THE POLIAN CORNER

Week 17, Colts at Bills

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*Q: A 29-15 loss to the New York Jets Sunday, the first regular-season loss for the Colts in 14 months. An unusual feeling . . .

*A: I think we'll get to the game a little bit later, because that's a bit anticlimactic from what I've been told by people around the office. Apparently – I have been asked about this it seems 500 times – as has (Colts Head) Coach (Jim) Caldwell – our point of view on the subject hasn't come across. That's perfectly understandable because 16 wins in a season was not our issue. It was someone else's. Right around Thanksgiving other people began to raise the issue of, 'Would we sacrifice everything – including health – to go for 16 straight if that were doable?' At that point in time, we said loudly and clearly – myself, Coach Caldwell, even the players – that that was not our goal, and that our goals were as follows: No. 1, to win the division, so we would get a home game in the playoffs and not have to travel as we did last year when we were a 12-4 team and, because the rules require it, we had to travel to San Diego to play out there on the road – we did that. Our second goal was to do something that is rarely done in the National Football League, and that was to secure home-field advantage throughout. We did that with our 13th win. At that point in time, we began to focus on goals that might be reached in terms of history. Two that were very important were the most wins this decade, which I believe we have clinched, and 23 straight wins, which never had been done before. That broke an existing record. Those were two historical records that were important to us. So, we've achieved all of those goals. We've won the division after having not won it last year with a 12-4 record. There's no need to talk about this being our 10th playoff season. Everyone knows that. It's exceedingly important, but everyone knows that and everyone now takes it for granted, which they shouldn't, but they do. We have earned the home-field advantage, something every team in the National Football League shoots for every year and rarely achieves. This will be the second time we have done that in 10 years. It's rarely done. We will have achieved a record of 23 straight regular-season wins, which never has been done before, and which was very important to us. As it approached, it became an issue that was very important to us because you do write your name in the history books, and it will take a heck of a good team to beat that. Finally, we achieved the most wins in a decade. That's an enviable record by any standard. We've written our name in the history books. Some may see that as inconsequential. We don't. Sixteen-and-0 to us was inconsequential. It's (an undefeated season) something that no professional football person ever believes is a realistic goal, A; and B, it already has been done before – once by the Miami Dolphins in winning the Super Bowl (in 1972) and once by the New England Patriots, and they lost the Super Bowl (following the 2007 season). As a result, it has been forgotten. So, we never focused on that. We said when the issue arose when the question was asked by others around Thanksgiving – when it was totally inappropriate to ask, but it was asked nonetheless – 'Would we play everybody if everything was clinched in order to go 16-0?' Coach Caldwell and I repeated over and over and over again, that, no, 16-0 was not our goal. It was not something we felt was important. It was not something that we felt we owed anyone. We felt that the best way we could reward the tremendous support we've had from our fans – and reward our players for a magnificent season and some magnificent milestones – and I'll repeat them again – home-field advantage/No. 1 seed throughout, 23 straight regular-season wins/never been done before, most wins in a decade/obviously by definition never been done before – so we saw that and giving ourselves the best chance to be healthy in the playoffs was what we owed our fans, to give ourselves the best chance to be healthy in the playoffs. Now, who knows how far we'll go? Every one of the four teams that will be left when we play are flawed. We're flawed. So will be the three others. People will have injuries. Who knows how it will come out, but we've earned the right to be one of those four teams in the AFC. Our feeling was and is that we need to do everything we can to be in the best shape we can when that time comes.

Q: In light of that, can you go over this week's injury prognosis?
A: The following people will very likely not play because they're injured: (OT) Ryan Diem, (TE) Gijon Robinson, (DE) Key(unta) Dawson, (CB) Jerraud Powers, (LB) Clint Session, (WR) Pierre Garcon, likely (DE) Robert Mathis, very likely (OT) Charlie Johnson. Those people are probably out as we speak. Add to that the guys who already are on injured reserve and you're playing what is a shell of the team that started the season. If you add the people who are on injured reserve who should have been or would have been starters, you're talking about 12 starters. We have achieved this record of 14-1 and went into yesterday's game with 12 starters out. That's an enviable record by anybody's lights. If we took a poll of virtually every Colts fan within the sound of our voices and said in August, 'Would you sign up for 14-1 at this point?' I think everybody would have signed up. We've had by any measure – any reasonable, objective, non-biased measure – a memorable season, and we're going to do our best to conclude it on a high note in Buffalo. We didn't play well Sunday, but the fact of the matter is there are wonderful and memorable things to celebrate. We ought not to be worrying about the fact that a streak that was not important to us, but that was important to others, was not achieved. That's really not where to focus. The focus is on the streak that meant something: 23 straight victories, most victories in a decade. Those things mean something. They have not been done before. Those are the important things, not 'perfection.' It's not perfection unless you go all the way, and no one can predict that. What we owe our fans, and what we will strive to do to the absolute best of our ability, is give them the best shot we can to go as far as we can in the playoffs. That much I can promise you. I can't promise you we'll win anymore than I would have promised you 14-1 in September, but I promise you we'll give it our best shot and we'll get our team to that game on January 16-17 in the best possible shape we can.

Q: The players you just mentioned: with the rest, will they be ready on January 16-17?
A: Yes. Our goal is to get everyone of them back for the playoff game. Will some of them play hurt in the playoff game? Absolutely. Surely they will. Should they have played hurt this coming week? Absolutely not. Should some guys have played hurt Sunday? No. Absolutely not. No one would want that, whether you're a fan who bought a ticket, a suite holder, a person who watches on television or listens on the radio – you would not want your husband, son, father going out there playing hurt in a game that had no affect on the standings. Anybody with common sense would say, 'No, we're not going to go and risk this player's injury and certainly not risk his future and the team's future in the playoffs for a game that doesn't count in the standings.' But even more important than that – and I guess we haven't made the message clear enough – the records we've set: 23 straight, most wins in a decade . . . that's an incredible, incredible performance. That's not to be denigrated. That's not to be sneezed at. It's to be celebrated. This has been an incredible, incredible year – one that people will remember for a long time, and it will take its place in National Football League history; 16-0 would not have. It has been done before.

Q: The Patriots went 16-0 in 2007. They would trade that to have won the Super Bowl that season . . .
A: Of course they would. And the so-called pundits and experts denigrate their season. It's not the perfect season. The Miami Dolphins are the only 'perfect' team in the eyes of the pundits because they went all the way through to the Super Bowl. Winning the Super Bowl, whether you like it or don't like it, is the Holy Grail that has been set up by the pundits. In our sport, the loser of the Super Bowl – and I've been there plenty – is worse than a team that's 2-14 in the eyes of the pundits. That doesn't happen in any other sport. Michigan State is not considered a loser because they lost to North Carolina in the (NCAA men's basketball) championship game. Teams make it to the Final Four in basketball, it's considered a wonderful, marvelous season. IU (Indiana University) had a wonderful season when they made it to the Final Four. It's the crowning glory of any season. The runner-up in baseball, the loser in the World Series, is considered the league champion. They get rings. It is celebrated. They have a pennant to raise. Only in the Super Bowl, and I'll borrow this phrase from the late, great George Young, is it the Victor and the Vanquished. The vanquished is considered by the cognoscenti, if you will, to be less than a team that finished 2-14. That's just the way it is. We recognize that. Oftentimes we don't agree with it, but there's not a darned thing you can do about that. The point is that in our business in order to give our fans the most meaningful season they can and the most meaningful experience they can, we have to focus on getting a team ready to do as well as it can do in the playoffs. I can't predict how well we'll do. I certainly don't believe we are 'the best team in the National Football League.' That's to be determined. But we want to give our team the best chance to do that and that was our purpose. Perhaps I'm at fault for not articulating that in as much detail as I've just done now and perhaps not as loudly as I should have, but the fact of the matter is the records we have achieved – 23 straight, most wins in a decade, home-field advantage and sitting here 14-1 – that's a heck of a season by any measure, and they are records that I think will last a long time.

Q: The Pittsburgh Steelers showed in 2005 that you really are judged by the postseason . . .
A: They had a poor season by the standards of the pundits, but they won the Super Bowl. That's what it's all about, and if we don't win the Super Bowl, regardless of what our regular-season record was, people will say, 'It's a wasted season.' That already has been said. That was said in August, not that we necessarily care what people say. We don't, but the fact of the matter is that the whole issue is a story. That's fine. Everybody's entitled to stories. That's wonderful. But it wasn't our issue. And it wasn't one we ever focused on. And it's not one we felt we owed our fans. We felt we owed our fans the excellence we've provided for a decade, the 23 straight – which will stand I think for a long time – and the most wins in a decade. That was really important to us. We felt to write our names in the history book would be an important thing for everyone in this organization, and for our fans. Sixteen-and-0 was not something we ever focused on.

Q: And 16-0 doesn't guarantee you anything more than 14-2 or 15-1 . . .
A: That's exactly right. Once we hit 13-0, there was nothing more we could do to assure ourselves of a memorable season except to make sure we were healthy. In order to that, we played no one who was hurt Sunday going in, and as I said, I can't imagine anyone with any common sense saying, 'Well, you should go ahead and put a player on the field hurt.' Secondly, we took (QB) Peyton (Manning) and (WR) Reggie (Wayne), who is nursing a very sore toe and a groin, and (TE) Dallas (Clark) out of the ballgame – that was the essence of it – with about 20 minutes to go in the game.

Q: There was a play early on which Manning took a hit and got knocked into Diem.
A: Let's look at the facts – not perception. And by the way, (former Head Coach) Tony Dungy – Super Bowl-winning, Hall of Fame-to-be coach – said on national television three weeks ago, 'Look the Colts will do this, that and the other thing.' You know why? Because we decided a long time ago that this is the right way to do it. This came as no surprise and should not have if you followed football and didn't focus on the people who were trying to make a story of it. The facts Sunday: Gijon hurts his knee . . . Tom Santi's in there . . . he misses a blitz pickup . . . (QB) Curtis Painter gets hit and the ball is fumbled and they score a touchdown. What if that was Peyton? You're running the risk of injury. That's the long and short of it. I don't think you can view it any other way.

Q: Why take Manning out at that particular time?
A: Because Jim felt that was the appropriate time to do it. There were approximately 20 minutes left in the game. We felt like we were doing a good job defensively. We had not allowed an offensive touchdown to that point. We were quite upset about the return of the kickoff, which gave them life, but Jim felt at that point it was the time to take him out. You have to put this in context with the opposition, too. This is a very sophisticated, hard-blitzing, pass-rushing, very-difficult-to-pick-up, very-difficult-to-prepare-for, very-difficult-to-execute-against defense. They're the No. 1 defense in the National Football League. They're there for a reason. They have good players. But most importantly, they rush the passer with great ferocity. Do you want to expose Peyton in that kind of a situation? I think not. Discretion here is the better part of valor, particularly with Jim Sorgi unavailable.

Q: And besides, Painter needs playing time . . .
A: That's immaterial. That's a by-product of the event, but it's not germane to the decision. The decision is, 'Do you give yourself the best chance to be healthy entering the playoffs on the 17th of January?' That's the question. How do you do that? You do that by making sure that you don't expose core players as much as you can with a 53-man roster and 12 starters out Sunday – how do you best manage that situation? We felt the best way to do that was to let Peyton play for a significant period of time, almost three quarters, and then get he and Reggie and Dallas and then a little bit later on Gary (Brackett) out of there.

Q: Does it concern you at all that the Colts may not be clicking on all cylinders?
A: You're absolutely right in focusing on the game. Let me answer your question within the context of my analysis and the coaches' analysis of the game. I'm going to paraphrase as I do every week what the coaches and the coordinators say in our meetings. First of all, we played our worst game of the season Sunday as a team. We had four big plays in the first half and early in the second half that we did not hit. Are we out of sync? Are we tired? That's entirely possible. We had this year five prime-time games. Four of those were on the road. Now, that's untoward. We were getting home at 5 o'clock in the morning, 4 o'clock in the morning, 6 o'clock in the morning. We had a road game in Jacksonville on a short week. That takes a lot out of your team. If you ask me, a guy who has been watching this team for 12 years, that was a tired team on the field Sunday. We were not clicking on all cylinders. Secondly, we did not play with the kind of focus Sunday that we should have in order to win against a good, playoff-caliber opponent, which the New York Jets are. I will point to the kickoff return, which unfortunately but deservedly put a blemish on a wonderful coverage year. Our special teams coverage had been virtually flawless the whole season. The kicking has been flawless. On Sunday, we just did not execute and allowed out of the box in the third quarter a kickoff return for a touchdown, which I have said repeatedly is not good, and which I said last year we would rectify. We did. (Special teams coordinator) Ray (Rychleski) has done a marvelous job. The players didn't execute. Now, is that because they're tired? Is that because they're not focused? I don't know. That's an age-old question in football. It's hard to know. I will say this: We didn't have a lot of bounce in our step, and we didn't have a lot of body control and hand-eye coordination. And we didn't have a lot of focus Sunday in certain areas. Finally, when you get down on the goal line and you can't knock it in from a yard and then again, hand-eye coordination, click-don't click in the passing game, where we're normally flawless and fans expect us to be flawless and where we expect frankly to be flawless – what does that tell you? Is your team tired? Are they focused? Are they worn out? Probably a little of all of the above. Maybe the Jets were a little more focused than we, although I didn't think so until the fourth quarter when they recognized that maybe they had us on the ropes a bit and the defense wore down. Sunday was a poor football game from top to bottom. Now, the old Darrell Royal/'Dance with What Brung You' is very true and I believe in it, but you can go to the well a bit too often, too. I've always believed because (Hall of Fame Head Coach) Marv Levy taught me this: Given a choice between a fresh team and a tired team, take a fresh team every time. That's what we're trying to do. We're trying to get back to that level of freshness, of focus, of fly-around-kind of play that has been our trademark. We did not have that Sunday, regardless of who played. It didn't matter. We didn't have that kind of focus. That was our poorest game all year. And I daresay that if Peyton had been in the game in the fourth quarter that it would not have made a heck of a lot of difference. We didn't play well Sunday, period.

Q: Is there any thought to letting Clark stay in long enough Sunday to get nine receptions, which would enable him to tie the NFL record for most receptions in a season by a tight end? And considering the team's willingness in the past to allow players to pursue individual milestones in meaningless games, why not have them pursue a team milestone Sunday?
A: It depends on what you call a team milestone, to begin with. We are not reticent about allowing players to achieve career milestones, because that puts you in the history books. With respect to Dallas, we tried to get him the ball quite a bit Sunday. It didn't work out exactly as we'd have liked. That (nine receptions) is pretty hard to do for a tight end in one ball game. We'll see how it goes. We've never been reticent about allowing players to try to reach personal milestones, because they're very important. They are important personal milestones. I've said before that I always look back on the two rushing titles that (former Buffalo Bills running back) Thurman Thomas lost because he sat down at the end of the season in order to be healthy for the playoffs when I was in Buffalo and fortunate enough to be with that great team. I always worried that he would be kept out of the Hall of Fame because of that, because he didn't win those rushing titles. Fortunately, he did get into the Hall of Fame. I was ecstatic when it took place because it worried me that we'd made the wrong decision for him. So, we are not reticent about individual milestones. We did not feel that 16-0 was an appropriate team milestone. It's really as simple as that, and I can't say it any more clearly than that. We've said it from Day One. That's other people's agenda. Not ours. First of all, every football man feels that it's not attainable anyway, but more importantly, it's not something that anybody really focuses on. To us, we went all out against Jacksonville because of a short week and second of all, because the 23 straight was important. The most wins in a decade were important. Those are things to be proud of, just as the individual players' milestones are to be proud of. I hope we can get it for Dallas. Frankly, it might be a long shot.

Q: Was there any regret to being six quarters away from the perfect season and not going after it?
A: We didn't run away from it, and 16-0 is not a perfect season. We have a huge difference of opinion there. Sixteen-and-0 is not a perfect season, 19-0 is a perfect season. The Patriots already did 16-0 and it turned into 18-1. They are not known as a team that achieved a perfect season. We don't ever run away from anything. We'll let our record speak for itself.

Q: What about people who say the Jets didn't win the game, but rather, the Colts gave it to them?
A: I don't know what to tell you except to say we played as hard as we could. We did not play well. I've talked a lot about where we felt out priorities lay. This team has given everything it has every time out and I don't think there is any time since I've been here, including my first year when we struggled through a 3-13 season, when we have not given our best, or given our fans their money's worth. I recognize that people pay good money to come and see us play. I also recognize we owe fans 100 percent effort. I've never tolerated anything less than that from any player or any coach in this organization. All we can do is give you our best. If 14 wins is not good enough, I don't know how we can make you happy, quite honestly.

Q: Were players consulted in the decision to leave the game in the third quarter?
A: The players knew in advance what the general plan was. So far as I know, every player signed on to it. This comes down to whether or not someone believes that 16-0 is an important goal to be reached. It is sad quite honestly, and I think it hurts everyone in this organization to see all of the other things that we've accomplished glossed over. But that's the way the world is. What this really boils down to is whether or not you believe that 16-0 has meaning. We don't think (so), and haven't thought about it. We have made it clear from Thanksgiving on when the issue was first raised – by other people, not us – that 16-0 was not something that was important to our season. Most football people don't believe it's possible. We played a very poor game Sunday. It's unlikely we would have won under any circumstances given how poorly we played. Everybody's going to play a poor game every now and then. We gave it our best shot. It wasn't good enough. I'm sorry about that. It seems to me we ought to be focused on what lies ahead, not what is behind us. There's nothing we can do other than to go and do our best for the rest of the season.

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