joseph Addai, after rushing for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons and making the Pro Bowl following the 2007 season, finished this past season with 544 yards and three touchdowns on 155 carries, a 3.5-yards-per-carry average.
The only other time in the last 10 seasons the Colts finished out of the Top 20 in rushing was 2002. The Colts that season finished 26th in the NFL in rushing. The offensive ranking was ninth, one of two times in the last decade the Colts have finished outside the Top 5 in the category.
The other season was this past season, and while Caldwell said improvement must be made throughout the offense – particularly in the area of the running game – he said the Colts' offensive linemen are more than capable of helping the improvement.
Caldwell said the Colts took a major step toward stabilizing the line late last month, re-signing Saturday, who was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. He said Saturday's and Diem's performance last season helped the offensive efficiency improve during a nine-game, season-ending winning streak that secured a seventh consecutive playoff appearance.
"Jeff is certainly a big part of that and has been a real strong piece to the puzzle," Caldwell said. "He does an exceptional job, but then we also obviously have Ryan Diem, who has been playing well and maybe had his best year last year."
Diem started 16 games this past season for the first time since 2004, and when Caldwell was asked what made Diem's season standout, he replied, "consistency."
"He didn't miss a beat," Caldwell said. "He didn't have those situations where he was out a week and in a week, so he was able to kind of continue to stay within his stride."
Ugoh, after starting 11 games as a rookie, started 12 this past season, being declared inactive in a September 21 loss at home to Jacksonville, then spending the next three games as a reserve. He returned to the lineup for the final 10 games of the season.
"He's coming," Caldwell said of Ugoh. "He's making some strides. We're really looking to try to continue to improve. He was a little nicked up. He's one of those guys who was a little banged up, but we continue to anticipate that he's going to come through and be productive for us."
With Saturday, Lilja, Ugoh and Pollak missing significant time, Johnson emerged as a key player in an emergency role for a third consecutive year. As a rookie, he replaced Diem in the second half of Super Bowl XLI and in 2007, he started 10 of 16 games at right and left tackle.
This past season, he moved into Lilja's spot early in the season, replaced Ugoh for a month, then returned to guard.
"Charlie Johnson obviously is one who has been around for a while," Caldwell said. "He has a great understanding of what we're trying to get accomplished up front. He's also a guy who's very versatile. He not only plays guard, but tackle as well. He does a great job for us."
Such versatility long has been a defining quality of the Colts' offensive line, a quality exemplified by a 2008 rookie class that included three drafted players – Pollak, Richard and Justice – each of whom started, with Richard playing guard and center, Justice starting a game at guard and backing up Saturday and Pollak emerging as a player who could be a solid starter for years.
"I would anticipate that with Mike Pollak, Jamey Richard and Steve Justice, that you're going to see improvement with all three guys," Caldwell said. "Mike had a pretty extensive amount of playing time, so that's not going to do anything but help him.
"Jamey played a pretty consistent amount and Steve probably played less than those other two, but they all have certainly good potential and are making good progress."