The Polian Corner Week 14, Colts at Titans
Bill Polian, in his 13th season as Colts president, has a resume unique in the NFL. The only man to win NFL Executive of the Year six times, Polian in the 1980s built the Buffalo Bills into a four-time Super Bowl participant. In the mid-1990s, he built the expansion Carolina Panthers into a team that made the NFC Championship Game in its second season, 1996. Since joining Indianapolis in 1998, he built the Colts from a 3-13 team in 1997 and 1998 into one that has made the playoffs 10 of the last 11 seasons, including AFC Championship Game appearances after the 2003, 2006 and 2009 seasons, AFC South titles in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009, Super Bowl appearances following the 2006 and 2009 seasons and a Super Bowl championship following the 2006 season. Each week during the season, in The Polian Corner, Polian and Colts.com will discuss issues pertinent to the Colts and the rest of the NFL.
Q: A 38-35 overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys Sunday. Yet another case of a very good game – and a thrilling game – so long as you didn't care who won . . .
A: I guess it was a heck of a football game when you really boil it all down, probably for spectators and people who didn't have a rooting interest it was a heck of a game. I give Dallas a lot of credit. They had a great game plan, particularly on offense – defensively, too, but particularly on offense. They played to their strengths, and I can see (interim head coach) Jason Garrett's influence there knowing Jason as well as I do and his family. He's 100 percent a football guy. They had a great attack and did things that put their people in the best position and ours in a bad position. You add to it by making mistakes on defense. Then, offensively, they again played to their strengths, which is that power, their front four. The core of our team on the inside – (tight end Dallas Clark), (wide receiver) Austin (Collie) and (running back) Joe (Addai) – not being there really played a big part in the game. You don't make excuses for injuries, but you do recognize that there are playmakers there who aren't there that tip the balance – especially when teams are as equally talented as they are. People weren't wrong when they talked about Dallas being the most talented team in the NFC. They just hadn't played to it until Jason took over – for whatever reason. I like (former Head Coach) Wade (Phillips), too. I don't know what the problem was. (Dallas defensive coordinator) Paul Pasqualoni, who I've known a long, long time and respect greatly, had a good defensive plan. We're in a situation where we're not doing a good job in the running game. We're speeding up the clock in (quarterback) Peyton (Manning)'s head by half a beat, which causes some of those interceptions. Instead of waiting for somebody to come open, you start to force the ball a little bit. Once that happens, you're going to get interceptions. That's the way it is. Defensively, and on special teams, too, I thought we played our hearts out. We couldn't have played any harder. That's a tribute to (Colts Head Coach) Jim Caldwell and how he has this team prepared. He really did a heck of a job. But when the margin is thin, as it is with us because of the injuries, sometimes you get overzealous and sometimes everybody tries too hard. I think that was the case Sunday. The (fourth-quarter leverage) penalty , extremely hurtful – but that's a guy who's just trying his hardest to make a play. That's what happens when you get those kinds of streaks. The good news is if we win out, we win the division. We're capable of doing that. We have to get back to playing our kind of defense. No question about that. We have to play our kind of defense. We have to play Colts defense – not anybody else's. We have to be sure we do the right things there. If we play as hard as we did, and we can get some people back – (linebacker) Clint Session and (safety) Bob Sanders – down the stretch, I think we have a chance. I really like the effort of the team. We made some critical mistakes in all three phases. We also made great plays. Sometimes, it just boils down to the bounce of the ball or an errant throw or a penalty in those kinds of games. It's frequently – and I'm absolutely convinced in our case – that everybody was trying too hard. They're trying so hard to do the right thing and make the big play. Sometimes when the margin is as thin as it is, that backfires on you. I've always said from the first year we were here, 'We can't play with clenched teeth.' You have to play loose, because we always play hard. That's a tribute to Jim and how he has this team motivated, but we can't play with clenched teeth, and that's what we're doing right now. We know who isn't there. You just have to relax and especially on defense do what we do, and I think we'll be all right.
Q: The Colts go down to Tennessee for a Thursday night game. A difficult task?
A: It's not a hard thing to do. Traditionally, we've done well in these games, because we have a backlog of good defensive play that's in the bank. We know how to play Cover 2. We know how to play Cover 3. It doesn't matter who's in there. We know how to execute our stunts. We know how to go to the right gaps. We know how to play on the fly. Those things we can do. We're facing a team that's probably as banged up as we are. We just have to make sure that, as (former Colts Head Coach) Tony (Dungy) often said, 'We do what we do.' If we do that, we'll be OK, particularly on the defensive side. On the offensive side, you know you're not going to run the ball a heck of a lot with great efficiency with perhaps only two running backs healthy. That's a hard thing to do. You know you're going to get some interceptions when you're throwing the ball 40 times a game. (Fox analyst and Hall of Fame quarterback) Troy Aikman said Sunday, 'Abandon the run; just go throw it every down.' That's a quarterback talking and you'd like to be able to run the ball, but sometimes, the situation dictates that you can't or personnel dictate that you can't or match-ups dictate that you can't. When you have to throw it every down, you're going to get some interceptions. You're going to get an errant throw. You're going to get a bounce-off. You're going to get a poor read. You're going to get the clock in the quarterback's head speeded up so you don't make the right read all the time. Those things are going to happen, but if you do the right things on special teams and you do the right things on defense, then you have a chance to win every ballgame. We're averaging 28 or 29 points a game. This happened by the luck of the draw, but this was the week to get (wide receiver) Taj Smith back, and he came back in a big way. That's a big plus on our special teams, and it's a big plus on our receiving corps. As each and every guy begins to come back, the hole becomes a little less deep and the mountain is a little less steep. We just have to stay the course, do what we do, make sure that we're sound and don't make mistakes. If we do that, we'll be fine. There's no need for panic and there's no need for finger-pointing. There's no need for any of us to get involved in any of the hysteria that surrounds these kinds of losses. That's other people's problems. I understand that fans are upset and in the heat of the moment, everybody's upset – the whole world. Like Tony said a few years ago when we ran into a stretch like this, he quoted (Colts assistant) Tom Moore, 'Even the food tastes bad when you're in one of these streaks.' And it does. But you have to remember and fall back on all of the things you've done to win. This team has certainly got that backlog. Now is the time to call upon it and to focus and to remember to do what we do. If we do that, we're going to be fine.
*Q: Taj Smith had a huge blocked punt for a touchdown Sunday . . .
*A: The tragic thing was we had to do an injury settlement with Taj (in the preseason). He pulled a hamstring badly. We didn't want to put him on injured reserve, so we didn't get him back until now. We knew that Taj was a force on special teams. He's a special guy on special teams. As a gunner, he's terrific. As a kick blocker, as we saw Sunday, he's terrific. As a cover guy, he's terrific. He made two or three tackles. He's a difference-maker. It's nice to have a difference-maker back out there. We've been missing our difference-makers for far too long – maybe about nine weeks. So, it's nice to have those difference-makers out there, and he's one. That will start to come. As a team and an organization, we just have to focus on the game ahead, keep working and keep our nose to the grindstone. We have to eliminate mistakes and play as hard as we played this past week. We can't play any harder than we played. Just eliminate the mistakes, don't listen to all of the nonsense – there's no reason for anybody in this building to panic. Everybody on the airwaves and in the press can panic all they want. That doesn't mean a thing. What we should do and have to do is concentrate on the job at hand. 'Listen to one voice.' 'Do what we do.' Those aren't empty slogans. They mean something. That's what we have to respond to. Now is the time for everyone in this building to focus and do what we do and not worry about anything else but the Tennessee Titans.
*Q: Can you address the offensive line?
*A: The issue of the offensive line is interesting. On the one hand, we let (veteran guard) Ryan Lilja go because we were very worried about whether he would come back from injury. He wasn't making very much progress in the off-season, and we were worried it was going to be a long, injury-plagued issue. We drafted Jacques McClendon in the fourth round, but he got hurt in training camp and missed a great deal of time – three weeks, I think, in the preseason. There was no chance to get him in the lineup then. We now get to the regular season and we find that what we're lacking on the offensive line is power and punch. If you said to me that was going to happen, I would have probably said we should have done more in the draft. Despite what was a less-than-stellar performance in the Super Bowl, I thought we would bounce back and be pretty good in terms of the punch department. But we have not been. We played in fits and starts at tackle. Now, in the first five or six games – when we had (rookie tight end) Brody Eldridge in the running game, we were pretty good – pretty good, on our way to being efficient. Joe (Addai), Mike (Hart) and Donald (Brown) were humming along pretty good. Then, we lost Brody and he hasn't been himself for the last couple of three weeks, even though he is back and trying to play. That caused a big dropoff in the run game – a huge dropoff. Jacques wasn't ready because of injury and Brody got hurt. Inside, the middle three has been disappointing to say the least in terms of getting people off the ball. It makes it tougher to run, then you're in a situation where you have some issues because you have to pass the ball on a rather continual basis. That puts more pressure on the tackles, so if I could have predicted that, probably we should have done a little more with the offensive line, but we didn't, so we're in the situation we're in right now. My hope is that we will play in these next four games basically the way we've played in the last three, which essentially is to outlast the opposition. We've had difficulty at times in the ballgames – and that's particularly true in the running game – but we have gotten better as the game has gone on and the opposition has gotten weaker. That's a characteristic of heart and toughness and mental toughness, and we have all of that. I'm hoping, especially coming off the long week after this game Thursday in Tennessee that we will be in a position where we can go down the stretch and continue to play at a high level and play for 60 minutes, which our guys have done a terrific job of. It's no secret that we haven't done a great job in the running game and as Brody gets healthier, I think that will improve, but the bottom line is we have outlasted the opposition in three of the last four games. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to finish, but I like our fight and I like our tenacity. I think we have a chance to get better with Brody back and hopefully Joe coming back. I don't know what Mike (Hart's) status is going to be but the more playmakers we get on the field, the easier it is for those guys. They certainly feel the loss of all of the playmakers, because when people come out in nickel and say, 'Hey, we're running over you because we know you're going to pass the ball,' it's pretty hard. That's like two-minute. I think they're doing the best they can, but the shorthandedness of playmakers makes it much more difficult.
*Q: It seemed like at times the Colts played with some real energy Sunday . . .
*I don't think there's any question that in terms of the running game – if we had blockers – we become a better team. And there's no question that when we're on the move and on the fly on defense, we become a better team. You saw that on the goal line. What did we get? Seven stops from the one-yard line. And actually, we caused a loss. You can adjust. That's what I mean by doing what we do. You can go back to the old stuff that we've done for nine years here and fly and try to make things happen. The more guys get healthier, the better off they'll be. We played that in fits and starts Sunday – not enough. But those kinds of things are exactly what we need to do to get this straightened out.
*Q: Has there been any thought to getting rookie running back Javarris James more time?
*A: He'll play a lot. Everybody's banged up and hurt, so he's going to have to carry a bigger load as we go forward. He's a pretty good back. He doesn't have the speed of some of the others, but he's certainly a good back. We're grateful to have him, and he's done a good job for us.
*Q: Was there any thought ever given to re-signing wide receiver Marvin Harrison?
*A: Marvin's finished. That knee injury basically ended his career. The next time we see him will be when he goes on the Wall of Fame. I wish we did have Marvin Harrison. That's not in the cards.
*Q: Why don't the Colts run the stretch play more often?
*A: The reason is because we can't get the edge blocked. The stretch play works only if the tight end is able to do one of two things – either block the defensive end and knock him off the line of scrimmage or pin him so you can get a hole to run in or around; or, if it's Dallas, and you get a release where the defense is frightened enough that he'll go on the field and he'll be in a position where they're worried about play-action and him making a big play. Once he was gone, that passing-game threat left and now you were left only with the ability to secure the edge, which Brody Eldridge did a wonderful job of early in the season before he got hurt. He has not been himself. He was out four or five weeks and has not been himself since. He's getting better. It's a big part of our offense, but unless you can secure the edge, it's tough to run.
*Q: Why do the Colts not use a fullback more in the offense?
*A: No. 1, we don't have a fullback. We haven't carried one, because we believe that our system is such that we can go two tights if we needed to. Dallas' injury certainly affected that and Brody's injury caused that to go by the boards. You can't bring in a fullback and just train him. Secondly, we are not a power-running team. We are not what the Dallas Cowboys are. That's not what we do. Now, you can argue that maybe it ought to be, but that would require a complete makeover of the offensive line and a complete makeover of the running game, and you can't do that in-season. Just moving the formation isn't going to do anything. People who are smart on the other side of the ball are going to say, 'Listen, this doesn't mean anything. We're still going to get the same plays no matter what formation we run it from.' So, unless you're willing to commit to the style of play the Cowboys use, which is to have a fullback and to have a power running game, to have big, blasting offensive linemen, then it makes no sense to try to do that on the fly. The big question is, 'Ought we to do that as a matter of course?' That's something we'll discuss in the off-season. It has merit, but you can't do it now.
Q: What is the timetable for Joseph Addai to return?
A: Joseph's situation is unknown at this point. He has a nerve injury. My suspicion is he won't make it this week, but that remains to be seen. He's practicing well. He has bounce in his step, but he has to have the complete strength in his shoulder in order to go out there and do what we call, 'Protect himself.' We can't put him out there and have a recurrence, because that would really be a very serious and debilitating injury. I don't know if it's this week and don't know if it's next, but we'll see. He's coming fast and he's making very good progress. It's fun to see him out there bouncing around. He makes the running game a lot better when he's in there, because he's a special guy. He's a difference-maker.
Q: Can you talk about the approach to the offensive line in recent seasons?
A: With respect to drafting offensive linemen, first of all the responsibility is mine. When we miss on a guy like Tony Ugoh, that's my mistake. And we did miss on him. There's no question about it. He never came on after the knee injury the way we thought he would. That's our mistake, my mistake – no question about it. Mike Pollak and Jamey Richard, I think, are pretty good players. They may be a little miscast as guards. They're probably both centers in the end, when all is said and done. Last year, we had a choice. We could have drafted Roger Saffold. He was the last offensive lineman that deserved to be picked in the first round. And there was Jerry Hughes. We thought that Roger was going to be a right tackle. Who knows whether he will or won't. We liked the fact that Jerry had special rush ability, so we elected to go on the defensive side of the ball. In hindsight, you can question whether we should have drafted Roger, but that's the way it is. Hindsight is 20-20. It's an area we do need to address. I'm sure we will. That doesn't preclude free agency, either, as we go forward. We'll see what transpires in that area. We certainly do need, particularly at tackle, to address that.
Q: How much of an impact has Tom Moore not being offensive coordinator had on the offense?
A: Tom's still here. He's at every practice. He's a every meeting. He's down on the sideline available to Peyton. Clyde (Christensen) is working through the plays and I think it has been a net plus. It's the old, 'Two hands are better than one.' It has not been an issue at all. In fact, it would be the last thing on my mind in terms of how we function on game day, how we function in terms of putting a game plan together. All of that stuff has absolutely been right on target. Don't forget: We're scoring, maybe, at a record pace. We probably will be close to our highest-scoring record in Peyton's era. The problem has been in the last three games turnovers, the lack of a running game and the defense's ability to stop people, particularly in the passing game. That has been the problem. Offensively, we have to clean up the takeaways, but I don't think there's anything amiss whatsoever in play calling or play design.
Q: Did it seem like the Colts did a better job on kickoff returns Sunday?
A: Justin Tryon's judgment was great (Sunday). That's part of being a good kickoff returner – knowing when to kneel down and when to bring it out. More and more, we're seeing balls kicked five or six yards into the end zone and people coming out with them. More often than not the results aren't good, so I think Justin did a terrific job. Having him back there is a real plus.
Q: Can you explain the leverage penalty at game's end?
A: The reason it's in is because it is very, very dangerous to the player who is stepped on. It can break a neck if you leap in the air. These are great athletes who generate incredible force. The offensive blocker's head is down and his body is down and in many cases, when it used to be a tactic, they would pull that guy forward so his head was completely down. You can get a catastrophic injury that way. We put the rule in. It has been in a long time. As (former NFL Vice President of Officiating) Mike Pereira said on a broadcast Sunday, it was a Garden Variety classic leveraging and unfortunately, it happened at exactly the wrong time. Maybe they missed it the first time, but it shouldn't happen. It's unfortunate because Eric hustles so much. He gives you everything he's got. His heart's in the right place, but as (Hall of Fame Head Coach) Marv Levy used to say, 'Don't be dumb. Don't be dirty.' We're never dirty, but you have to be smart in those situations. We were off the field with a field goal and probably the game in hand, to be very truthful with you, but that's the way it goes. When you're in the kind of streak we're in, those things happen. Did I think we could have gotten the ball Taj (Smith) knocked loose on the kickoff? Yeah, absolutely. But we're in one of these streaks where the ball doesn't bounce for you. It was a tough penalty, but the right call.
Q: A Thursday night game against the Tennessee Titans . . . Discuss them, if you will . . .
A: They're a very dangerous team and like us, banged up and in the midst of a bad streak. But they are certainly capable, because of all of the talent they have on offense, of playing well. Defensively, they always have been a tough match-up for us, because their front four plays every bit as aggressively and as tough as does Dallas or San Diego or those people. They have a lot of familiarity with us, so it will be a tough ballgame.
Q: Does it being a division game make it easier to prepare on a short week?
A: It does, for both teams, but we're the road team and that's always tough.