The Fourth in an Off-Season Position-by-Position Series on the Colts
INDIANAPOLIS – Eventually, even the outsiders knew. Not that they did immediately.
And not that there wasn't concern among those who knew little about the Colts when Jacob Tamme, a third-year veteran, moved into the starting lineup shortly before the season's midway point following an injury to Pro Bowl tight end Dallas Clark.
How would the position remain productive?
Would the offense slip?
Those questions were asked, but Colts Vice Chairman Bill Polian said those who understood the Colts – and particularly, those around the team who had seen Tamme prepare, practice and play – had little doubt the answers would be positive.
"We knew Jacob Tamme," Polian said late in the season. "The pundits didn't know Jacob Tamme."
They did soon enough.
That was because while the Colts indeed missed Clark, a 2010 Pro Bowl selection, Tamme filled in, started eight of the final 10 games of the regular season and allowed the Colts' tight end position to remain a critical part of the team's offense and its success.
"You always want to do it on the field, and you want to do it in game conditions," Tamme said. "It's good to get in there and make plays. It's invaluable. I felt extremely ready, but you go out there and every time you go on the field, it's a learning experience."
Tamme, a fourth-round selection in the 2008 NFL Draft from the University of Kentucky, played sparingly in his first two seasons behind Clark, playing primarily on special teams. There, he had developed into one of the team's top contributors, but on offense, he had caught just six passes for 47 yards, with his lone start coming in the 2009 regular-season finale at Buffalo.
This past season, he not only stepped in, he turned in one of the most productive seasons for a Colts tight end in franchise history. Over the final 10 games of the regular season, he caught 67 passes for 631 yards and four touchdowns.
"There was absolutely no question he was going to come in and play well," Polian said. "Jacob Tamme was an unknown to everybody but the people in this building, but when it came time for Jacob to play regularly, I said, 'Everybody in this building knows Jacob Tamme will play well.'
Tamme had seven or more receptions in seven games this past season, including each of the last three, and he had a season-high 11 receptions for 108 yards and a touchdown in a November loss at Philadelphia.
"He can run and catch," Colts coach Jim Caldwell said of Tamme during the season. "He is a good route- runner, and he is a tough guy. He has been very involved in our special teams the last couple of years, and I think that's helped him.
"He was able to step right in and move right along and do some good things for us."
Tamme's performance enabled the Colts to maintain their productivity from the tight end position. Whereas Clark caught 100 passes for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2009, the pair combined for 104 receptions for 978 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
Clark caught 37 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns in six games in 2010, marking the first time since 2006 – when he missed the final four games of the regular season – he had missed more than one game. But if Clark's durability before this season had prevented Tamme from getting extensive experience, it hadn't prevented him from preparing for the situation that arose when Clark was injured.
Having been around the organization for two seasons, Tamme said he understood the team's philosophy of lesser-known players needing to play when needed. The primary challenge he faced, Tamme said, was not necessarily being physically ready, but having the proper mindset week after week – even on weeks when playing a small role, or only on special teams.
Tamme had five special teams tackles last season before moving to a full-time role on offense.
"The key is really staying ready all the time," Tamme said. "You never know when your chance is going to come. It could be in the middle of the first game of the season, or it could be the last play of the last game as a backup. I think the challenge is to be mentally on top of it every single week.
"You can probably find some other professions where someone who might be 'a backup' could understand the same scenario. You do the same thing over and over in the first 13 weeks, and then the 14th week there's one play that you run that they put in when you were a backup and not even playing. That's what I mean when I say it's tough in that way.
"It's mentally straining to be on everything all the time when you're not seeing the field. That's the hardest thing, is really taking that to heart over the last couple of years."
Brody Eldridge, selected in the fifth round of the 2010 NFL Draft, played in 14 games at the other tight end position, catching five passes for 39 yards. Gijon Robinson, who played extensively in 2008 and 2009, re-signed with the Colts early this past season and caught three passes for 12 yards. A versatile player, Robinson had his first career scoring reception last November at New England.