Quick September Starts a Key to Colts Recent Success
INDIANAPOLIS – Bob Sanders knows the statistics.
Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy has shown Colts players the data, and in each of his six previous seasons with the team, he has emphasized the imance of starting well, of taking a lead in the division, of not spending the last half of the season chasing a rival.
So, yes, Sanders and the rest of the Colts' players know the importance of September games. And they know from experience a preseason record means nothing in the regular season. But to Sanders, it's more than that, and he said the reason for the Colts' early-season success goes a bit beyond the yearly warnings of their coach.
Sanders said it's more about a feeling. It's simpler.
When September rolls around, Sanders said, it's time to play.
And therefore, it's time to win.
"We know the importance of it," Sanders said as the Colts (13-3 last season), the five-time defending AFC South Champions, prepared to play the Chicago Bears (7-9) in the first game at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday at 8 p.m.
"The preseason is to build that chemistry and to get guys in there, younger guys playing, and see who's going to be on the team. Right now, it's all serious. It's all back to business and we're looking forward to another roll and trying to win another championship."
Since Dungy's arrival, the Colts not only have been one of the NFL's best early-season teams, they have done so despite a sub.-500 preseason record.
The Colts, who went 1-4 during the 2008 preseason, are 3-15 in the last four preseasons. During that same span, they have one of the NFL's best records early in the season.
Since 2002, they have won 18 of 20 games in September and 35 of 42 games in September and October, having lost just one regular-season opener under Dungy. That was the 2004 opener in Foxboro, Mass., to the New England Patriots, who that season finished 14-2 and won the Super Bowl.
Since that game, the Colts have won 12 consecutive games in September.
The quick starts for the Colts have meant division success. Indianapolis started 2003 with a 5-0 record, and started 13-0 in 2005, 9-0 in 2006 and 7-0 last season.
The Colts never trailed in the division in any of those seasons.
"We definitely realize the importance," Colts middle linebacker and defensive captain Gary Brackett said. "Coach Dungy always shows us the standings, every game: where were in the AFC and where we are in our division. We definitely want to be out front in the division.
"You don't want to wait until December and put your fate in other team's hands. You don't want that to be the case. You want to handle your business and control your destiny."
Brackett said the success in the early season largely can be attributed to just that – the emphasis placed on the games by a coaching staff that has been together long enough to articulate the message repeatedly and clearly.
Dungy is now in his seventh season with the Colts, and 13 of the 17 assistants have been there since his arrival.
Hear a message enough and in the right manner, Brackett said, and its importance becomes second-nature.
"I believe the carryover (helps)," Brackett said. "We have the same coaching staff since I've been here. I mean the exact same. We're talking offensive coordinator, special teams coach. It's the same guys. They find a way to say the same message, but a little bit different, so the veteran guys won't get that mundane feeling.
"It's very effective. We know it works. We preach it to the younger guys and everyone buys into it. We go out there Week 1 and we usually don't miss a beat."
As for the difference between the Colts in the regular season and preseason, Brackett said it's fairly simple.
"I don't think it's, 'Turning it on,''' he said. "In the regular season, you get more in game shape. For one, we're going to be taking a lot more reps in practice (preparing for Chicago than practicing in the preseason). It's huge. We've been taking six to nine reps a game (in practice) where now we're taking all 15-to-30. Just seeing plays, your comfort level increases, then in Week 1, that's it. There's no tape on your helmet. You're out there for 60 minutes.
"Just that motivation alone has you out there ready to go."
While the extra repetitions help, Dungy said the experience and cohesion of the players doing the practicing is crucial to the early-season success.
Dungy has said in the past that the experience level of the Colts' offensive players such as quarterback Peyton Manning, wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne and center Jeff Saturday has been critical to the team's road success in recent seasons. He said this week the same traits in those players is critical early in the season, too.
Dungy from 1996-2001 coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to four playoffs appearances and a division title, but in those seasons the Buccaneers went 12-11 in September, overcoming losing records in the first half of the season to make the playoffs in each of his last three seasons there.
"It (a quick start) definitely helps you," Dungy said. "We were a defensive team in Tampa and defenses are usually ahead of the offenses early. Here, our offenses have been so veteran and so good that we've been able to get off to good starts with our offenses. We haven't turned the ball over a lot so we get those good starts while other people's offenses are catching up. That has helped us, so all of a sudden, you're at a point where you have the cushion in November and December and the pressure is on your division rivals. They feel like they have to play perfect to catch you. That's a good position to be in. We won them the other way in Tampa, but it's harder.
"Games get higher-scoring as you go on in the year. We've been able to come out and put points on the board in September. That's really the biggest reason for our success early."
Said Sanders, "It's always one of the main things we talk about – starting fast and getting off to a great start. You don't want to start the season off on a bad note, losing. If you get off to a fast start it's always good.
"Later on, you realize you can do certain things. It's easier after the game to watch the film and make those corrections and be a little more critical on yourself, but we're definitely looking forward to it (starting fast). It's something we talk about every year."