Week 13: Lions at Colts
Bill Polian, in his 11th season as Colts president, has a resume unique in the NFL. One of two men to win NFL Executive of the Year five 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 eight of the last nine seasons, including an AFC Championship Game appearance after the 2003 and 2006 seasons, AFC South titles in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 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.
Question: The Colts now have won seven consecutive games, the fifth consecutive season they have accomplished the feat, an NFL record . . .
Answer: It's a great tribute to our coaches and players, who do such a wonderful job preparing every week and going out there and executing on Sunday. It is a very enviable record. We need to finish the job – or at least the first part of the job – this week. If we win on Thursday night, we are the five seed, so we have work to do against a pretty formidable opponent who I think can't wait for us to get there. It's a short week and a lot to do.
Q: The Jaguars practiced Monday while the Colts did not . . .
A: That's up to each coach as to how he prepares his team. There's no message there one way or the other. (Jaguars Head Coach) Jack (Del Rio) knows how to prepare his team very well and we have great respect for him. We just felt like after the stretch we've been through, especially playing on the road on Thursday night, that it would be best for us to give the players a rest and come back at it tomorrow.
Q: It's a difficult task, playing on a Thursday night on the road. You lose a day of preparation and a day of rest for players trying to get healthy. How do you compensate for that?
A: You really don't. This is not a good idea from the standpoint of football. The Canadian Football League did away with it quite some time ago. From the standpoint of football players, good football and putting the best teams on the field, it is not the best thing to do. But the powers that be decreed that we're going to do it. Doing it on the road is doubly tough, obviously, and the only benefit – if you can call it that – is that we're playing a division opponent so you have a little more familiarity with the opponent and a bit less preparation to do. You don't have to learn the players. You know them pretty well. It's a very daunting task, but as Joe Louis used to say, 'We'll show up and we'll be on time.'
Q: The Colts beat the Detroit Lions, 31-21, on Sunday. It was sort of the game you anticipated it would be, with the Lions playing like what they are – a team with a lot on the line . . .
A: First of all, they're a team with an awful lot of character. That was obvious. Say what you will about (former Lions President) Matt Millen – and Lord knows he's taken as many brick bats as anyone that I know of in this business – but he has a lot of guys on that team who have high character and good football character and who really play hard. That's a tribute to (Lions Head Coach) Rod Marinelli and his coaching staff. They had a fine game plan as well. This was a team that was coming in with a great deal to play for. It was a team that was far more talented than you would be led to believe. The fact is if (quarterback Dan) Orlovsky – as he himself said in his postgame comments – had not been hurt and missed those four or five games and developed some chemistry with (wide receiver) Calvin (Johnson), I think this is a team that probably would have come in with four, maybe five, wins at this point in the season even though they've had their fair share of injuries. It's far from the worst team in the history of football. I hope for their sake it doesn't end up that way, because it would be an awfully terrible thing to have to carry around for a group of guys who really play hard and an offensive group that is very talented. They're not far from being a pretty darned good football team. We knew it was going to be a tough test. Interestingly enough, we're entering Pro Bowl week and I think I read of a player who was talking about the various electioneering schemes that go on around the league to get people elected to the Pro Bowl. This person made the comment that the only people who really know are those that watch tape. Those that watch tape of the Detroit Lions know exactly what they are. They're a team that plays hard, that's hungry, that has high character and that has some darned talented people on it. They gave us what we expected they would. We played defensively in fits and starts. We were awful turning the ball over on special teams and fortunately, our defense was able to bail us out in terms of three special teams turnovers, one of which went out of bounds and two that were turned into field goals instead of touchdowns. Great credit to the defense for doing that. We were fortunate to come out with a win. Our offense played at a very high level against a very formidable opponent and we were able to come out with a win with a good performance by everybody on offense. In looking at the tape I was much more sanguine about the way our offensive line played than I was sitting up there in the booth. It's a tribute to the Lions, because they played so hard. It looked as though we were breaking down some in the offensive line, when in fact we really weren't. Again, you can only tell that by looking at tape. We're very happy to have the win against a team that played exactly as we thought they would play. To paraphrase (former Arizona Cardinals Head Coach) Denny Green, 'They are what we thought they were,' and they gave us every bit the game we thought they would give us.
Q: And Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson . . . what a player.
A: Amen. This is the next great receiver in the National Football League. (Colts wide receiver) Marvin Harrison's right up there. Pittsburgh's guy (Hines Ward) is right up there. (New England Patriots) Randy Moss has numbers. This guy is the next great one. He probably should be in the Pro Bowl this year. That won't happen very likely, but he's going to be in the Pro Bowl and be known as a tremendous, tremendous wide receiver for a lot of years to come. He's a great talent and from what everyone tells me a terrific young man as well. He can really fly. I remember seeing him at Georgia Tech and just marveling and talking to one of the Georgia Tech coaches. I have normal-size hands. His hands are literally twice the size of mine. I said to one of the Georgia Tech coaches, 'He must have been an outstanding basketball player.' They said, 'No. He wasn't a basketball player. He played baseball in high school.' He's just an incredible athlete. I'm sure he could have been anything he wanted to be.
Q: What are the chances that rookie linebacker Philip Wheeler can break into the lineup?
A: The issue relative to the linebacker situation is that the 'Sam' (strong-side linebacker) position, which is where Philip is playing right now, is manned by (second-year veteran) Clint Session, who's really having a heck of a year. Philip can't break in right there unless there were an injury. We'll see in the offseason – because we think very highly of Philip – if we can set the rotation up in such a way and the positioning up in such a way that we can get Philip on the field full-time. That will be a project we address in the offseason. Right now, barring injury, his contribution is limited to special teams and goal-line short yardage, which he has done a very good job of.
Q: What about defensive end Marcus Howard, also a rookie?
A: Marcus Howard is coming on, getting better each week. John Teerlinck, our defensive line coach, is very happy with him. He thinks he's improving. Marcus has done a terrific job on special teams because he's big and fast and can run. He's very combative. Our hope was we could get him to this stage of the season and put him in a position where we could put him in a ballgame to spell (defensive end) Dwight (Freeney) and Robert Mathis. That's coming about and he's getting better every week, so that's a plus for us.
Q: Can you update the status of running back Mike Hart?
A: Mike had a very serious knee injury and was operated on the week following his injury, which was the Baltimore game. He will be back this offseason. He was in just the other day. He's beginning some rehab. He'll be back this offseason and hopefully on the field and contributing. That was a big loss for us. Mike clearly had made the team and clearly was able to be a contributor. We missed him. Fortunately, (running back) Chad Simpson – as we hoped he would do – really grew up fast and has become a really good kick returner. On Sunday, he did a terrific job gutting it out on a bad ankle as a backup to (running back) Dominic Rhodes. It was a good day and good for Chad, but Mike will be back and hopefully, as good as ever.
Q: And Simpson played a lot on the Colts' final, game-clinching drive.
A: He needed that and he need to get that work. He needed to be in that situation if he's going to contribute in the playoffs, and he will if we're fortunate enough to make it. He's a feisty guy. He's a competitor. Obviously, he has running talent and toughness. He showed that in the kickoff return area. He was gimpy all day Sunday and one of the reasons we did not use him returning kickoffs was because he was so gimpy. He gutted it out. Hopefully, he'll be back and in pretty good shape this week.
Q: Do you think considering the difficulty the Colts had with the Lions and their running game that Jacksonville be a particularly difficult test?
A: Anytime you have to play the Jacksonville Jaguars, with Maurice Jones-Drew and their running game, it's very difficult. They've traditionally given us a lot of trouble in that area. The one area where we didn't do well Sunday was in the running game. The quarterback and that receiver are going to get some plays. You're not going to shut that guy out. They're not an 0-12 team by any means. Bill Parcells is always fond of saying, 'You are what you are,' and he's right about 99.9 percent of the time. In this case, that doesn't hold true with this Lions team. We should have done a better job in the running game. We did not. And that doesn't bode well for having to play against Maurice-Jones Drew, who we know well and who always kills us. The only saving grace is that fortunately for us and unfortunately for him, (running back) Fred Taylor is on injured reserve. It's very difficult to play on a short week. It's even more difficult to play on a short week on the road. It's even more difficult to play on a short week very late in the season when you're banged up anyway. It's a formidable task. If you said to me at the start of the season, 'Where would you least like to go with the playoffs on the line?' it would have been to Jacksonville on a short week.
Q: Can you comment on the contract status of running back Dominic Rhodes?
A: He's on a one-year contract. He'll be a free agent at the end of the season, but we like him and he likes us. I think he realizes that this is where he plays his best football and can do the best job. We look forward to having him back.
Q: Dom has spoken very highly of Gene Huey, the Colts' longtime running backs coach . . .
A: He's done a great job with a lot of players. Dom came in from a very limited collegiate background, albeit with lots and lots of talent and lots and lots of flash and dash, if you will. He had to learn to adapt to the National Football League, but he has and Dom's done a terrific job over time in growing into a real professional and a real leader. Gene's done a great job with him and Dominic has worked very hard, too, to make himself a real pro. Kudos to both of them.
Q: Why is it that a division team with a 10-6 record can play host to a playoff game against a Wild Card team with a 12-4 record?
A: The (NFL) Competition Committee, of which I am a member, voted 7-1 last year to change the seeding process and to do exactly what you are advocating. That was to seed by record, so you would go 1-6 by record, then go ahead and play it out from there. The committee was open to some suggestions as to maybe getting a division-winner a home game, but nevertheless putting the seeds where they were based on records. There were some compromise issues talked about, but clearly it was the committee's preference to do it by record, because we felt that was the best way to determine who did the best job during the regular season. My understanding is that's the way basketball does it, that it's done by record. We had seven votes in the committee for that and I'm not sure we got more than seven votes on the floor. (Laughing) It was roundly defeated, and I don't think we'll bring it up again anytime soon. It's an owner's position and they're not interested in the football niceties. They believe if they won the division they should get the home (playoff) game and all that goes with that, including some buzz in the offseason, some of them claim. So, that's an idea whose time has come and gone no matter what the purists may think. That's the system. The football people, I think it's fair to say, when the system was first proposed wanted to do it on a seeding basis. They were defeated then. The thought was, 'Let's see how it works.' We were frankly afraid that you'd get a situation where you might have a losing-record division-winner hosting in bad weather an 11-5 or 12-4 team. That has not happened. There has been no division-winner that has been below .500. Interestingly enough, the seeding has sort of worked out de facto, anyway. The team with the better record has a preponderance of winning in the postseason. We'll see how it works out. The bottom line is the committee proposed it and no one adopted our proposal.
Q: Can you explain why even though the Colts and Titans can still finish tied at 12-4 the Titans have clinched the AFC South?
A: They have clinched the division because the division tiebreaker because the division championship tiebreaker is different than breaking a tie for playoff positioning. It's based upon common opponents. Based upon their record with common opponents and our record with common opponents, even if we were to tie, recordwise they would still win it. They have clinched it. We're playing for a Wild Card spot at this point.
Q: Have you thought yet about how you might handle the situation if the Colts clinch their playoff positioning on Thursday?
A: My focus is on this week. We need very badly to concentrate only on Jacksonville and all of the good things that come if we're fortunate enough to win there. If that's the case, we can begin focusing on what may or may not happen after that.
Q: Can you comment on the intensity level with which the Colts play week to week? It seems they sometimes play down to the level of their opponent . . .
A: I don't think our level of intensity has diminished at all from week to week. We've played with a high level of intensity. You don't win 10 games in the National Football League without playing with a high level of intensity. We don't play down to the level of our opponent. We have some flaws, as does every team in the league. Most of it is due to injury and some bad luck, particularly with the defensive tackles early in the year. We're minus our two starting defensive tackles. We're minus our starting middle linebacker. And at least for Sunday we were minus the Defensive Player of the Year (Bob Sanders) at strong safety). That's going to affect your play. Offensively, we've been among the best teams in the league from about Week 4 on. That has not diminished at all. In the special teams area, we're missing our principle return man (T.J. Rushing), who was a major force and actually won two games for us with returns last year. He has been gone since the third preseason game, so we are not the team we were a year ago. We've made up for it in many respects, because we've played hard and our coaches have done a good job of finding people to fill the voids and trying to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses. We've had people like (safety) Melvin Bullitt and (running back) Chad Simpson and (running back) Dominic Rhodes step up and come to the fore and play very well for us. There's no perfect team. The one that came closest was Tennessee and now they have their two best defensive linemen out. When you're troubled by injury, as we have been virtually from Day One of training camp, you're not going to be the same team you were otherwise. There has been no level of intensity that has changed. We have played, I think, our best every week. The first Jacksonville game we had some unfortunate situations occur that cost us a ballgame in the won-loss column, but as I said last week, we play toward a standard of excellence every week, a standard performance. By and large, we have met that. I can't find any fault with the way our team has played, the effort they have put out, the intensity they have played with, the preparation they have made. No fault there whatsoever. We're flawed because of injury, but we are not alone.
Q: The Green Bay Packers lost to the Jaguars on Sunday, and have slipped out of playoff contention after beating the Colts in October. What happened?
A: I have not had a chance to look at the entire film yet, so I would be less than knowledgeable in giving an opinion. I'm a tape junkie, so I don't ever arrive at opinions or venture opinions if I haven't seen all of the tape. I do know Green Bay has had some real serious injuries on defense and their defensive play has fallen off since we've played them. Now, what has happened on the offensive side of the ball, I can't say. I've not had the opportunity to view the whole tape yet, so I can't give an educated opinion on that.
Q: Considering the difficulties of moving into a new building, the people who work at Lucas Oil Stadium have done a good job this season, it seems . . .
A: The people at Lucas Oil Stadium who work in and around the stadium have really been terrific. It's not a very easy situation when you're dealing with 70,000 people who are coming into a new facility that they've never been to, by and large, and don't know how to get to their seats or their suite and don't know which elevator or escalator to take or which stairwell to take. They have been exceedingly patient and exceedingly helpful and they deserve great credit and kudos for that. Most people, like the Lions people who came in Sunday, just sort of stand there and say, 'Wow,' which was the experience I had when I first visited the completed project last June – or close to completed project. I just stood there and said, 'Wow.' It took your breath away. I'm not a big stadium aficionado. I'm sort of one that really enjoys going to Lambeau Field and places like that, places with history and places with great tradition. I used to love to visit Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, ancient though it was. There was so much history there. I remember taking my sons out there and saying, 'Here's the mound Bob Feller pitched on and here's where Lou Groza kicked his field goals and Jim Brown scored all of those touchdowns.' But Lucas Oil is so unique and so interesting in many ways. The picture window. The windows at both ends. The way the roof opens and closes. The proximity of the seats to the field. The intimate feeling that you get in a mammoth building. The efficiency with which it's laid out. The amenities which are so readily accessible and so unique – for youngsters, particularly. It is an amazing place done amazingly well from inception to completion. I think most people who come in – professionals, be they basketball teams – and I talked with some of the coaches who played in the basketball games there recently; or be they NFL teams – all simply say, 'Wow, this is a unique building. This is really something. As to homefield advantage, I don't see very much difference. It's very loud down there. The only glitch we've found – and this is amazing; anybody that has moved into a new house will understand this; you move into a three-bedroom house and you have a to-do list of about 50 or 75 things; move into a 65,- or 70,000-seat stadium and you have a list of one thing you have to deal with – and that is the lighting, and whether or not it's completely functional for the wide receivers. That's a tribute to everybody who conceived the building and worked on it. I've never seen anything quite like it in all my years in professional sports.
Q: A very short week. There's no day off Tuesday for players. The Colts will practice twice, but it's difficult because you practice Wednesday and then it's off to the airport.
A: Wednesday will be a very hectic day. We'll have a good practice Tuesday. We'll look at some tape and probably get a lift in. Wednesday will be a very hectic day. We'll practice in the morning, go to the airport, then on down to Jacksonville and then the meetings Wednesday night. It's a very disjointed and unnatural week. Of course, we're creatures of habit. We like to do things the same way every day, every week, for 18 weeks. That's not the case this time around, so we'll just have to adapt. One of the things (Colts Head Coach) Tony (Dungy) and I talk about a lot in the offseason is how to schedule during the preseason. Tony has always felt that the disjointed preseason we have because of television and the fact that we're a marquee team, etc., helps us in these kinds of situations. We've had to open the season twice on short weeks coming out of training camp because of schedule situations. We're used to it. It beats the alternative. You'd rather be on television than playing every Sunday at 1 o'clock with no one watching on TV. There is a good side to this, but it's a very, very different week.
Q: You went to Atlanta on Thanksgiving last year and won. Does that experience help?
A: It helps greatly. We're used to the experience. We know what to do. We've been on short weeks three of the last four years – these kinds of Monday-Thursday short weeks. This is an untoward short week. Monday-Sunday is a short week. Sunday-Thursday, I don't know what it is, but the bottom line is we're used to it. I'm sure we'll handle it fine, but we have a very formidable opponent in front of us, because they know us well. It's a division rivalry with a lot of heat to it. There's nothing better they would like than to derail whatever plans we might have for making the playoffs.