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 38-14 victory over the New York Giants at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday night. Watching the game tape had to be a more pleasant experience than it was seven days ago.
A: Yes, it was. You can have good days and bad days in this game. When you have a victory such as we achieved Sunday night, it was a good day. That said, to quote (Penn State football coach) Joe Paterno, 'You're never as good as you look when you win, and never as bad as you look when you lose.' In looking at the tape, there were a number of things we could have done better and a number of things we need to work on to get better as the season progresses, because teams don't stay the same from week to week. You either get better or you don't. There are a good number of things we need to work on, but it was a good victory and we achieved a lot of milestones in the process.
Q: What jumped out at you?
A: It was outlined pretty well by our coordinators in terms of their analysis of the game. (Offensive Coordinator) Clyde (Christensen) felt that our running game was very, very positive. We had 40 rushes in the ballgame and only four were for zero or minus yardage. That's a pretty good ratio right there. Secondly, we had nine big plays on offense, four were rushes and five were passes. That's an ideal balance. If you drew it up statistically, you'd say that's exactly the way it should come out. It almost never does, but that's what you strive for. We had some penalties, but not a lot. We ran the ball with physicality, which really, really helps. Our running backs hit the hole physically and went north and south. Of course, (running back) Joseph (Addai) had some spectacular runs – Donald (Brown)'s were less spectacular, but they were really, really good. Donald does it in a little quieter fashion than Joseph, but the job gets done nonetheless. The passing game was excellent. (Quarterback) Peyton (Manning) made some throws that were really remarkable. The touchdown to (tight end) Dallas (Clark) was an incredibly remarkable throw – great catch, great adjustment, great pass, great awareness in terms of where the defensive back was, what the coverage was. There were some things obviously we could clean up. We would like fewer penalties. Again, we dropped some balls we should have caught. On the offensive line, we have a ways to go yet with our techniques. We need to get our techniques better. We were better Sunday night than we were the week before, but we can be a lot better than we were. But by and large, offensively it really was a great outing. Defensively, as we've often said to anyone who will listen, 'When we fly on defense, we're hard to beat.' And in this building, we're hard to beat when we fly. We're almost impossible to beat when we fly, and we flew around Sunday night. There's no question about that. From the get-go, from the first tackle by (Pro Bowl safety) Antoine Bethea on the reverse, the effort was there, the intensity was there, the speed was there. That's how we play, and that's what we do. Our pass rush was absolutely outstanding. We dominated the game with our pass rush. We turned the ball over and with one exception – which was really the work of a great running back more than anything else – we didn't give away big runs. It was an artistic and statistical success defensively. What can we improve? Well, we don't need to get run by, that's for sure. Those are plays that really should not click if you're tuned in and 100 percent healthy. In (cornerback Jacob) Lacey's case, he's just coming back after being out a while with a concussion, so what happens is your technique gets a little sloppy. Once your technique gets sloppy and they hit you with the right play, you have difficulty adjusting and that's what occurred. In Kelvin (Hayden's) case, I think that was a sudden change, but we still need to keep them out of the end zone in that situation. We surely don't need to be fumbling the ball in that situation, that's for sure. That's a combination of both execution and common sense. Those are things we certainly can improve upon and need to improve upon, but the effort and the aggression was there defensively. In the special teams area, we came within one block of getting a touchdown on a kickoff return. We need to clean that up, by the way, because it should have been a touchdown. The kickoff that went into the corner, we returned exactly as it should have been. It almost came out of the gate. We got about 28 yards on it, but that's exactly the way it should be returned. We hadn't had one of those quite some time. And (punter/kickoff specialist) Pat (McAfee) kicked the ball phenomenally all night. We had one penalty on punt return at the end of the game, which really was more of a strategic and an experience thing than anything else. But we'll get that cleaned up, and that's an area we need to improve upon. We've had too many penalties on special teams. We need to make better decisions there, and we need to execute better. While it's a very rewarding and great experience and while you feel a lot better than a loss, we didn't play perfectly by any means. We can get better. There are things to work on. Now, we have to get better and play in a tough place to play. We're in Denver and they're coming off a big win against Seattle, so we have our work cut out for us there. On the kickoffs, you could tell he (McAfee) was concentrating on hitting the ball. In golf, you're always looking for complete, solid contact on the sweet spot. Many times, simply because you move your head or lift up to a slight degree, something goes a little bit wrong with the technique and you hit that hook or slice. After the first punt, you could tell Pat was really concentrating. He was down and through the ball and made solid contact. Those kickoffs were really just rockets. That's a good sign. It's what we're capable of, and it's what we need to keep doing.
Q: How is linebacker Clint Session?
A: He had a sore hamstring that he sort of fought through all the way through training camp. He re-aggravated it Thursday in practice. We decided that discretion was the better part of valor. The doctors thought it would be best for him to rest. He'll be back out Wednesday, and we anticipate that he should be ready to go.
Q: Can you comment on the play of Bethea?
A: He had a great game. There's no question about that. He had a great year last year and made the Pro Bowl – deservedly so. That's one of the reasons we invested so heavily in a new contract for him this year. We do different things for him and we do have a blitz package where he's up on the line of scrimmage where he can either come or he can back off into coverage. He is a very, very good blitzer when he comes. On one of (defensive end) Dwight Freeney's sack/fumbles, he was coming on a blitz. He's really a top quality football player. Not that that's the be all and end all, but he clearly is darned close to a difference-maker and certainly a top quality football player.
Q: Freeney and Mathis were dominant, which isn't unusual. But in this case, it seemed to start when the Colts stopped the run early.
A: New York is a team that really wants to run the ball. They make their living with a great, power running game and with a great play-action passing game. When we took away the run and really shut them down, it put them at a disadvantage in the passing game. In addition to that, their tight end was missing. He's a big cog in that because he's essentially their check-down guy. If everything downfield is taken away, Eli knows he can go to him, so the fact that he wasn't out there really is a big help for us. But yes, we stopped the running game and that makes it a little bit one-dimensional. The score mounts up and now they're truly one-dimensional.
Q: Can you talk about the progress of rookie defensive end Jerry Hughes?
A: He's progressing well. He practiced last week. He caught everyone's eye in a two-minute drill we have on Thursday. He has done well in the one-and-ones. The stage he is at right now is that he is just leaving, to borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill, the end of the beginning. He has learned what the National Football League is all about. He has learned what he has to do to be a success in the National Football League. He now has to take that and apply it on a daily basis and be able to do the things he needs to do both physically and mentally without thinking about it. He is not playing fast enough all the time right now, because he has to think about that which he has to do. There was a point, I believe it was last week, when we had one-on-one pass rush. Robert Mathis was helping out by telling him what move he ought to make against a specific offensive player. He looked like a different person. He was flying around, because he didn't have to think about what he was going to do. That is a transition, by the way, that every defensive lineman coming into the league makes. (Colts defensive tackle) Fili Moala you might remember was a missing person for the vast majority of last year, then all of a sudden Fili steps on the stage this year and is playing very good football. I'm sure much will be the case with Jerry. There's no timetable for him. We knew when we drafted him there would be a learning curve, and a pretty steep one. He's making progress, and he works hard. He's extremely talented. Hopefully, there will be no injury, so there will be no opportunity to force him up, but he's growing and getting better every day. That's what he needs to do.
Q: How valuable is it to have Freeney and Mathis around as Hughes grows?
A: It's very valuable, because they're giving him the benefit of what they've learned. They're doing it in their words and in situations and examples he can readily understand. It's in many ways non-threatening because it's coming from a peer or in his case, people that he looks up to. It's very positive and something you hope the veterans will do. We have some really high-caliber people and they do that. It's part of our culture, but it's extremely valuable for him. We recognized that he was going to struggle. As I said, every defensive lineman does. It took Bruce Smith two years to figure out what it was all about and of course, he went into the Hall of Fame a year ago. Jerry will develop. He'll be fine. What he needs to do is recognize that he has to work every day to take another half step forward. If you put enough of those half steps forward together, pretty soon he'll be ready to make a big step.
Q: Is this similar at all to Freeney's rookie season?
A: First of all, Dwight played at a level of competition, a little bit higher than Jerry did in the sense that he saw more physical and maybe different types of offenses. The spread was nowhere near as prevalent at the college level then as it is now. The spread doesn't translate very well to what defensive ends see in the National Football League. Dwight had a little bit of an advantage there, but he didn't start a game until Week 9 or 10, I don't believe. He struggled early. There were many talking heads and others who said, 'Dwight Freeney's a bust. We told you he would never play. He's too small. He's too short.' Now, he has the most sacks (in the NFL) since 2002. It takes time. You have to be patient. It takes time, but the player has to recognize that he has to be patient and work as hard as he can to get to where he can get on the field and be a contributing player.
Q: Manning didn't seem to smile much as he walked from the field. Was it a bittersweet victory because his brother, Eli, was playing quarterback for the Giants?
A: First of all, we don't look at it – and I'm sure Peyton doesn't look at it, either – as playing against his brother. He's playing against the Giants' defense and Eli was playing against our defense. Nonetheless, I'm sure he didn't feel terrific about being on the team that beat his little brother. It's a very close family. I think the combination of being tired of being asked about it and the fact that his brother took a pretty hard defeat, it probably wasn't the best day of his life. He certainly was proud of the way we played, and if you saw his remarks in the press conference, he was enthusiastic about the way we played and how we cleaned up some of the things we needed to. He was real positive about that. I'm not one, by the way, who believes in body language. I know there are people who do, but I certainly don't. I don't think it tells anything but how a person happens to feel when you take a snapshot of them at a brief interlude in their lives. I think what's in their brain is much more important than what's in the camera lens.
Q: He seemed to throw the ball as well as he ever has . . .
A: That's a very good point. I don't think that he's thrown it any better in any individual game than he did Sunday night. If he was motivated by brotherly love, or brotherly competition – whatever it was, let's get more of it.
Q: You talked earlier about the 50-yard pass from Manning to Clark early in the game – the adjustments Clark made on the play . . . It's remarkable what athletes can do.
A: People think that pro football athletes are perhaps not as good as other sports because they're swaddled in protective gear. They're so big that people just can't envision them as being the kinds of athletes they see in track and field, for example, or basketball. The reverse is true. They're actually the best athletes in the world because to think that a man like Dallas – 6-feet-4, 250 pounds – runs the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds. They're really incredible athletes, and they have to make incredible adjustments on the fly in a split-second at this level of play. What Peyton saw was that the defensive back was beaten, but he was hanging on the inside. If Peyton had thrown the ball up over Dallas, the defensive back might have had a chance to recover. He threw it to the outside, so he pulled Dallas away from the coverage and the people who were chasing him, so if he caught the ball, there was a likelihood he could make a touchdown or a big play out of it. It was an incredible adjustment by Peyton and even more incredible adjustment by Dallas to catch the ball, and then a great run after the catch. We're so used to seeing it that we sort of take it for granted, but when you see it on tape, it's really remarkable.
Q: Who do you see as having a breakout year at the defensive tackle position?
A: I think Fili (Moala) would be one. He has gone from a player who really was almost a fish out of water in our defensive system with the techniques he had to learn – as well as adapting to the pro game. He had an awfully high mountain to climb and he has done that. I think he now is finding out that not only can he play at this level, but he can play well at this level. He's a different person. He has a smile on his face. As you saw Sunday night, he's very demonstrative. He's enjoying playing again. It's not fun to play when you're getting knocked around and you really have no handle on what you need to do to really be successful, so he has a new lease on life. I would say he's the guy who has come the farthest and who really has a chance to go a lot farther. The guy who really has a chance to be a top-flight tackle, I think, is Dan Muir. He has made the jump from a 3-4 (defensive) system into our system. Now, he has the techniques down pat, and he now is able to really recognize what people are doing to him and really make an impact. Those are guys, to use a scouting term, who have a pretty high ceiling in both cases. (Antonio) Mookie Johnson, I don't want to slight him, because Mookie had the shortest distance to go when he came here. He had been in Tennessee's system, which is similar to ours, the way the front plays. He came in right from Day One almost and played and played effectively. He continues to do so. He didn't have very far to go and he has been a contributor since Day One. He was bothered by a balky knee. He's getting much healthier by the day, and he is a force when healthy. He is a real force.
Q: Free-agent rookie Jeff Linkenbach also had a solid effort relieving left tackle Charlie Johnson in spots.
A: He did a wonderful job, and I was glad to see he got his baptism against a terrific rush front the Giants have. He did just fine. He handled himself perfectly – a little like Charlie did in the Super Bowl (following the 2006 season) when Peyton didn't know he was in the game. Jeff did a similar job, and he's going to be a very good player for us.
Q: Can you discuss the situation with safety Bob Sanders, as well the other safeties?
A: First of all, with Bob keep in mind that no one feels worse about this than Bob Sanders. He worked like the devil to rehabilitate himself. It was a long haul for him to get ready to come back and play. To have it all torn apart in essentially six plays is really, really difficult. But he's a competitor and he's a tough guy, and I know he'll bounce back. We should know probably in a month what the general prognosis is. I know if Bob can come back, he will. If hard work will bring him back, then I guarantee you he'll be back. It's a tough break, and no one feels worse about the injury than Bob. The person who feels next worse is myself not so much for us as a team, but because of what Bob put in to get to where he was, to come back and be playing as the Bob of old, no question about that. It's a tough break, but he'll overcome. Melvin and Antoine are really good players. Antoine was a sixth-round draft choice; Melvin, a collegiate free-agent who had been a whip linebacker at Texas A&M. He never had played safety before, but we felt like he could make the transition. He came in as a guy who really most people thought didn't have a chance to make the team. Because of his hard work and toughness, he did. He was kind of the butt of a lot of jokes when he was a rookie, because he was kind of wide-eyed and a little but overawed by the National Football League. Lo and behold, two and a half years later, you look up and he has been elected captain. That says all you need to know about the makeup of Melvin Bullitt. Antoine, as I mentioned, is a Pro Bowler and a difference-maker. We're fortunate to have them so that we're able to fight through the injury to Bob.
Q: There are reports that Sanders is through with the Colts. Any comment?
A: Well, I would say this, 'Unless that story came from Mr. (Colts Owner and Chief Executive Officer Jim) Irsay – and he hasn't shared that information with me -- it's completely untrue, because (Head) Coach (Jim) Caldwell and I have had no such discussions. (Vice President and General Manager) Chris (Polian) and I and Coach Caldwell have had no such discussions. Anyone else who is venturing an opinion is ignorant, because we're the only ones who are going to have that discussion. Our hope is Bob comes back this season and plays as well he can possibly play. These rumors have a way of getting started based on very little fact. I can assure you in this particular case – unless it came from Mr. Irsay, who didn't share it with me – there's no fact to it. There have been, to my knowledge, no such discussions.
Q: There was a play Sunday when the Colts technically had 12 men on the field but weren't called for it. How does that rule work?
A: It's perfectly legal – a, because we don't huddle; and, b, because the rule is you cannot have 12 men in the huddle. If you notice, the Giants did a similar thing, although they huddled. They would have one player step away from the huddle. They would enter the game based on what set they wanted to deploy, then the player who was coming in the game would step in the huddle and the player who was outside the huddle would leave. You can have 12 men as long as they are not in the huddle. You can't have them in the huddle. The reason is once they enter the huddle, the defense is confused and they don't know how to deploy. When they're outside the huddle, you can see them. You can see what number they're wearing – who's in, who's out. The coaches upstairs can make decisions as to what defensive package they want in the game. We didn't break the rule and neither did the Giants. Both teams did it a little bit differently. You can't have 12 in the huddle.
Q: Do you think Donald Brown will ever become a power runner?
A: I don't know what you mean by a power runner. If you mean, 'Will Donald Brown become Shonn Greene (of the New York Jets)?' the answer is no. He's a different style of runner. Right now, he's a darned good runner and he's only going to get better. Like all of our backs, he's very quick through the hole; that's what our backs have to be. He can shake and bake. He can make people miss. He's an excellent receiver. He runs good routes. He has good hands. He can run after the catch. He finishes runs exceptionally well. He doesn't make people miss as spectacularly as Joseph Addai does, but he certainly has that capacity. We want our backs to get in and out of the hole very quickly, and we want them to avoid tacklers whenever possible. The so-called power runners such as Frank Gore in San Francisco and his backup and Shonn Greene and people like that don't necessarily avoid tackles; they try to run through them. That's fine. That's perfectly fine, but that's not the style we use.
Q: A helmet from a Giants player ended up in the stands. Why did the fan not get to keep the helmet?
A: Players' helmets are unique and individual to the player. They're broken in and contain at minimum a specially-designed and inflated padding so they fit as snugly as possible. In many cases, they're specially designed and custom-designed by the manufacturers so they fit the player's head. It's concussion prevention, which of course has gotten lots of coverage in the media in recent days. That's about as important a piece of equipment as a player would have. That's not something a fan could retain as souvenir. As a matter of fact, while most equipment people carry extra helmets in the event there was a malfunction or something of that nature, they're very, very loathe to change helmets. Players wear the same helmets for six or seven years. They don't change simply because they feel confident in it. That would not be something you would want as a souvenir. In fact, it would be just the opposite. It would put the player at risk if he didn't have it. I don't quite know how it got there. I read some accounts in the newspaper, but that's neither here nor there.
Q: What happened on the play when Manning changed personnel just before the play?
A: If I'm not mistaken, Austin (Collie) went to come in the game when the play was called in and then came back off the field. Peyton recognized it ought to be a three-wide receiver formation, called him in and sent the tight end off. That's fairly common. It hasn't happened in a game in quite that fashion, but we change formations and personnel groupings based on the play call very, very frequently. If you were on the sideline, you would hear the play call and then the formation. It just happens as a matter of course. Peyton recognized that he didn't have the right grouping in there for the play call and just changed it, that's all.
Q: Quickly, your thoughts on the Denver Broncos . . .
A: I expect a heck of a ball game. They have one of my favorite quarterbacks. I hate to have to play against Kyle Orton. He's really an efficient guy. You have Eddie Royal, who is a big-play player for them. They got Laurence Maroney in a trade, so that completes their running game. Defensively, (cornerback) Champ Bailey was nicked a little bit, but I read where he says he's going to play, and I don't doubt that. They lost (defensive end) Elvis Dumervil to injury, but they still have a rebuilt and formidable big three-man front, so it presents a totally different challenge than we've faced the last two weeks on defense and a high-flying offense. It's a tough place to play, and a tough road trip.