Week 16: Titans 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 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 31-24 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars last Thursday clinched a seventh consecutive playoff appearance and the No. 5 seed in the AFC . . .
Answer: It took a while for my stomach to settle down after that mind-bending game that we played down there, but we won and we're in and that's all that counts.
Q: Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has had many standout performances in his career. That certainly ranked with the best and may have been at the top of the list . . .
A: I think so. Under the circumstances – without (running back) Joseph (Addai) and without really much of a running game, with all of the injuries on defense, with no return game to speak of because (rookie running back Chad) Simpson was a little gimpy – it really was just a magnificent performance. I don't think he has had a better one under the circumstances: on the road, against a team that you know is going to give you their best shot, without question; against (Jaguars running back Maurice) Jones-Drew, who has just caused us more headaches than I can think of. That was a super gutty performance: 14 points down, on the road. It's hard to win doing that. The odds, I think, are long in terms of how many teams have come from behind – in Jacksonville, with that kind of a ball-control attack – from 14 down and won.
Q: The Colts have rallied to win from double-digit deficits on the road four times this season. The only other team to do that was the 1983 Dallas Cowboys. They also have rallied from at least 14 points behind on the road to win three times, which is an NFL record.
A: It's not an enviable record, certainly. It's not one that you'd like to be party to, but it speaks to (Colts Head Coach) Tony (Dungy) and his teaching his team to be extremely resilient in the face of adversity. It speaks to Peyton and the offensive coaches and it speaks to every player on the team whose mindset is one play at a time. Of course, we believe we can come back because we have No. 18 (Manning) under center, but I think that record proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he's the Most Valuable Player, at least in my mind.
Q: Did the Jaguars do much in the first half that caught the Colts by surprise?
A: No. Actually, they pretty much did what they always do against us. They bashed away with Jones-Drew. There was no (running back) Fred Taylor, Thank God. We did a good job of stopping the home runs. He hit a lot of doubles and triples, but no home runs. That kept us in the game. Defensively, they blitzed more than we thought they would, but we picked it up. I have to say (Colts running back) Dominic Rhodes played one of the most courageous games, physically tough games, that I have ever seen in my time in professional football. He is really something. He picked up blitzes by linebackers time and time and time again, to the point where he injured his ribs. That's to say nothing of running the ball, which he did a great job of. The blitz pickup that he had to take on in a situation where they were going to challenge him – I think they probably felt that Joseph was banged up as well and either wouldn't play or wouldn't be 100 percent – so they were going to pound away at that position. Well, they pounded away and Dominic won on a TKO. It was a courageous performance.
Q: Something else that has received a lot of attention is the block safety Bob Sanders had on cornerback Keiwan Ratliff's game-winning interception return . . .
A: It was a good block. He (Sanders) jumped up there and put a good block on the guy and sprung Keiwan, but that's what he's supposed to do. That's what we practice. It was good, heady solid football. To take nothing away from Bob or Keiwan because that was a pivotal play of the ballgame, but the thing I took away from looking at the film was what a courageous performance Dominic put on. You talk about above and beyond the call of duty. Wow. It was really something. He had a great night.
Q: He's a player who really loves the game . . .
A: I'm repeating myself, obviously, but do you know what kind of courage it takes to step in there? He's probably 208 pounds. Any given week, that would be my guess – that that's the tops he weighs. Stepping in against a 250-pound linebacker who's coming with a full head of stream – (he) Rhodes buckled his (Jaguars linebacker Clint Ingram) knees twice with hellacious shots. You watch the tape and say, 'My Goodness. How did he stand up? How did he get up?' He just kept getting up and meeting the challenge. Hats off to Dominic. He's had a great year, but that one was the real icing on the cake.
Q: Any clue as to what the date of the first playoff game will be? The Colts will play the winner of the San Diego Chargers-Denver Broncos game Sunday in the first round. That game will be played on Sunday night, so might the Colts' game be on a Sunday?
A: I don't know. The league has gone away from competitive equity as a scheduling dictum, if you will. It's much more about how the television schedule fits and what they want to do with certain markets. We'll see. Wherever they tell us to go, we'll go, and we'll show up on time.
Q: It's early in the week, but have you and Tony talked about who will play and how much?
A: There are a couple of things that come into play that don't come into play in the regular season. First of all, once you ask waivers on a fellow beyond Saturday at 4 p.m. he's gone for the rest of the playoffs, because it now becomes a 10-day waiver period. You have to be very careful about that. Normally, you have a 24-hour waiver period, so you could ask waivers on a player tonight, he could clear tomorrow and practice the following day. That's no longer the case, so roster management becomes a pretty critical issue and a strategic issue. We have to sit down – (Vice President of Football Operations) Chris (Polian), myself and Tony – and figure out what, if any, moves we want to make, how we want to structure the roster for this week, and who it is best to rest. Dominic, obviously, will be one of them. Who is it best to go ahead and play and how much – all of those things need to be discussed, then we'll see what roster moves that might dictate.
Q: Joseph Addai dressed for the game, but did not play. Could he have played?
A: He was 100 percent ready to go. That was a coach's decision. This week, I don't know. I have trepidation about it. With Dom clearly not going this week and probably questionable for the following week practicewise, I don't know that you'd want to expose Joseph a lot. I think the question would be, 'How much and what would he be doing?'
Q: Was this the toughest playoff run the Colts have had in your tenure?
A: Without question. This is the toughest season, by far. We've had many more injuries. We averaged two starters out per week for the 16 weeks of the season. That's a first in my experience. We had many more serious injuries to players such as (middle linebacker) Gary Brackett, who is almost indispensable. That has been very difficult, then there was the disjointed training camp and the disjointed early part of the season because Peyton was getting back in form and we had so many injuries along the offensive line. So, yes, this was by far the toughest one.
Q: Considering Peyton's issues early in the season, did you believe he could finish the season as well as he has?
A: I did. I'll tell you why. No. 1, he is the consummate professional. No. 2, knowing what I did about the injury, I realized that other than conditioning and timing, there would be no residual from the injury. There is nothing you have to worry about long term. Knowing that, I had a feeling he would be back on schedule pretty quickly. That was the case. Fourth game in, he was gunning the way he normally did. Because I have such confidence in Doctor Porter and because the same thing happened with Brandon Stokley, we felt all along that right at the midway point, (defensive end) Dwight (Freeney) would become Dwight again and he did. So, in those two cases – two bell weather players, clearly – you felt that if you could weather the storm early that you would be capable of making a run down the stretch and that's exactly the way it worked out. Now, we never anticipated (center) Jeff (Saturday) would get hurt in a preseason game and the other things that happened along the way. Joseph really hasn't been himself for quite some time. So, those kinds of things you don't anticipate, although you should, because people have injuries every week. But the two bell weather guys on either side of the ball I thought had a really good chance to come back and play well and they did. And we based our plans around that.
Q: There were also many guys who played through injuries and helped this happen . . .
A: (Wide receiver) Reggie (Wayne) is a prime example, as is (linebacker) Freddy Keiaho. I'm sure I'm forgetting four or five fellows, so pardon me, but those two guys have gone out there hurt every week. You say to them, 'Listen take a day off – take two days off – this week.' 'No – no. I'm OK. I'm fine.' They just keep going out there and playing and playing well. They have shown a great deal of fortitude and a great deal of perseverance. I take my hat off to them. (Cornerback) Kelvin Hayden is another. His timing is not where it was before he was hurt. He'd be the first to tell you that. It's getting better every week. I think there was an interception the other night that a 100-percent Kelvin Hayden would have gotten for a touchdown. That's a pretty serious injury. He came bouncing back four weeks later, firing away on every cylinder. That's the kind of team we have. They're tough, tough guys – tough-minded, tough physically, tough mentally. They accept the challenge and stay with it.
Q: Tight end Dallas Clark didn't make the Pro Bowl and probably should have. He comes back with 142 yards receiving and 105 yards receiving in his last two games . . .
A: The nature of the Pro Bowl is such and the way the balloting is structured is such that there are always one or two players in every conference who repeatedly are left off. It's combination of the average fan – and perhaps some players – sort of recognizing the names that get all of the hype then, the fans who vote simply voting for their favorite players or names. (Colts defensive end) Robert Mathis was one who – for the last four years – deserved to make the Pro Bowl. Dallas Clark, in my opinion, for the last three years has deserved to make the Pro Bowl. He will. He'll get there eventually. (Linebacker) Daryll Talley was like that when I was in Buffalo. Jeff Saturday for many, many years deserved Pro Bowl recognition and never got it. The time will come for Dallas, but there's no question he's a Pro Bowl player, and there are many people who if they voted today would put him on the All-Pro team as the tight end and he's not going to the Pro Bowl. If I'm not mistaken, there's a running back who isn't going to make it, either, who has had a terrific year. Since they changed the balloting, I don't focus on it, because it really is nothing more than a contest of who has the biggest hype. It doesn't really talk about who is deserving.
Q: When the Colts allowed a long pass to set up a field goal late in the first half Thursday, the announcers were critical of Colts cornerback Tim Jennings. What was your assessment?
A: He really should have had outside position. We're trying at that point in time funnel them into the middle of the field to make them use all of the clock. The fact that the guy got out of bounds is a pretty serious mistake. It's not one you want.
Q: The injuries you mentioned – is that fate or is age a factor?
A: I don't think age is necessarily a factor. I think the 80-man roster in training camp was very definitely a factor. The fifth preseason game was without question a factor. That's entirely my fault. That will never happen again. I think those two things – the fifth preseason game and the 80-man roster – had far more to do with our injury problems than anything else and we've sort of statistically documented that.
Q: Has there been anything good to come from the lengthy preseason?
A: Honestly, no. If you played five preseason games with 90 men, there would be a good thing that comes out of it, because you would get your young players far more work and you would be able to structure practice in such a way that you would have a full complement of players to practice with. In our case, and in the case of virtually every other team in the league – because medical science has advanced as far as it as – you now have players who are operated on in February and March who can come back in August. Even though they're not capable of practicing in training camp, they're on the roster and they count against the 80. We had six of those players. We went into camp with 74 healthy players to play five preseason games. Then, when you have your normal injuries that occur – and you have one major injury for every contest, so by the end of the preseason you're down to 69 guys – you had your normal bumps and bruises and fatigue injuries . . . we were practicing for virtually all of camp with around 63 players average. That's almost what you have for the regular season. Sixty-one is what you have for the regular season by rule. You can see what kind of a toll that takes on your team. I guess maybe the only silver lining in that cloud is that you come out of the preseason badly beaten up, but we were largely immune down the stretch. (Middle linebacker) Gary Brackett was injured and Kelvin got back for the stretch run, but Gary has only been the real serious one down the stretch. We sort of got past it, but I was very doubtful during that period of time that we would. We've been very fortunate along those lines. There's nothing good I have to say about the five preseason games with 80 men.
Q: What's the prognosis on Gary?
A: He's coming along. We won't know until next week as to what his availability might be in San Diego or Denver.
Q: If it's San Diego, how much does the regular-season game in November help?
A: I think it helps some. You're familiar, but we've played enough the last three years that if we don't know each other by now we never will.
Q: Keiwan Ratliff returned an interception for a touchdown against the Jaguars in the fourth quarter. Has anyone addressed with him how he was carrying the ball on the play?
A: (Laughing). Yes, it has been addressed.
Q: He used his blocking well on the play . . .
A: He did. He's a good broken-field runner. He has good hands. He has a good feel for running with the ball, but he certainly didn't put it away and did not the previous week, either.
Q: Can you compare the running game this season with where it was in the 2006 season? Is there hope that the Colts could change the scheme or get somebody healthy and improve?
A: The schemes won't change. That's for sure. We're constructed in such a way that our plays are what they are. We're not going to change those. I don't recall exactly how well we were running the ball during the regular season prior to the Super Bowl. Obviously, we ran it well in the Super Bowl run up, but some of that was the way people played us. People were playing Cover 2, trying to take away the deep ball, trying to take away the passing lanes. As a result, they gave us the run and we executed it well with Dominic and Joseph sharing the load. I would anticipate that if Dom is healthy, we'll do that exactly the same way this time around. A lot of what you do in the running game depends upon how people play you. What fans and most commentators often look at are statistics. In the last four games, I believe, we've had three runs of over 20 yards – which are big runs and which clearly pad the statistics – that have been called back on what I would call very iffy holding calls. You would not expect that those kinds of calls would be made. If you add those 65-70 yards in, then statistically we look pretty darned good. But we've been running effectively – and I've said all year, 'What we need to do is run effectively.' With the exception of short-yardage and goal-line running, we have really been effective in the running game. It hasn't looked good statistically, but it has been effective. It has made defenses play the run. It has made people be honest in the passing game. And we have been successful running the ball. Effective running is different from statistically impressive running. If we were not effective, I'd be worried, but we have been, and I anticipate we will continue to be.
Q: Had the Titans and Colts finished tied at 12-4, the Titans would have won the division based on a better record against common opponents. Do you agree with that rule philosophically? And shouldn't the NFL seed teams based on record rather than giving an 8-8 division winner a home game over a 12-4 wild-card team?
A: Those are the two issues the NFL Competition Committee addressed last winter. The common opponent tiebreaker is there because the crossovers with divisions are so disjointed, unwieldy and unfair. For example, the AFC East this year crossed over with the NFC West. They were close to sweeping the NFC West. That is a very weak division. That's just happenstance. That would pad your record. In addition to which, there are so-called placement games in which one plays one, two plays two, three plays three and four plays four. Well, if four is battling with one for the division championship, four by definition has had an easier schedule, very likely. We decided common opponents would be the best measurement of that third tiebreaker. We felt that gave us the more equal distribution of games and measured the teams' strength the best we could. As far as the seeding, the Competition Committee agreed that the team with the better record should get the home game and the higher seed. The owners, however, disagreed for those reasons – that it is a revenue enhancer for the team that gets the home game. They felt the division winner regardless of record should get the home game. The committee was 7-1 in favor, I believe, of seeding by record. I'm not sure we got more than seven votes on the floor. It was roundly defeated in any event and probably won't see the light of day for some time.
Q: Have you ever seen a quarterback play better than Peyton Manning? Do you think he has lost arm strength? In the Cleveland game, he was short of the end zone on a Hail Mary pass.
A: The answer on the arm strength issue is no. I think the Cleveland game was a bit of an anomaly. He was throwing into the wind there. As a result, the ball died about a third of the way to the end zone. His arm strength is fine. It always has been what it is. You may remember that when he came out of school, there were people who were knocking him because he didn't have a strong arm. The same people don't do that now when they see him throw that 37-yard out to Reggie from hash mark to sideline. In terms of playing better, honestly, the only person I remember playing better than Peyton is this year – and I don't know if you could make a statistical comparison – would be Y.A. Tittle and that might have been 1963, the year he set the then-existing touchdown record. He was just on fire that year with the New York Giants. I don't remember anybody playing as well in terms of since he has been back – from Game 5 on. I don't know that anybody has played as well as he has. (New England Patriots quarterback) Tom Brady, obviously, statistically last year and Peyton statistically the year he set the touchdown record (in 2004) – and (Miami Dolphins quarterback) Dan Marino statistically and certainly artistically the year he set the record (in 1984) would be the ones that come to mind in the modern day; Tittle, I guess, in the past. Other than those fellows, I can't think of anybody that I've seen that has played better. I think on balance when you talk about historically, Bart Starr, certainly; Joe Montana, certainly – for reasons that had to do maybe more with the team around them than pure quarterbacking – but the fellows that I just mentioned in my memory are the ones who stand out, and certainly since I've been in professional football. We didn't play (San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame quarterback) Dan Fouts a lot, so I'd have to plead ignorance on that one, but when you had to play against Dan Marino, you stayed awake at night. He could make some plays that were just unbelievable. Now, in this modern era, Peyton and Brady can do it all. I think they're in a class by themselves. We did not play against (Brett) Favre a lot. I was only in the NFC for four years, and only played against him twice. He certainly has to be in that company, although I don't necessarily have first-hand knowledge of that. That's about it. It's a small group of people.
Q: The Tennessee Titans are up next: a 13-2 record and the AFC South champions. They have had an outstanding season, which you kind of saw coming last year.
A: They deserve great credit. They're exceptionally well-coached by Jeff Fisher. They have a great organization and they have put together a very, very good football team. You could see it growing over the years. They're Colts South. They have a lot of former Colts players there. That's a good thing to do. Cannibalization in the era of free agency within divisions is a proven way to get better and at the same time weaken your division opponent. They have done a good job of it. This is a team that I think took the last step when they drafted (Chris) Johnson. He's outstanding. He's a home-run hitter. He has held up very well throughout the year, because they have LenDale White to spell him. They are two different styles of running and a very, very good offensive line. They're always good in the offensive line. (Line coach) Mike Munchak does a terrific job coaching their offensive line. Their defensive line is the strength of the defense, although it's a solid defense from top to bottom. (Cornerback) Corltand Finnegan finally has emerged on the national stage and all of America is learning what we have known for the past three years – that he's a heck of a football player. (Safety) Chris Hope was a good addition for them. They play sound and solid defense and their front six because they rotate six guys in there is really, really effective. We won't see probably (tackle Albert) Haynesworth and (end Kyle) Vanden Bosch, who are their two All-Pros, but the two young kids who play in there are equally effective and they have done a terrific job. They win darned near the foolproof way. They have great defense, great kicking, an overpowering running game and really solid quarterbacking with Kerry Collins. Once they got Kerry in there and eliminated the turnovers that had been plaguing them prior to that, they became a great football team and that's what they are. They're clearly the favorite in the AFC and they should be.
Q: How important was it for them to beat Pittsburgh and get home-field advantage?
A: I don't think it was very important at all. I think they can play anywhere against anybody. They are a team that has a terrific, big-play running game and at the same time, a wear-you-down running game. They can hit home runs or they can hit doubles. They have a stifling defense that sacks the quarterback and turns the ball over. They have an extremely reliable and efficient kicking game, so they have it all. The record reflects that.
Q: Any idea how Jeff will handle this game?
A: I really don't know. I heard him say after the ballgame that he thought we were going to rest people and he was interested in making sure his guys stayed sharp. We'll see. My suspicion is both teams will treat it the same way. If there are guys who are nicked up, they won't play. Neither team will take a chance on any injured players, but with 53 men, the rest are really out there. You don't have a choice. It's not like a preseason game where you have 80 guys to put out there. You only have 53, so if six or seven are injured, the rest are left to do the job.
Q: And you don't want to let Tennessee beat you for a third consecutive time . . .
A: You'd rather not, but the most important thing for both teams is to get ready for the playoffs and be prepared when that comes, which is of course in our case two weeks from now.