Week 12: Colts at Browns
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: A 23-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers in San Diego, Cal., on Sunday. This was yet another memorable game in what has been a memorable series . . .
Answer: It was certainly an exciting game. I'm sure the people at NBC loved it. They like for us to be on, I guess, on Sunday night. I wish it weren't all the way across the country, but that's the way it goes. It was an exciting game between two very good football teams with a lot of close plays and a lot of exciting plays. Our special teams unit did a phenomenal job keeping (running back) Darren Sproles in check. (Colts rookie safety) Jamie Silva made an incredible play on a kickoff where it looked like they might get it out. Jamie came through a block and made a tackle to keep Sproles locked up. We covered punts well. We punted exceptionally well. We, in fact, won the field-position battle, which against a team with a punter like that and a return man like Sproles is just outstanding. We did the job there on the road against a very, very difficult group, which was a great credit to our special teams and everyone involved with that. Then, of course, (Colts defensive end) Robert Mathis forcing the fumble at end of what was really our worst defensive series really was a turning point in the game because we got a score out of that. When you have teams that are so evenly matched as these two teams are, those kinds of plays make a difference.
Q: You were adamant before the game the Colts had to win the special teams battle to beat San Diego . . .
A: We did. We got great kickoff returns. We got great blocking on our kickoff returns. On the second one, we came within an eyelash of going all the way, but that will come. That will come. That's a good thing to see. We covered exceptionally well and we kicked exceptionally well, including the 51-yard field goal to win it, which had to feel good for (kicker) Adam (Vinatieri) after what happened there last year. It was almost ironically enough the very same situation – a crazy ruling from the eye in the sky inside two minutes on a first down that had been awarded to us on the field. That's why people watch the National Football League. It's as simple as that. Try as you might, there's nothing you can do to negate the great skill of the athletes, the incredible competition, the level of competition, the performance under pressure – (rookie center) Jamey Richard being a prime example of that. He stepped in against the best nose tackle in the league and handled himself quite well in a very difficult situation. This is one of those games where you'd say, 'Well, it's a shame anybody lost.' There are a lot of those in the National Football League. I'm glad we came out on top of it.
Q: Review the 4th-and-inches call by the Colts that produced the 14-yard pass to wide receiver Marvin Harrison, if you will. The play set up the game-winning field goal. It was quite a call in that situation . . . There was a timeout to measure, which may have helped.
A: It did, in the sense that we had time to think it through and say, 'Well, what are we looking for here? Well, we're looking to get into field-goal range.' We felt we had a play that would work. Interestingly enough, it probably goes down to the five-yard line or is a touchdown if there isn't leakage. (Colts quarterback) Peyton (Manning) had to throw it off of his back foot, so the ball was a little short. If he was able to get it out there, (wide receiver) Marvin (Harrison) was going to run all the way down there, maybe into the end zone. As it turned out, we completed it – a great catch by Marvin and a great throw by Peyton. That put is in a position where we had enough confidence in Vinny (Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri) to go ahead and kick the field goal and win the game. The delay helped us in the sense that we had time to discuss what play we wanted to call in that situation and we dialed up the right one. Everybody executed under a lot of duress and we were able to win the game. The shame of it would have been had we lost the game because of a ruling of that magnitude. I don't know how they determined what they determined. It's beyond me. I'm incapable with my own eyes of making that judgment, so I don't know how the official did. It helped us, because we had time to discuss the play and we obviously executed it.
Q: The Colts are approaching a stretch against teams whose records aren't as good as those of the teams they have just played. Do you approach things any differently coming up?
A: The secret to winning the rest of the way, however long we go, is why we have won these last few games, and that is to concentrate solely on the next opponent, not worry about what anyone else is doing and not worry about what prognostications are made, and not worry about where the playoff race may or may not be going or what game may be important a month from now. None of that has any meaning whatsoever. It's fun to talk about and it's fun to ruminate on and it's fun to pontificate on. That's great. That's why people are involved in the game, but it has absolutely zero effect on us. What we have to do is to prepare for the Cleveland Browns. They have handed the New York Giants – arguably the best team in football – their only loss and they're capable of playing very, very well. They're capable of running the football. They, too, have a big front three and front seven. They're another 3-4 team, which in the end is probably a blessing in disguise because we've played it so much, but it's still difficult to do with a big, big nose man who some people feel is as good as (Chargers nose tackle) Jamal (Williams). If there's anybody better than him (Williams), I'd be surprised, but they're good. (Browns nose tackle) Shaun Rogers is a good player and they have (veteran linebacker) Willie McGinest – a lot of people we know well. They're a veteran defense. We have our hands full. We can't think about anything other than that. That's what got us to where we are now. We have to maintain that specific attitude that, 'Hey, next week is the only week that counts.'
Q: Vinatieri's game-winner came from 51 yards away. Both he and Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding were making 55- and 60-yarders in warm-ups . . .
A: There's a little anomaly it seems to me in that stadium. When you're kicking toward the end that Adam kicked the winning field goal, the scoreboard end, it seemed at least Sunday night that the ball was traveling better toward that end than it was toward the other end. That's the ocean side, if you will. I don't know how the prevailing winds work there and it didn't seem very windy on the field, but the ball didn't carry quite as well when you hit it to the other end. It very well have been a change in the kicking ball, I don't know.
Q: It was the 22nd time in his career he has kicked a game-winning field goal . . .
A: That's what he does. You can count on him day in and day out. That's how he plays, so when you're in that situation, the only thing you hope for is you get it down cleanly and he gets a good shot at it. If he does, the likelihood is he's going to make it.
Q: It seemed like a high-quality game from both teams. Not a lot of mistakes or penalties on either side
A: It was a well-played game, but that's what you'd expect. Those are two very good teams. Those are teams that have been in the playoffs a long time. I think they had beaten us three straight, if I'm not mistaken. They're a good football team and so are we, so you would expect that. Both teams are well-coached. There is no chippiness. There are no subplots and no posturing or things of that nature. People just go out and play the game and play it well. That's the result when that happens. We knew that was basically the kind of game it was going to be because they are such a good team and they have such great talent. It was a nail-biter, and as I said to one of the officiating supervisors after the game, 'I think I'm getting a little too old for this.'
Q: Were there more blitzes by San Diego than usual on Sunday?
A: In the first half they blitzed extensively. We expected it, because that's (Chargers defensive coordinator) Ron Rivera's M.O. They've been doing some of that recently. The two-down, walk-around type of defense makes it difficult, especially when you're in the no-huddle and the shotgun on the road. Your head's down. The ball gets snapped and somebody shows up where you don't expect them to show up – it's very difficult to handle. We did get it adjusted and it worked fine. They stopped doing it in the second half, by and large, and we were able to be a little more conventional and breathe a bit easier. That was especially true with Jamey (Richard) having to step in (at center) and make all of those calls. That's difficult to do under the best of circumstances, much less in that environment. They're a difficult team to play against. They showed that, but we were able to handle it OK.
Q: Has there been any thought given to moving rookie defensive end Marcus Howard to linebacker?
A: Our feeling is he's very much a defensive end. He's a little on the light side, but we're OK playing with players like that. Linebacker is not something I think he would adapt very easily to. They tried it at Georgia for a little bit and he didn't feel really comfortable with it. You can tell, even when he's playing on special teams, is the place he's most comfortable is with his hand on the ground as a defensive end. I think we're going to leave him there and work hard to develop him and hope that some of that athletic ability – the more he plays, the more it will come out. He's still very green in terms of rushing the passer and having to play against taller, much-more skilled offensive tackles than he faced in the SEC (at Georgia).
Q: The name Jordan Senn keeps coming up on special teams. Where did Jordan Senn come from?
A: Jordan Senn was the most valuable special teams player in his conference out in the Pacific Northwest. I remember looking at the tape and being excited. He was a linebacker by trade, but excelled on special teams. We thought, 'Well, we'll give him a shot. He meets all of the physical qualifications. He runs. He's fast. He's athletic. He's pretty tough.' He has adapted very well. That was the role we envisioned for him. He has come in and he has performed very well. I thought he'd broken his head in the Houston game, because his mouthpiece came flying out. He's a little on the small side to break wedges, but he does a great job of it. He's from Portland State, and when our scouts went through and worked him out, they were excited. We looked at the tape and we were excited, too. He has lived up to all of the billing and all of the hope we had for him. He has become a very valuable player on special teams.
Q: And it proves once again that you don't have to play at a big school to make it in the NFL.
A: No, you don't, and if you're a good player, we'll find you no matter where you play.
Q: Can you talk about the Colts' approach to the running game?
A: Our feeling is very strongly that we need to run the ball effectively to do well. There's a difference between running effectively and running as the major component of your offense. There are teams that run the ball 50 percent of the time, maybe more, and prefer to do it that way. We don't, but we do believe you need to run. The other part of the equation is we essentially always take what the defense gives us. Peyton always has the ability to get into the best play versus whatever defense happens to be there. I'll cite a series from Sunday night. We took a shot down the field with Marvin in the red zone. It didn't work, so we had 2nd-and-10. I think we came back with a run because they had gone into a nickel defense and when they're in a nickel defense you can run the ball and run it effectively. We're in fact not predictable because we're going off what the defense shows us. Now, if they had decided that they were going to get out of nickel, go to regular and run blitz, we would have thrown the ball. We're going to take what the defense gives us, so in a sense, it's almost moot because there isn't any predictability. It's based on what the defense shows us and what the best play against that particular defense is. Peyton is almost always right on with that. Where we fail in a lot of cases, and this is very true when we're playing well – which we have been for about the past five or six weeks – it's usually because we have a physical breakdown or maybe a mental error. Mental errors are rare, but we might have a physical breakdown where a player gets whipped and a play doesn't become a positive play, but when we're running for five or six yards at a clip and occasionally getting a big run and hitting the big pass plays – that's what our offense is about. It's predicated solely on what the defense shows us.
Q: Discuss what happened on the touchdown pass from Manning to Dominic Rhodes in the third quarter. It's fourth down and the Colts are at the 1-foot line. The Colts have one timeout and the play clock is ticking toward one . . .
A: Jamey had the presence of mind to get the ball snapped. Peyton knew where he wanted to go with it. Both Dom and Peyton saw the coverage and thought they saw blitz coming, which it did. Dom cut the route off short and we were able to complete it for a touchdown, but it was great poise under pressure by everyone involved. We were substituting and that caused the clock to run a little bit, but they kept their poise in that situation and that's why you practice it. You practice those situations – helter-skelter with the clock running. You play the way you practice and we've learned to keep our poise there. As Howard Mudd, our great offensive line coach, said, 'Great credit to Jamey for keeping his cool in all of those situations.' That's awfully difficult to come off the bench cold and play in that kind of situation. (Williams) is a good player and a relentless player.
Q: Does it concern you that so many of the Colts' victories this season have come by a touchdown or less?
A: A win is a win is a win. As (Kansas City Chiefs Head Coach) Herman Edwards said, 'You play to win the game. That's what you do.' There has been a myth created by these report cards and all of these power rankings and all the other chatter that somehow if you don't win every game in the National Football League 37-0 and hold the other team under 200 yards that you're a flawed team and there's something wrong. That isn't the way the National Football League is. The National Football League is what we see every week – hard-fought games that turn on one, two or three plays where the matchups are very, very even and you're in a situation where you have to fight and scrap for every single game. We make no bones about the fact that that's the way it's going to be the rest of the way. We said it at the outset when we had all of the injuries that that was likely the way it was going to be all season long. Coulda, woulda, shoulda doesn't count either way. Either you won or you lost, and then from our perspective, 'How did we play?' We play to a certain standard. Every week we want to adhere to that standard. We want to reach that standard and if we do it, then we're fine. All of the other things – the so-called style points – are totally meaningless in the NFL.
Q: Has there ever been any thought given to having safety Bob Sanders be less aggressive, or hit less hard, as a way to reduce the impact on his body and prevent injury?
A: First of all, Bob only knows one way to play and that's the way he plays. It's impossible for Bob Sanders to run as fast as he can and not hit someone hard. It's physically impossible to do that because he is a very large man who runs inordinately fast and when he hits you, he's going to hit you hard. There's no way for him to pull off. No football player can do that. In fact, if you did that, you would be inviting further injury to yourself. It is an axiom in football from Day One that if you play very hard and you give your all on every play, if the competitive issues are relatively equal – meaning that it's not a 350-pound man going against a 175-pound man – the harder you play the less likely you are to be injured. The way for Bob to avoid injury is to play as hard as he possibly can, which he does all of the time. As to getting him back, we will do our level best to get him back there, but it is a function solely of Mother Nature. We can adapt his practice schedule. We can adapt his workout schedule. In the end, when his knee quiets down, he'll be back out there. We're never going to put a player out there if he is not able to defend himself, if he is not able to play well enough to avoid further injury. If Bob does not have the swelling gone out of his knee, we're not going to put him out there. It's that simple. Whoever else plays is going to have to play and play well. Melvin Bullitt has done that for the last little while and I fully expect he'll continue to do that, because he's a good player. But the idea that Bob can someone slow himself down to the point where he can just tap people and knock them down or whatever to avoid injury is not realistic.
Q: With Jeff Saturday injured, is there a possibility rookie guard Mike Pollak – a center at Arizona State – could move inside?
A: We draft our offensive linemen basically with the middle three and the outside two in mind. Any player who plays in the middle three – the center or two guards – needs to be able to play all three positions. Mike (Pollak) played guard in the middle part of his career at Arizona State, and we were convinced when we saw him play at Arizona State he would be perfectly capable of making the switch to guard. Jamey Richard played center at the University of Buffalo and was also in our minds capable of making the switch to guard if necessary. He actually has played some at guard this season. We like to leave players in the same position if we can, only because cohesion on the offensive line is an important part. Flexibility is important, too, but cohesion is more important. We let Mike settle in at right guard. Jamey is the first guy in at center, and he obviously did a great job Sunday night. Charlie Johnson has found a home at left guard and the two tackles – Ryan Diem and Tony Ugoh – are as is. If anything happened to the tackles, we have Dan Federkeil able to step in during a ballgame, then we think about whether or not Charlie ought to move and if we should reshuffle. Those kinds of things we can do when we face injury, but given our druthers we would rather leave them in the same spots. Mike has done a terrific job at guard and will continue to stay there, and obviously, we have found a terrific center in Jamey, and he'll stay there a while, too.
Q: Can you update the status of center Jeff Saturday and guard Ryan Lilja?
A: Jeff has a calf strain and probably will be out 3-4 weeks, I would guess. He's a fast healer, so he might make it back sooner than that, but that's the conservative prognosis. Ryan Lilja will revert back to the Physically Unable to Perform list Tuesday and will undergo surgery very soon to try correct the issue in his knee. We're hopeful once that gets done, that he's on the road to complete recovery. The nice thing about watching him practice these last three weeks – and I shared this with him on Friday – was that he hasn't lost an iota of quickness or athletic ability. For the long period of time he has been out and the difficult time he has had with his knee, he was quick, he was decisive. He was sudden. To use the athletic term – quick twitch . . . none of that has left him. That would indicate that if we can get this knee squared away, he should be back and in terrific shape next year and that's our hope.
Q: Brady Quinn will start at quarterback for the Browns Sunday, but you expect to see a lot of running back Jamal Lewis . . .
A: I do. I think they're going to try to run the ball. That's their MO to begin with. Brady is very comfortable in that kind of situation. I don't know what the weather will be like. It always seems that it's not good when we go to Cleveland, but that's their identity. They do well when they run the ball and play good, conservative, solid, physical defense. I think that's what they'll try to play. We're up against another great return man this week – the next great return man in the league that no one has heard about: Joshua Cribbs. He is a home-run hitter, par excellence, so we have our work cut out for us again in very difficult conditions. The wind off the lake is always a problem at this time of year no matter what kind of day it is and it can be anywhere from 30 and sleet to 19 and 10 inches of snow. This is a tough game. They are playing better week after week. This is a team that's pretty dangerous and of course picked by all of the experts to be a Super Bowl contender. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out that way for them.
Q: And as you mentioned, they're the only team to beat the Giants . . .
A: They're very, very capable of playing great football. Where they have fallen short is: a, injuries – they've had lots of people injured and for long stretches; and, b, they've had some instability at the quarterback position, but the more Brady Quinn plays, the better he's going to be. I don't have any doubt about that.