The Polian Corner, Week 15, Jaguars at Colts
*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 30-28 victory over the Tennessee Titans Thursday. That moved the Colts to 7-6 for the season, and kept them within a game of first place in the AFC South. What did you see reviewing the game?* **A: I thought we played pretty good football. I was really, really impressed with the job that our offense did. (Offensive coordinator) Clyde Christensen, the coaching staff, (quarterback) Peyton Manning, all the players – that's the area where we've been playing short-handed all season. To have the kind of game plan that we did and to play with the efficiency with which we played and make the number of big plays that we made was, frankly, astounding. It's a credit to Clyde and to Peyton and all of the guys for staying with the run, blocking it up, having patterns in there that challenged them and gave us a chance to make plays. It was a great job from that standpoint, and I was really, really impressed with it.
*Q: The running game's numbers weren't overwhelming, but it was effective . . .
*A: We did two things with the running game. Number one, we stayed with it. We weren't getting much in the early going. That's a tough outfit. Those guys pride themselves on making plays on their front four. They did, but we stayed with it and stayed with it and stayed with it. In the second half, (running back) Donald (Brown) opened it up with some big gainers. I've heard people criticize Donald. Donald is not a pile-mover. Donald is a guy who gets through the hole and scoots and goes. When he has a hole, he goes and does a heck of a job. I was very enthused about that. It was a great job calling the game by Clyde, and a great job by Peyton staying with it and being patient. What it did was it gave our defense a little break because it gave us time of possession, and it opened up the passing game for big plays. Were it not for the botched touchdown pass, we win the game pretty handily. Those kinds of mistakes happen. We survived it, Thank God. It was a really, really good performance by our offense, and when you stop and think about it, we've been scoring in the 30s the last three or four weeks. So, as short-handed as we are, that's a great tribute to the offense and the offensive line. They're not pretty. They don't look like the Dallas Cowboys, and they don't get the results the Dallas Cowboys get in the running game. But one thing they do is play four quarters, and in the end, they have outlasted everybody they've played against – every single one. They need to be very, very proud – (line coach) Pete Metzelaars, (assistant line coach) Ron Prince, the whole group – very proud of the effort they have made because in every single game they have outlasted the opponent. When it's all said and done, our guys have come out on top. Great credit to them, too.
*Q: The defense did a solid job on running back Chris Johnson, and while the game got close, and although Titans rallied, the Colts did the job at the end.
*A: You'd like to have salted it away, but we couldn't do it. That's frustrating, especially when you've got them 21-0. The bottom line is we came out on top and we play hard. We play as hard as we can on defense. I'm proud of them for that. We have to get a little more efficient and of course, this week we know what we have to do. There's one guy you have to stop, just as last week we had to not give Johnson big plays – and with three exceptions we did not. Two of those, I think – one of them certainly was a missed tackle and one of them might have been an assignment error – but he only had three alleys to run in. He's tremendous when he has an alley to run in. He only had three all night, which is a pretty good performance, really, when you think about 60 snaps. But (against Jacksonville Sunday), there's one guy, really – No. 32 (running back Maurice Jones-Drew). He makes that team go. They're a great football team. They're playing great football. I said early in the season to any number of visiting media that came through I thought the most-improved team was Jacksonville. People said to me, 'How can you make that judgment?' What I did was look at tape. So, I'm not at all surprised they are where they are. I know (Jaguars Head Coach) Jack Del Rio very well. I know how he wants to coach and how he wants to play. They have a general manager (Gene Smith), who's very astute and who Jack can work with. He wants to play the same way. The results have shown up.
Q: Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre's streak of 297 consecutive starts ended Monday. Talk about the significance of that, if you will . . .
A: It's an incredible, incredible streak – comparable to Cal Ripken and Lou Gehrig. It's certainly the football version of it. I do think comparable to it given the physicality of the game that we play and the fact that the quarterback takes as many blows as he does. He's just a heck of a courageous guy and a gamer in the absolute best sense of the term. You always feel sorry to see it end. I had a feeling very much that it would. I had talked with (Vikings Head Coach and former Colts assistant) Leslie Frazier this week. He didn't say so, but it looked like it was headed that way. Every streak has to end sometime. I'm glad to see it ended with an injury and not some other circumstance. It's only fitting that Brett Favre should own the streak because he gave his all on the football field. That's what he has done every single down of his career.
Q: Peyton Manning now has the longest consecutive starts streak at 205. He will tie John Unitas for career games with the Colts Sunday and can set the NFL record for consecutive streaks to start a career if he starts the next two weeks.
A: I don't like to talk about milestones before you make them, but it's really a credit to him and his toughness and his preparation and dedication that it's come this far. Let's hope that it continues.
Q: Does running back Dominic Rhodes have a chance to play much Sunday?
A: We certainly got him because we needed him to have three backs ready to go in the ballgame. Given Dominic's familiarity with the offense, as long as he's ready to go, I think he'll see some playing time.
Q: Any idea on what injured players might return Sunday?
A: I don't know the answer to that. I think it probably will be a very late-in-the-week decision. Don't know about (running back) Mike Hart, don't know about (linebacker) Clint Session, don't know about (running back) Joseph Addai. I think those would be three that would be in position, perhaps, to come back this weekend. But we'll see. I think they will be late-in-the-week decisions in virtually all cases.
Q: What do the Colts need to do to make the post-season?
A: What it's going to take to get us there is very simple: we have to win out. That's a tall order, but it's possible. It's certainly doable. What is it going to take to get there? We have to continue to play the kind of offense we've been playing over the past four or five weeks where we're scoring in the 30s. We have to stay away from the interceptions, which clearly is obvious and which Peyton knows. Hopefully we can get him protected and get the routes run correctly and we can get the situations solidified where that doesn't happen. Then, we have to continue with the really good special teams play we have had. There is a lot of hidden yardage in special teams. I don't think there's any question but that (rookie wide receiver) Blair White has been phenomenal for us as a punt returner. His judgment has been flawless. He has gotten what was there, and then some, on virtually every punt that was able to be returned. He has been flawless handling the ball. That has been a big plus. Our punt return coverage has been very good, by and large. Our kickoff coverage has been terrific, and we're going to be challenged this week by (Deji) Karim, who is an outstanding returner. He essentially won the game (for Jacksonville against Oakland) on Sunday. He put them within field-goal range late in the game. That's a challenge for us that we have to meet. They are really a good return team. Our defense, frankly, has to get better. We have to make sure we get better on third down. We have to get off the field on third down. We have to be better defending the pass. We have to continue to make the big plays – (defensive end) Dwight Freeney, specifically, has made a ton of big plays. (Defensive tackle) Fili Moala has made a ton of big plays. We have to continue making those and then continue to get better at getting off the field on third down and get better against the run. We can't be gashed the way we were in the first half by Dallas. The next three teams are all running teams – Darren McFadden in Oakland, Jones-Drew this coming Sunday and then, of course, Chris Johnson again with Tennessee. Stopping the run is Job One. Getting off the field on third down is Job Two, especially in long-yardage situations when we have the opportunity for our play-makers to really make plays. That's what it's going to take. Usually, if you win the turnover battle, you win the game. We have to do that week in and week out. If we do that, we're capable over the next three weeks of winning out, but let's take them one at a time. That's the big thing.
Q: Will there be any changes to the offensive line late in the season? Teams like the Patriots seems to give quarterbacks such as Tom Brady much more time than Peyton Manning has gotten this season . . .
A: I think you are a victim, as most of us are, of the audio on the broadcast. I sat home Sunday and watched three football games. After a while, you think you're looking at the 1927 Yankees or the '63 Monsters of the Midway. On Sunday, Brady had a lot of time because – as someone on a studio show astutely pointed out; I believe it was (former Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Bill Cowher) – you can't get any footing on a field like that for the defensive linemen. As a result, in a Dungy-defense scheme – which is what Chicago plays – you have a situation where the front four, which has to make him move in the pocket, can't really get off the ball. Actually, we did a pretty good job of pressuring (Brady) in Foxboro (last month). Dwight got a big sack, which changed the game in the second half. The disparity between what you think you see and what you hear and what actually is happening are two different things. That said, I think we did a pretty credible job protecting Peyton the other night against a really active and aggressive and ferocious front four. They live to knock Peyton down. There's no two ways about that, and they want to knock him down every single play. Whether he throws the ball or doesn't throw the ball, they want to get a hit on him. That's their philosophy. More power to them, and they do it well. I thought we did a really good job. If Charlie Johnson can't go this week, (rookie tackle) Jeff Linkenbach will step in at left tackle, where he is most comfortable and where he came in and played quite well in the second half last week. He'll just continue on doing that. I'm sure he'll do a fine job. Mike Pollak will be in at right guard, and I think we'll do fine. That group will stay together, barring injury of course, I think for the rest of the season.
Q: The Colts got a big play on a reserve from wide receiver Pierre Garcon Thursday. Any chance for more such plays this season?
A: Yes. We've had that play in our arsenal for quite some time. It hasn't worked quite as well as it worked the other night. Pierre, with his speed and his ability to break tackles, is dangerous running it.
Q: Have the Colts considered upgrading the backup quarterback position?
A: I don't know what our plans are for next season. I haven't addressed that yet, but I will tell you if you are looking for someone who can come in and 'win a football game,' it isn't a rookie. That much I can tell you. Anybody we draft would not be ready for three years. Ironically enough, next year will be Curtis Painter's third year. The question for us is how good is Curtis Painter compared to a veteran we can pick up – probably a journeyman who might have the ability to operate the offense better than Curtis could. I didn't see anybody like that this year – that's for sure. I saw great improvement in Curtis, as we suspected that we would. Ironically enough – beyond irony, almost – I was asked the very same question in the early 1990s in Buffalo when Jim Kelly was the quarterback and a guy named Frank Reich (now the Colts' quarterbacks coach) had Curtis Painter's job. People would call and say, 'When are we going to get a quarterback who can come in and win for us?' When the chips were down in 1990, I believe, and 1991 and 1992 and 1993, when Jim Kelly went down, Frank Reich came in in late December and in the playoffs and won two playoff games. He won a Monday Night Football game against the Rams in his debut and became overnight the best backup quarterback in football. People would then call and say, 'We're not going to lose Frank are we? He's the best backup quarterback in football. You better make sure you sign him to a long-term contract.' These things have a way of working themselves out. I can tell you that (Head Coach) Jim Caldwell and myself and (Vice President and General Manager) Chris Polian and (Colts Owner and Chief Executive Officer) Jim Irsay believe in Curtis Painter. Frank Reich believes in Curtis Painter, and we hope he doesn't have the opportunity to show us what he can do. We think that when the time comes, especially with another training camp under his belt and another good off-season under his belt, that he will turn out to be every bit as good a quarterback as his coach was.
Q: There's a story about the game in which Reich brought the Bills back from a 35-3 deficit for a 41-38 playoff victory over the Houston Oilers following the 1992 season. Bills fans began leaving, and once the comeback began, the story goes that there were more fans at the end of the game than the beginning . . .
A: Not only that, but the game was not sold out, so it wasn't on television. It was only on radio in Buffalo. People left in droves. Frank threw a couple of touchdown passes, and then we got an onside kick and a touchdown pass. The rout was on. You could tell we were coming back and we were going to win the game. I got a call up in the booth where I sat. It said, 'People are storming the gates. What are we going to do?' We had a no-return policy. I said, 'Open the gates.' What happened was people from all over the city who didn't have a ticket came running into the stadium to see the conclusion of the greatest comeback ever, so there actually were more people in the stands at the end of the game than actually had bought tickets.
Q: How would you compare Colts tight ends Dallas Clark and Jacob Tamme?
A: Jacob Tamme is a unique player. He has many of the same qualities of Dallas Clark. That's why we drafted him. He has great hands. He runs terrific routes. He is a very acrobatic catcher of the ball. He can make very touch catches on a routine basis. He is a better blocker than you think. The difference is speed. He's not as fast as Dallas is, but Dallas is top of the line by the standards of tight ends. He's one of the fastest tight ends in football. The difference is basically speed.
Q: Peyton Manning was very upbeat and animated in an interview after the game. Is that how he normally is? He's normally more reserved in interviews . . .
A: What you saw in the interview is much more what you see around the building. Don't forget when he meets the press most times he has done the interviews at his locker, he has been to the training room, he has showered. He has come down from whatever feelings he has had about the game. Just like Brady, they're going to answer the questions, but they're going to be guarded and generally not show much emotion. What you saw the other night is basically what you see around the building, especially after a big win.
Q: Was Pollak drafted to be Jeff Saturday's successor at center? And is there a chance Saturday could move into a coaching role when he is through playing?
A: I don't know if Jeff wants to coach or not. He's very active in the (NFL) Players Association and the management of the Players Association. I'm sure until the labor situation is settled, he'll have his hands full off the field with those duties. It's great to have him in that position, because you know the players are being represented by as fine a person as you could want. I think he'll address the issue of what he wants to do after football when that time comes, but certainly anyone would be happy to have him. Not every player wants to coach. Coaching is sort of a hard gig. It's very different than playing. It requires lots of commitment of hours away from family and most players when they finish playing have young families. It's a difficult life, to say the least, for families. I'm not sure if Jeff wants to coach or not. I've never spoken with him about it, but it is very different than playing, no question about that. I'm sure Jeff will be a success at whatever he wants to do when he finishes playing. There's absolutely no question about that. With respect to Mike Pollak, we thought that Mike's best position would be center. He hasn't played there very much because we've needed him at guard. We believe our offensive linemen basically all should be able to play two positions. Tackle counts as right tackle and left tackle. Most tackles can't go into guard. It's pretty difficult. Guards should be able to play center and vice-versa. We think in the long-term that Mike's best position may be center, even though he's doing a good job at guard. We'll see as time goes by. Hopefully, we won't see for a while, because Jeff will be playing.
Q: Can you address some of the criticism levied at the Colts' running game and the team's philosophy in that area?
A: Part of it is the nature of the game. Part of it is the sort of minute-by-minute analysis that we talked about earlier, which is almost never on the mark. Part of is the fact that our offensive line and our offense is not built the same way as the Jets, for example – as a power-running team. The Jets are a power-running team. They believe you run the power play with big guard and big tackles – 330- and 340-pound players. You mash the opposition. You get a running back like Shonn Greene, who runs north and south as hard as possible, bangs in there, blasts in there, makes a hole – if there's no hole there, create it, run behind the pads, get three or four yards, come back and run it again, get three or four yards, come back and run it again. The pass is a function of how well you run. As you saw Sunday, when they can't run, then their passing game suffers. We're the converse. We are a team basically built to pass protect. We're a team that's going to be three wide receivers most of the time, one back virtually all of the time. Our running game, because our offensive linemen need to be smaller because they need to be quicker and more athletic to pass block, tend to be at a disadvantage when they try to move a big 350-pound nose tackles and defensive ends. Our running game is designed to create a crease where the back runs to daylight and accelerates through the hole basically clean. We don't ask our backs and don't frankly have many backs who can run behind their pads and make a hole. (Running back) Mike Hart can and certainly Javarris (James) can, but Donald and Joe (Addai) are not that kind of a back. The design of our offense is such that we have a pretty good passing game that comes off of it, but if our running game is not working, we can go to the pass and we can make a living with the pass. We have all too frequently in the last little while. When we run the ball – and perhaps you might call it forcing the run – as we did against Tennessee where you get two yards and two yards, but you stay with it – and now you have a 3rd-and-6 that you have to convert instead of a 3rd-and-8 – then you're in pretty darned good shape. It doesn't look fancy on the stat sheet, but in the end it gets the job done. What we have to stay away from and what our offensive line has to avoid are negative plays, where you don't gain those two yards. Now, you're faced with a 3rd-and-10 or a 2nd-and-10 or 2nd-and-11. Now, you almost have to go to the air. As long as we run the ball effectively – as we did last Thursday – we're going to be a good running football team within the context of the way we play and the people we have. We're not going to be the Dallas Cowboys, for example, where you have five 350-pound guys up there who are going to double-team and pull and blast away with the power running game. That is not how we play and most teams who do that, by the way, play with a fullback. You can argue that that's a good way to play the game and I would not argue with that, but that's not our style and never has been. We see no reason to change.
Q: Finally, quickly, how big is the Jacksonville game?
A: This is the first playoff game. One and done.