Week 1 Postseason: Colts at Chargers
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 nine of the last 10 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 23-0 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday gave the Colts their ninth consecutive victory, and it came on a wild, wild day in the NFL.
Answer: As our buddy (ESPN NFL Commentator) Chris Berman says, 'That's why they play the games.' It proves once and for all that prognostications mean nothing. The favorites always are defeated, because the prognostications mean nothing, and you have to wait until the games come in. That's the great thing about the National Football League. You can be sure with rare few exceptions that no matter what the odds most teams will go out there and give you their best shot week in and week out. No other sport can say that. They had to change the rules in the NBA to prevent teams from tanking games to get draft choices. We have an early trading deadline to prevent the kind of salary dumps that occur in baseball. Our guys no matter what the record – an example is the Detroit Lions – will play hard all the way until the end. That's sort of the ethos of the NFL, and we're proud of it. That was true Sunday in our game, and certainly in a lot of other games that were more meaningful in the standings. As I said after the game, one of the things I'm bitter about is that that game didn't mean anything. That shouldn't have happened. That's not a good thing for the NFL. But that's the way it goes, and we're in the playoffs. Everybody is 0-0 and let's go from here.
Q: The Colts will play the San Diego Chargers in the first round of the playoffs. Indianapolis was 3-4 after seven games. The Chargers were 4-8 after 12 games. Another example of why the season is never over until it's over . . .
A: Of course. The Chargers got healthy, got their defensive situation squared away and bridged the gap between two coordinators. They got adjusted to a new (defensive) coordinator (Ron Rivera) and a new style. They got (running back) LaDainian Tomlinson healthy and they are the most explosive offensive team in the AFC – without question, they are. (Quarterback Philip) Rivers is the No. 1 passer in the AFC. They have great receivers. They have a great tight end. They have two great running backs. (Jacob) Hester is coming on as a fullback as we all thought he would, and the defense – even though they sustained the loss of (linebacker Shawne) Merriman for the season – is playing very, very well. Offensively and in special teams they can do it all. I'd say they're probably the class of the AFC there, as most of us who know football thought they would be at the start of the season. The fact that Denver couldn't close the deal gave them life. They have proven once again that they are an extremely talented team. It's going to take our best game to beat them.
Q: There are some good teams in the AFC that didn't make it, but this is a good group of six teams playing it off . . .
A: (Miami Dolphins Executive Vice President of Football Operations) Bill Parcells is always fond of saying, 'You are what you are.' If you didn't make it, you didn't make it. That's the bottom line. The teams that did, in the case of San Diego with an 8-8 record, they're much better talentwise than that record indicates. They lost a lot of close ballgames, which can happen. You can get snakebitten from time to time. As I said, they made the change in defensive coordinators from one style to another during the course of the season, which is very difficult to do. Great credit to their coaching staff, which is a good one on the defensive side of the ball – particularly their defensive backfield coach (Bill Bradley) – for making that transition and becoming a very solid defense. The offense is as explosive as can be, and as we all know – and as very few prognosticators ever acknowledge – injuries change everything. Injuries take a team from good to average, from great to good, sometimes from good to poor, depending on who those injuries are. L.T. was not himself for the first half of the season. He has been much better in the second half. He is himself, and that's more than a handful, as we well know. This is a very, very explosive offensive football team.
Q: The Colts got a lot of young players in the game against the Titans Sunday. You spoke highly of them afterward. When you look at the tape, was that verified?
A: It was. (Backup) quarterback Jim Sorgi just played terrifically. He delivered the ball, at home in the pocket. He was under a pretty good rush. Tennessee played its three young rush men. Their defensive coordinator (Jim Schwartz) talked early in the week how they draft for depth on the defensive line and they have that. They proved that. Their three rushers did a great job, but Jimmy stood in there and did a terrific job. He showed great poise, delivered the ball and it's awfully difficult doing it when you're in a situation where you have to get the ball to certain people. The defense knew that and he did it exceptionally well. I was very happy for him and very pleased that he did well. I was happy for his family, and certainly everyone here was happy for him. He's a very popular guy. He works very hard. He doesn't get many reps in practice. He works hard trying to make up for that in terms of study and working with the guys on the side – things of that nature. It's great to see him get an opportunity and perform as well as he did. Many of the other young players played well, too.
Q: He's not a young player, but newly-acquired veteran running back Najeh Davenport played well and can catch the ball very well . . .
A: He can catch the ball. He has good hands. He understands the passing game. He's tough. He finishes every run. He's a good blocker. He has been a welcome addition, especially as banged up as that position has been.
Q: It seems like the Colts play San Diego once a year, if not more . . .
A: That's what happens. Good teams are in the playoffs year after year. As (Colts Owner and Chief Executive Officer) Jim Irsay said to the team after the game Sunday, 'Some teams go 10-6 and make the playoffs and the next thing you know, they're printing Super Bowl tickets for the following year.' It's not that easy. It's very difficult to achieve that level for a long period of time, but that's what the Chargers have done and that's what we've done. Here we go again.
Q: The Colts have won 12 or more games six consecutive seasons. No team in NFL history has done that. Do you know of a record comparable? And have you been involved in anything like it?
A: I don't think so. I didn't go back and look at our records in Buffalo. Certainly in Carolina we never approached that. I suspect we didn't in Buffalo. No one's ever done 12 six years in a row. It's a remarkable stretch, but it speaks to coaching and it speaks to the quality of players that we have. And it speaks to the resiliency of our team and the maturity of our team to be able to handle the ups and downs with maturity and understand it's a long season and that once you get on a roll you need to keep it going and keep doing the things that you've done and focus on one voice, one mission, one game. You focus on fundamentals. That's what we do and that's why we win as much as we do.
Q: How do you see the matchup with the Chargers Saturday?
A: I think if we play our best game and they play their best game, which I think you can count on, then it's going to go down to the last play, just like it did the last two times out there. They're an extremely talented offense that can move the ball exceptionally well. They have two backs who are home-run hitters. They have a home-run hitter in (wide receiver) Vincent Jackson. (Wide receiver) Chris Chambers is an outstanding receiver, an All-Pro who can make all the plays. (Antonio) Gates, as most people know, is an outstanding tight end. They're all healthy. Gates might have had a little knick (Sunday) night. We won't know about that for a while. Rivers is playing his best football of his career. Their offensive line is outstanding. Defensively, (defensive tackle Luis) Castillo is back. He didn't play against us last time (in a Colts victory in November). They have adjusted to a new defensive system and adjusted very well. If we play our best – and certainly we can expect their best – this is a tight ballgame. If we turn the ball over, or we are soundly beaten in special teams as was the case last season out there, then it's not a close ballgame. They will win it. We must contain (running back/returner Darren) Sproles on special teams. If we give them field position and big plays on special teams, we don't have a chance.
Q: How much input did quarterback Peyton Manning have calling the plays Sunday once he left the game?
A: He wasn't calling plays. (Offensive coordinator) Tom Moore was calling the plays. But Peyton was relaying them into Jim via the headset with some suggestions, I'm certain, along the way, but Tom called the plays. It worked pretty well. He did a good job.
Q: That was as efficient a game as the Colts have had at the end of the season under those circumstances, it seemed . . .
A: We had a little time-management issue, because the plays were going through a third party and we were huddling to try to take time off the clock, so that caused a few time-management issues. But if Jim had to play in the regular season, obviously we would iron that out and make sure it was maximally efficient. He really did a terrific job. He really did a phenomenal job. It's impossible to judge a backup quarterback unless you see him play in the regular season with a game plan. We know what he can do because we see him in practice every day. We know what handicaps he's working under in a preseason game – i.e., no game plan or a minimal game plan, or the kind of people in there with him who can't make plays or cause breakdowns and don't allow him to make a play. As a fan, a lot of what you think about the backup quarterback is sometimes incorrect, because you only see him in very difficult circumstances. When you do see him with a game plan of his own and with players who can make plays – that's the way to judge him and obviously Jimmy when he's had the opportunity to play has done well in those circumstances.
Q: He has thrown six touchdown passes and one interception in the regular season during his career. Not bad . . .
A: Not bad at all, and by the way: he's tough and resourceful and poised, and that's just the way he was at Wisconsin.
Q: Marvin Harrison moved into second place all-time on the NFL's all-time receptions list Sunday. How far behind Jerry Rice is Marvin Harrison on the NFL's all-time receptions list?
A: Marvin is 400 or so passes behind Jerry, but Jerry played six more years than Marvin, but I'll tell you what – first or second, no matter what the difference is, it is an incredible accomplishment.
Q: When you consider Marvin, quarterback Peyton Manning, wide receiver Reggie Wayne, defensive end Dwight Freeney . . . these are all-time quality players playing for this team . . . Sometimes, you see these guys perform at an unreal level so often you expect it . . .
A: Look. Any time you have a team of this caliber, that wins 12 games in six consecutive seasons and makes nine playoff appearances in 10 seasons, that's an incredible accomplishment. Years from now, people will look back and say, 'Wow, that was the Golden Age of the Colts. My heavens, what a great team.' Of course, now you're used to seeing it on a daily basis and secondly, you're judged against a totally unfair yardstick – which is, 'You should win every game 35-0 and outgain opponents by 350 yards' and all of these other benchmarks that people dream up just to create controversy – so you don't get an accurate historical picture of where any particular team is within the context of that era except on the measurement of championships, which in many ways is important but not the only indicator. Yes, the Patriots are a great dynasty. You can make the argument we are, too. I'm not making that argument. I don't really care about it, but the point is there are great teams like San Diego and ourselves who have been good for a long period of time that somehow even if you're a fan of that club you tend to overlook the fact that there has been greatness there for a long time. You tend to expect it. It's not that easy. That's the point.
Q: It gets tougher every year because there are more good players in the league every year . . .
A: We will draft no better than 27th this year. That's the best we could possibly draft. The likelihood is that we will draft 29th. That will mark, I believe, the seventh consecutive year that we have drafted 24th or below. It's pretty hard to maintain continuity and maintain the kind of excellence you're used to when you're drafting down that low, not only in the first round – which of course everybody concentrates on publicly – but in the other rounds, which is really where you make your money and where you build your team. For organizations like the Patriots, like San Diego, like ourselves, to be drafting in that position year after year after year and come up with good players year after year it's really a tribute to your scouting staff and your whole organization. It's hard to do and people tend not to focus on that, because obviously and correctly they're focused on the next game and the next minute.
Q: When you retire years from now, are you going to write a book on this?
A: (Laughing) No. I am not going to write a book. In fact, I've said too much about it already.
Q: The Colts played an impressive game with high intensity on Sunday despite it having no playoff implications . . .
A: In the National Football League, you're going to get a maximum effort the vast majority of the time, no matter what the stakes are.
Q: The Chargers played awfully tough in clinching the AFC West title against Denver Sunday night. Do you expect a similar game from San Diego six days later?
A: I expect them to play just as tough as they did against Denver, if not tougher. They're a very explosive football team. I really like their talent level. It's outstanding. We're probably a little better defensively than Denver is, but I think for this game the key for us is going to be: a) do not turn the ball over; they really live on turnovers and they got two key turnovers Sunday night before the game got out of hand; b) we have got to control Sproles in the kicking game and in what I like to call the gadget game – screens, draws, reverses, things of that nature; if you give him big plays, they're almost sure to score, so you have to control both L.T. and Sproles. Sproles gets less touches, but you have to control them. They're going to get their yards. Let them hit doubles and not home runs – and certainly not in the kicking game. Don't let Sproles hit home runs in the kicking game.
Q: That was one of the keys in November, containing Sproles . . .
A: It was. Absolutely it was.
Q: The Colts carry themselves in a classy, professional matter. How much does Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy have to do with that?
A: Every team is a reflection of its head coach and Tony is nothing if not classy. The team reflects that. How they play reflects that.
Q: You mentioned earlier that some might argue the Colts are a dynasty, and make the same argument for teams such as the Chargers and Patriots. These really are times to be valued for Colts fans, aren't they?
A: I'm not attempting to say we're a dynasty. I'm not sure I know what that means, exactly, unless it has to do with Chinese royalty. But every year we have a tough schedule. John Clayton from ESPN ranks the schedule and he gave us the second-toughest schedule in football behind the Pittsburgh Steelers. Every year we have a tough schedule. Every year expectations are high. Every year we draft low. That's the way it is. It isn't something that comes along very often. It's not something that necessarily happens as a matter of course. It comes along in fact in the history of a franchise very infrequently. You have some stars on this team who are going to be Hall of Famers – Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, for sure, and people will remember that and treasure those memories. That's what makes sports great.
Q: There seemed to be an occurrence on Sunday when Titans Head Coach Jeff Fisher challenged a play that couldn't be overturned to slow the game down. Is there a penalty for that?
A: There is a penalty for it. Let me say at the outset I have never seen Jeff do that. There are times when you have a situation where a coach will throw the flag and the officials will come over and say, 'Listen, you're in error. You can't challenge this or that,' or, 'Even if you challenge, you will not get the ball back or there will be no change in yardage.' The officials don't want the coach to have to use up the timeout if there is no challenge, really, to be made or no advantage to be gained from the challenge. So, they'll discuss that. That happens infrequently but enough I'm sure you'd notice it. I have never seen Jeff do it in order to slow down a game. I've only seen it done twice, by the same coach. There is a penalty in the rules for that. In both cases, it was not assessed by the official, but it was clear that the coach was doing what you're alleging Jeff did. I have never seen Jeff do it and as I say, I have only seen it done twice.
Q: Colts running back Joseph Addai scored on a 55-yard touchdown pass on the game's first drive Sunday. Marvin Harrison made a key block to help him get into the end zone . . .
A: You can't say enough about Marvin Harrison. Those of us who see Marvin Harrison every day could talk for hours about exactly how he practices, how hard he works, how much attention he pays to detail, how he plays through injury and illness. Marvin Harrison is the consummate professional. Just because he doesn't do press conferences and point at himself and make incendiary statements he's passed over in many ways by the media, but those of us who are around him every day – and believe me, those who have to play against him – certainly recognize what he is: one of the best receivers in the history of the NFL.
Q: The 12 victories in six consecutive seasons is a remarkable accomplishment. Where does that rank in comparison to winning the Super Bowl?
A: I really haven't given that much thought. In my mind, going to the Super Bowl is the ultimate experience. For someone that builds ballclubs for a living, going to the Super Bowl, going to the World Series – that's the ultimate accomplishment. Winning that particular game, for me, doesn't – believe it or not – carry as much significance as getting there. If you're a professional in this business, what you understand is it is so difficult to get there – so difficult. It's done so infrequently. Obviously, that doesn't mean you don't want to win the game or that you bend every effort and every ounce of energy and every bone in your body toward winning the game. But the fact is, getting there is an incredible accomplishment in and of itself. The issue with respect to others, I haven't even focused on that. I don't do that. What we try to do as an organization, interestingly enough, is build a team that can win 12 games in any division in the National Football League. That's our goal. Most years, you don't have that kind of a team. I'll tell you very frankly that this year we do not have that kind of a team. This year, it's largely due to injury and defections and things of that nature, but when you do win 12, that's a credit to the coaches, the players and the organization for having the perseverance, the dedication, the maturity, to stay with things through the ups and downs. And it's a credit to your front-line players – the Peyton Mannings, the Dwight Freeneys, the Reggie Waynes, the Marvin Harrisons, the Joseph Addais, the Ryan Diems, the Jeff Saturdays, the Robert Mathises, the Antoine Betheas, the Kelvin Haydens – those kinds of players, the guys everyone looks to for leadership and excellence. When you win 12 in the kind of situation that we were in this year, you've really accomplished something. As a builder of ballclubs, our goal is to try to build a team that can win 12 and we'll take our chances from there. In the years where you don't have that kind of a team – and this is one of those years – you rely on the coaching staff and the grit and the fortitude of the players to get you there. This team has done that and I'm very proud of them for that.
Q: Defensively, what's the key for the Colts Saturday?
A: We have to chase their fast guys and we have to tackle them. That's the bottom line. We really have to tackle well. It sounds as though it's very, very basic, but it really is true. We have to tackle well and we have to get a lot of white shirts to the football. That's the key thing. If we do that, we will limit the home runs. This is a team that wins and thrives on big plays. We have to limit those big plays. If you remember, when we played Minnesota, we came from behind (a 15-point deficit) to win that game (18-15 in Week 2) in a terrific victory. One of the reasons we did was because we limited (running back) Adrian Peterson's big plays. He got a lot of yardage, but he didn't get a lot of big plays. The same is true if we're going to have a chance in this game. We must limit the big plays by Sproles, by L.T., by Sproles absolutely in the kicking game and by Chambers and Vincent Jackson in the passing game. Now, they're going to make some plays. That, you know. That's a given. Anybody that watched that game (a 52-21 Chargers victory over Denver Sunday) that isn't sufficiently frightened doesn't have eyes. They're going to make some big plays, but we have to hold them to doubles. The way you do that is tackle well and get a lot of people to the football. Run. Run. Run.
Q: The Colts are playing Saturday and there was no off day Tuesday. Is that a problem?
A: It does affect both teams and it's always a problem. It affects the road team more, because you have to travel and especially when you're traveling to California. It's not the most ideal circumstance, but it is what it is and you just go and play. You don't worry about it. It isn't going to change anyway, so there's no sense worrying about it. The issue of health always is a concern, and it's much more difficult to determine health when you're on a short week, so we won't know until Wednesday and perhaps even Thursday who's able to go. Right now, there's a very cloudy picture relative as to who's good and who's bad. It's catch as catch can as the week goes on, but we've done enough work now to where most of the work they're going to do will be in the classroom and assimilating to nuances in the game plan that are different from when we played them last time.
Q: How much does it help having played them not only this season but last season and the year before?
A: A lot. You have a lot of familiarity with them. You're very familiar with the schemes they use and most importantly, you're familiar with the players and what they can do. You're not ever surprised by speed and you're not ever surprised by athleticism. You know what you're dealing with and that is the most important consideration when you're getting ready for an opponent. Other things you adjust to both in preparation and in game. The one thing that you don't want to do is have your team go out there and be surprised by the speed or the efficiency of the other team. That's why the service academies particularly who play the option have such an advantage in college football. It's impossible to replicate: a) that offense, and b) the speed with which they execute it. That's the surprise factor and that doesn't exist here.