AFC South: John Fox
The last time the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos faced each other, the Broncos were rolling along with a 6-0 record, having scored at least 41 points in four of those games and 50 in two. But on Oct. 20, they couldn’t block Indianapolis' Robert Mathis (two sacks and a forced fumble), quarterback Peyton Manning aggravated his ankle injuries, and the Broncos limped away from a 39-33 loss.
This time, the Colts will see a newly minted defense -- just five players remain from the Super Bowl XLVIII roster -- and the Broncos will see a Colts team that has battled injuries throughout the preseason and is without Mathis, who is suspended for the first four games for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday night’s game.
Wells: Not that Manning needs any motivation to get better year to year, but how much did the embarrassing Super Bowl loss fuel him during the offseason and in training camp, especially because the clock is ticking on his career?
Legwold: Mike, as folks in Indianapolis saw for quite some time, Manning is a study in focus, and he simply attacked the offseason. He said once he decided he was all-in for the coming season, and his annual exam on his neck came back with a medical thumbs-up, he went about the business of taking last season apart -- league-record 606 points, Super Bowl blowout and all -- pass by pass. He looked at his incompletions, interceptions, touchdowns, plays that should have been touchdowns and plays that should have been interceptions. He essentially took his game back to the foundation. Coach John Fox says Manning looks stronger physically than in his previous two seasons in Denver, and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas says Manning has shown more arm strength in workouts. Put it all together and it’s pretty clear Manning is locked in on getting another shot at the trophy.
Keeping with the quarterbacks, where do the Colts believe quarterback Andrew Luck is on his developmental curve? This is decidedly his team, correct?
Wells: I’d say it became Luck’s team once they selected him No. 1 overall in 2012. That is not a bad thing when you take into account Luck has led the Colts to 22 wins, two playoff appearances and an AFC South title in his first two seasons. Did I mention that he is only 24? Not that Luck needs any pats on the back, but you could tell how he is perceived by others when our ESPN.com colleague Mike Sando talked to executives around the league and they said he is a top-five NFL quarterback. There is nothing wrong with being voted behind Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Those are four future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. The Colts have a chance to beat any team, including the Broncos, as long as No. 12 is taking the snaps for them.
The Colts' issue is whether the defense can play on the same level as Luck and the offense. The Broncos went out and added some substantial pieces to their defense. Can the defense be as good as Manning and the offense?
Legwold: If it isn’t, it won’t be because the Broncos didn’t make the effort. They made an almost unprecedented dive into free agency for a team coming off a Super Bowl appearance, adding defensive end DeMarcus Ware, safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib. They also used their first-round pick in the May draft on cornerback Bradley Roby. All four players will get significant snaps against the Colts on Sunday night. Executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway wanted more speed on defense and more attitude. The Broncos, who had five defensive starters on injured reserve by the time they got to the Super Bowl, also have a healthy Von Miller back at linebacker and Chris Harris at cornerback. They have not shown much in the preseason, so the Colts will get the first real look at this unit. But Miller and Ware give Denver the kind of one-two pairing in the pass rush it had with Miller and Elvis Dumervil in 2012, when this was a top-five defense.
Defensively, Mathis is suspended for the first four games of the season. The previous time these teams played, Mathis was the most disruptive defensive player on the field. What is the Colts’ plan to get to Manning this time around?
Wells: How about we say: What do the Colts hope to do without Mathis? As you pointed out, Mathis was the difference-maker in the game last year. His strip-sack of Manning was a momentum changer because it led to a safety and started a string of 23 straight points for Indy. Bjoern Werner is starting at outside linebacker in place of Mathis. But let’s be real, there is no replacing Mathis' 19.5 sacks from last season. The Colts will attempt to do it by committee. The starting defense accounted for only two sacks in the preseason. That is pretty scary to think about. Manning is the master of picking apart defenses.
I was going to ask you about Wes Welker and his concussion issues. Now the Colts don’t have worry about facing him because he has been suspended for the first four games of the season. How do the Broncos go about replacing Welker in the lineup?
Legwold: Welker’s suspension is the reason the Broncos will have to adjust their rotation at wide receiver Sunday night, but they had put plans in motion long before because of Welker’s concussions. He had two last season and suffered a third in an Aug. 23 preseason game. The Broncos made Emmanuel Sanders a primary target in free agency and used a second-round draft pick on Cody Latimer in May. Sanders, who has shown in the preseason just how big a year he could have in this offense, will get plenty of work in the slot; he played there during most of his tenure with the Steelers. Tight end Jacob Tamme, who played in the slot a great deal in Manning’s first year in Denver (2012), will also get plenty of snaps. The Broncos will move the pass-catchers all over in search of the matchups they like. They have a versatile group of receivers and tight ends that should allow them to overcome four games without Welker.
A different kind of injury issue to be sure, and you have written about it plenty, but how will the Colts adjust things on the offensive line to line up against a revamped Broncos defense?
Wells: The offensive line has been an issue for the Colts going back to when Manning was there. Luck has his best group of offensive weapons to work with since entering the league, but none of that matters if the line can’t do its job. Luck has been sacked 73 times in his first two seasons. The Colts have a rookie -- Jack Mewhort -- starting at one guard, a second-year player -- Hugh Thornton -- at the other guard, and center is up the air. Khaled Holmes, the projected starter, missed four weeks with a sprained ankle, and A.Q. Shipley was claimed off waivers from Baltimore last weekend. Ware and the rest of the Denver defense should be excited about the opportunity to get after Luck.
Quarterbacks tend to pull for each other. They know what it's like to shoulder so much of a team's fate, they understand the pressure better than outsiders could.
"I do think it’s a unique fraternity," Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said. "Matt’s an excellent quarterback. I think he’ll be fine."
This weekend Manning and his Broncos will visit the Houston Texans for a rematch of a game played last year under very different circumstances.
Fittingly, after a season of quarterback turmoil, the Texans are returning to the man they started with at the position. Because of an injury to Case Keenum, Matt Schaub will start Sunday at Reliant Stadium. The last time Schaub started, he entered the game to boos so hearty that the Texans had to go to a silent count on some of their plays.
On the opposite sideline will be one of the best to ever play the position. Manning has played against the Texans 19 times and lost only three times. ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli discuss.
Ganguli: Manning is very familiar with the Texans. Has his (soon-to-be) record-setting season been as impressive to watch up close as the stats suggest?
Legwold: No question the numbers have been staggering, even by Manning’s standards. But the intersection of Manning as a 37-year-old quarterback who was willing to sort of remake himself with a team ready to offer him the place to do that has lifted his play even more. The Broncos have constructed a playbook that is a mix of what they had on hand and what Manning has always done. They've added a warp-speed no-huddle portion and given him targets all over the formation, and Manning has played with the discipline of a veteran quarterback who understands what needs to be done. His coaches have said he forced just one pass in the team’s first eight games and his accuracy has been elite for much of the season. He isn't a power thrower now, and a windy day in the postseason could derail some of what the Broncos like to do, but he is an accomplished pitcher who knows his opponents and can hit all the spots.
Gary Kubiak is still well-liked around the Broncos’ complex, with many people who worked with him still in the building. What has been the reaction of players to his dismissal?
Ganguli: Kubiak was well-liked in the Texans' building, too, especially with, but not limited to, the players. After his dismissal, you heard a lot about how well he treated people, regardless of their role on the team. He’s always been known as a players’ coach, and that’s part of what has made Houston an attractive destination for free agents. Several players exchanged text messages with him after it happened. Some took public responsibility for it. They didn't like seeing him lose his job, but the firing wasn't a tremendous surprise given how the season had gone. The players’ reaction to Kubiak's health scare after suffering a "mini-stroke" on Nov. 3 said a lot about what he meant to them.
You covered another head coach's health scare this season. How did the Broncos weather John Fox’s absence?
Legwold: There have been seasons over the past decade or so when neither the locker room nor the coaching staff would have been as equipped as this year's group was to deal with something like Fox’s four-week absence following open-heart surgery. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio stepped in as interim coach, and players often spoke of his composure and leadership during that time. Manning, Wesley Woodyard, Champ Bailey and others helped keep everyone in the locker room pointed in the right direction, while Adam Gase and rest of the offensive staff kept things humming on that side of the ball. The team went 3-1 in that stretch, with two wins over Kansas City and one against San Diego. The loss was an overtime defeat at New England, when the Broncos let a 24-point halftime lead get away. Through it all, the Broncos showed themselves to be a stable organization, able to overcome the most serious of issues.
An awful lot of folks believed when the season began that the Texans would be in the hunt for the Super Bowl title. What are some of the major issues that have prevented that from happening?
Ganguli: How much time do you have? It starts with the quarterback. The Texans don’t have the luxury the Broncos have of one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. Their situation at the position has been tenuous all season. Schaub’s costly turnovers early on put the Texans in a precarious position. He didn't play as poorly as some indicate until Week 5 against San Francisco. He just looked uncomfortable and out of sorts from start to finish, throwing three interceptions, including a pick-six on the first pass of the game. Schaub’s foot and ankle injuries the following week opened the door for Kubiak to make a switch to Keenum, who spent last season on the Texans’ practice squad. Keenum did well before opponents deciphered him, and since then he has struggled. I’m not ready to say he’ll never be a passable quarterback in the NFL, but his play over the past eight games has been a big factor in the losses. To be clear, quarterback is not the only factor in the Texans’ 12-game losing streak, but it’s been a big one. Further, the handling of the quarterback situation played a part in Kubiak’s firing. He benched Keenum for Schaub against Oakland and Jacksonville. That kind of uncertainty didn’t help matters.
That’s one question I get asked a lot. Another is this: Who will the Texans’ next head coach be? I covered Del Rio for his final season and a half as the Jaguars' coach. From what you've seen in Denver, do you think he gets another shot at being a head coach?
Legwold: I spoke with executives from around the league in recent weeks, and it seems Del Rio helped his cause with the way he conducted himself and led the Broncos during Fox’s absence. If the Broncos can snap out of their current defensive funk and go deep in the playoffs, it would help his cause even more. (He interviewed with USC during the bye week, the day before Fox suffered the dizziness and light-headedness on a golf course that led to his open-heart surgery.) Del Rio would need an owner/team president to look past the offense-first mentality everyone seems to be looking for these days, and he would have to present a clear, concise picture of what he would do on offense. But if the Broncos make the Super Bowl, or even win it, and the defense makes some plays along the way, Del Rio should be on some short lists.
How has Wade Phillips handled the interim job? He’s seen Manning plenty over the years, how do you think he’ll have the Texans go at the Broncos’ offense?
Ganguli: It wasn't a particularly good situation to come into, as tends to happen with interim jobs. The results have been similar to Kubiak's tenure, though Phillips has been more proactive in trying to curb the Texans' penalties. He's had Big 12 officials at practice several times, and puts players in timeouts if they commit a penalty. Not a lot has changed for the better, and the injury situation has gotten worse. The Texans now have their first- and second-string running backs on injured reserve, as well as their starting tight end, starting middle linebacker and starting strong safety. Phillips' defenses have always been very aggressive -- they blitz a lot. The play calling is being done by defensive-backs coach Vance Joseph now, but that doesn't change a lot. Manning's statistics against the Texans are better against a four-man rush than against blitzes.
He’s got Peyton Manning at quarterback, which puts him in a better situation than any other coach who was hired in 2011.
A top-flight quarterback obviously keys an organization.
"You definitely feel that you’re growing as a team otherwise it’s a lot of hard work for nothing, but I feel that we’ve improved in the three years," Fox said. "I guess my point is we’re not satisfied."
Of the eight head coaches hired in the NFL in 2011 -- including Jason Garrett who took over for Wade Phillips in Dallas late in 2012 -- Munchak currently ranks sixth in winning percentage.
Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco
Overall: 32-11-1, .727
Quarterback situation: Drafted Colin Kaepernick in the second round in 2011. He was a Super Bowl quarterback last year, but isn’t the same guy this season.
Biggest additions: Kaepernick, linebacker Aldon Smith (draft 2011), receiver Anquan Boldin (trade 2012).
Status: Rock solid.
John Fox, Denver
Overall: 31-13, .705
Quarterback situation: Peyton Manning is putting up monster numbers and appears on track for another MVP.
Biggest additions: Linebacker Von Miller (draft 2011), Manning (free agent 2012), receiver Wes Welker (free agent 2013).
Status: Rock solid.
Jason Garrett, Dallas (interim in late 2010)
Overall: 23-21, .534
Quarterback situation: Tony Romo is productive and talented, but has a reputation for folding at crunch time.
Biggest additions: Left tackle Tyron Smith (draft 2011), cornerback Brandon Carr (free agent 2012), center Travis Frederick (draft 2013).
Status: Constant public questions, public support from his owner.
Ron Rivera, Carolina
Overall: 22-22, .500
Quarterback situation: Cam Newton is playing well as the Panthers are 9-3 and challenging for the NFC South title.
Biggest additions: Newton (draft 2011), linebacker Luke Kuechly (draft 12), defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (draft 2013).
Status: Vastly improved.
Hugh Jackson, Oakland
2011: 8-8, fired
Overall: 8-8, .500
Status: Special assistant to the head coach/ running backs coach in Cincinnati.
Mike Munchak, Tennessee
Overall: 20-24, .454
Quarterback situation: Jake Locker showed signs he might be the guy, but he’s hurt and will miss 14 of 32 starts since he got the job in 2012. Backup Ryan Fitzpatrick is playing now.
Biggest additions: Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey (draft 2011), receiver Kendall Wright (draft 2012), strong safety Bernard Pollard (free agent 2013).
Status: Likely in trouble, but we know nothing about how the head of new ownership group, Tommy Smith, is leaning or will act.
Leslie Frazier, Minnesota
Overall: 16-27-1, .363
Quarterback situation: A complete mess. Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman have all started this year, and they’ve all been bad.
Biggest additions: Tight end Kyle Rudolph (draft 2011), safety Harrison Smith (draft 2012), receiver/returner Cordarelle Patterson (draft 2013).
Status: Likely to be finished with one year remaining on his contract.
Pat Shurmur, Cleveland
2012: 5-11, fired
Overall: 9-23, .281
Status: Offensive coordinator in Philadelphia.
Granted, Manning hasn't faced a Titans team with Mike Munchak as its head coach, but he has faced Tennessee 19 times previously in his career (including a playoff game in the 1999 season), all with the Indianapolis Colts. So, while this is the Titans' first look at Manning in a Broncos uniform, the quarterback is a familiar face as Denver tries to keep its grip on home-field advantage in the postseason.
Here, ESPN.com Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game.
Legwold: Paul, you've been around the team since it arrived in Tennessee and, before we get to the on-field matchup, how would you say the team has dealt with franchise founder Bud Adams' death earlier this season? Who is making the decisions now and who will make them in the coming offseason, both on and off the field?
Kuharsky: It was a big loss, of course, for Munchak and general manager Ruston Webster and team employees who worked for Adams for a long time. Most of the players hardly knew him, as he was not around much in his final couple of years, when his health began to fail. So there is a lot of uncertainty now. Three branches of Adams' family share control of the franchise, and Bud's son-in-law, Tommy Smith, is the team president and CEO. He's apparently been paying close attention to things in anticipation of taking over. But we know very little about how he will operate going forward. That means there is some tension, because not every team employee knows if he's secure. That starts with the struggling head coach, Munchak.
Leadership in Denver appeared to remain strong as Jack Del Rio stepped in for John Fox. How much of a boost will Fox's return give the team?
Legwold: Del Rio, the team's defensive coordinator, earned praise from everyone in the organization, including Fox and the players, for how things were handled in the head coach's absence following open-heart surgery. His return has given the team an emotional boost, because after a month away, Fox came back feeling better than he had in some time and enthusiastic to see where this season can go. It should help the Broncos avoid a late-season stumble as they try to get home-field advantage for the playoffs again. Tactically speaking, not much will change. Coordinator Adam Gase is still calling the plays on offense -- Del Rio has said that, other than being a sounding board from time to time, he left the offense solely in Gase's hands during Fox's absence. Del Rio will continue to call the defense on game day as he has all season. Overall, though, it's likely Fox's return will keep the Broncos from hitting an emotional lull over the final month of the regular season.
On the field, the Titans have seen Manning plenty over the years. How do you think Tennessee will approach things on defense and does it see some differences in the Broncos' offense compared to what it saw from the Manning-led Colts?
Kuharsky: Well, it's a relief the Titans don't see Edgerrin James, I am sure. And while Denver's pass-catchers are a remarkable bunch, I'm not sure there is a Marvin Harrison in it yet. They know blitzing Manning can be fruitless no matter what matchups they like against offensive linemen. They'll try to be unpredictable and force him to throw to a certain spot a few times. But plenty of teams have that idea and fail with it. Under Gregg Williams' influence, the Titans have used an ever-shifting front, and we know that's a popular way to play against Manning in an attempt to minimize his ability to make pre-snap reads. The front is pretty good, especially Jurrell Casey, though there is no dominant edge rusher. The secondary has been quite good. It's the linebackers, particularly in pass coverage, who seem vulnerable to me, and I don't know what the Titans will do there to prevent abuse. Bernard Pollard's been a leader whose play has matched his talk, but the Titans have kept him out of tough coverage situations and I wonder whether Manning will find ways to try to go at him.
The Titans are rooting for freezing temperatures even though they've been awful themselves in their past two frigid games. I know some all-time great quarterbacks have excelled in the cold even if they haven't loved it. How much of an issue is it for Manning at this stage of his career?
Legwold: That is the elephant in the room with the Broncos given their playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens last January. Manning threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns in that game, even though the temperature at kickoff was 13 degrees. But folks seem to remember a wobbly incompletion here and there to go with an interception to close out the Broncos' final possession. Until Manning simply cranks it up on a cold day and the Broncos get a key victory, people are going to ask him about it. He had spots in the overtime loss to New England two weeks ago -- in frigid, windy conditions -- in which he threw as well as he ever has, particularly on a sideline pass to Demaryius Thomas and a touchdown throw to tight end Jacob Tamme. It's not so much his arm that has been an issue post-surgery, it's his grip when he throws. Overall, though, the Broncos push the pace more on offense at home. Manning has terrorized defenses that have played a lot of man coverages against the Broncos' offense, including his five-touchdown game last weekend in Kansas City. The Broncos like that matchup in any weather.
Denver has some injuries on defense that have affected how it plays, especially with the run defense. Where does Chris Johnson fit in the Titans' offense these days?
Kuharsky: He's really had one big game all season. Even when he seems to get going, the Titans can't find a rhythm or a way to stick with him. This was supposed to be a run-reliant, run-dominant team. It isn't. With Ryan Fitzpatrick now the quarterback, the Titans like to put him in an empty set and let him do his thing. It's been good at times, but it doesn't do much to enhance the chances of the running game. Johnson doesn't get yards after contact. So if he doesn't find a big hole, he's not going to do a lot of damage. Watch out on a screen or little flip pass -- that's where Johnson has been more threatening.
Denver's defense has dealt with quite a few injuries and Von Miller's suspension. How's his health and how is that group playing together?
Legwold: The Broncos have yet to play the 11 starters on defense in any game this season they expected to have coming out of training camp. They never will now that defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson has been moved to injured reserve. Vickerson was a big part of the plan on early downs -- and the Chiefs tested the middle of the defense plenty this past Sunday, so the Broncos are working through some adjustments there. Champ Bailey (left foot) has played in just three games this season -- just one from start to finish -- and safety Rahim Moore is on injured reserve/designated to return. (The Broncos hope Moore will be back for the postseason.) Toss in Derek Wolfe and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie not being in the lineup against the Chiefs and the Broncos are not nearly as consistent as they were last season, when they were a top-five defense. Miller has had moments of top-shelf play since his return, but hasn't been a consistent force like he was last season.
And that's why Fox and Kubiak's recent health issues hit home with Pagano. The Colts coach said he recently reached out to both coaches to let them know that the team's praying for them.
Kubiak collapsed while heading to the locker room at halftime of Sunday's game against the Colts. He was immediately taken to the hospital.
"Hopefully they get things taken care of and get their health back," Pagano said. "We're lucky. We're playing a kid's game. Our players are playing a kid's game, but real life is real life. If you don't have your health, you really don't have nothing."
Pagano missed 12 games last season while he took a leave of absence to battle leukemia.
"I feel very fortunate, obviously to have behind me what I went through," he said. "But the game is the game. When it comes to a guy's health and those things those guys are dealing with now is not easy. This game could be hard on you as we know."
ESPN.com Texans reporter Tania Gangulia wrote after the game Sunday that Kubiak's departure impacted the players in the second half, which isn't surprising because you're talking about somebody's life in that situation. The Colts outscored the Texans 24-3 in the second half to come from behind and win 27-24.
Bruce Arians filled in while Pagano was out last season, but he missed their playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens after he became ill that morning.
"It's got to affect you," Pagano said about the Texans not having Kubiak in the second half. "It's hard. A tough, tough situation."
Kickoff is set for 4:05 p.m. ET (CBS).
Here’s a look at the Broncos:
Last week: beat Dallas 51-48.
Coach: John Fox, third season (26-11); 12th season overall (99-82).
Offensive coordinator: Adam Gase.
Defensive coordinator: Jack Del Rio.
Series record: Jaguars lead 5-3 (regular season).
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW ON OFFENSE
QB Peyton Manning: He has already thrown for 1,884 yards and 20 touchdowns, with only one interception. He’s also completing 75.8 percent of his passes. Those are staggering numbers, even for Manning.
WR Demaryius Thomas: He is Manning’s favorite target and leads the team with 34 catches for 450 yards. He’s one of the league’s top young receivers and has already established himself as one of the game’s better big-play receivers. What makes him so hard for defensive backs to handle is his size (6-foot-3, 229 pounds).
LT Chris Clark: Why an offensive lineman on this list? Because he’s replacing Ryan Clady, who is out for the season with a Lisfranc injury. Clady was a rock at left tackle. Clark has filled in capably. The offensive line has allowed Manning to be sacked only five times.
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW ON DEFENSE
NT Terrance Knighton: The former Jaguars defensive lineman has started every game and has seven tackles. He’s anchoring a defensive front that leads the NFL in rush defense (69.6 yards per game).
LB Wesley Woodyard: The Broncos’ leading tackler (35) left last Sunday’s game with a neck injury but said on Monday that he felt fine and would be ready to play against the Jaguars. He is coming off the best season of his career: 117 tackles, 5.5 sacks and three interceptions in 2012.
S Duke Ihenacho: He leads the Broncos with 28 solo tackles (32 overall). He has started every game this season after playing in only two in 2012 as a rookie.
The Broncos have scored 103 points in their last two games. … Denver has lost three in a row to the Jaguars. The last Denver victory came in 2005 in Jacksonville. … The Broncos have won 16 consecutive regular-season games dating back to a 31-21 loss at New England on Oct. 7, 2012. … Denver has scored more than 40 points four times this season, which is already a single-season franchise record. … Receiver Wes Welker is the first player since Washington’s Charlie Brown in 1982 to catch at least one touchdown pass in each of his first five games with a team.
It was very effective at confusing Manning, who struggled against the Falcons.
But it doesn't mean Houston Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will be adopting an amoeba defense in a week.
The Texans are a good defense doing their own thing.
“I thought they were outstanding a year ago,” Denver Broncos coach John Fox said this week. “I think Wade has done a fantastic job. They’ve got good personnel. They play very hard. They play very sound. The two looks we’ve got in the regular season, they’ve been outstanding as well. We expect a very talented, tough defense coming to Denver.”
I asked Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats and Info to pull together what Phillips’s defenses have done against Manning. It’s not been great.
“They have a different defensive coordinator since the last time I played them -- I didn’t play last year since Coach Phillips has gotten there -- and they have some new players,” Manning told Houston media on a conference call this week. “They sure are playing well, that certainly jumps out on film, and guys flying around and really doing a lot of good things on defense, so it’ll be a tough challenge...
“A very well-coached defense, very disciplined. You have to have certain types of players to make that defense work and he has those guys at certain spots, and you can see how it’s all working together with the scheme and with the players, so that’s why they’re playing really well right now, in my opinion.”
Phillips will certainly want to confuse Manning -- when isn’t that the key to beating a good quarterback? But while the Texans can bring pressure from different spots, they’re awfully talented. If they beat the Broncos and Manning I think we’ll be talking more about players than scheme.
If it had gone another way, I’d have a different stance.
But that Tebow picked the Jets did the Jaguars a great, two-part service.
1) They aren’t saddled with a guy at least a share of the organization does not believe can play.
2) They’ll always be able to say they wanted him and he picked someone else.
The Jets now employ a huge proponent of Wildcat formations in offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, and the Jets surely will use Tebow in such situations from game to game depending on the defenses New York sees and the success its base offense has.
The Jaguars won’t be forced to employ such things, which are not the favored approach of general manager Gene Smith or coach Mike Mularkey and his staff. (I applaud those who frown upon gimmicks. It's just a default setting I have.)
Look, Blaine Gabbert was terrible as a rookie. But one season is far too soon to label a quarterback with his arm a complete bust. The Jaguars think the new coaching staff will improve his play a great deal.
If that happens, they will look smart. If that doesn’t happen, well, they’ll be in a tough spot. That spot could have been even tougher had Tebow been in the mix with an organization that didn't fully believe in him.
Tebow was Josh McDaniels’ guy, which is why he was a first-round pick in Denver. Tebow wasn’t John Elway's guy or John Fox’s guy, which is why the Broncos dealt him at the first opportunity.
Tebow was not Gene Smith's guy or Mike Mularkey’s guy.
Which is surely a big reason why, if he had a say, he chose to go be Rex Ryan’s guy and Sparano’s guy.
Today, Indianapolis Colts fans had to see him hold up an orange jersey with his name and the No. 18 on it, then stand in front of a blue banner decorated with Denver Broncos and Sports Authority logos while talking about a comfort level and gut feeling that steered him to his new team.
For Tennessee Titans fans still reeling from Manning picking the Broncos instead, don’t read between the lines. He praised Denver for being committed to winning. He can compliment his new team without it being an insult to the runners-up, the Titans and 49ers.
He did not say those franchises are not committed to winning.
“In the end I felt the Broncos were just a great fit,” he said. “... I’ve always believed it’s up to me and the people around me to make this the right decision. You know, it’ll be speculated on and debated for months to come whether it was the right decision or not. I’m going to go out and try to make it the right decision.”
Make that years to come.
A couple other things of note from our perspective at AFC South headquarters:
On standing in front of a logo that’s not a horseshoe: “It’s certainly very different,” he said. “There is no question about it. This will take some time for me to get comfortable with. This is all new to me. You’re talking about a guy that was one team for 14 years. ...
“The Indianapolis Colts are the only team that I’ve ever known. I told John [Elway] and coach [John] Fox that I am going to need their help to help me sort of get through this transition. ...
“I think the sooner that I get started going to work, going to life weights, getting into my new locker, putting on some Denver Broncos gear, getting going, that’s all going to make this process easier for me.”
On the timing: Manning was apologetic for having any negative impact on things with the two teams he didn’t select.
“The process, it took some time,” he said. “It’s the only way I knew to do it. I hated that it took time, that other teams maybe got put in tough positions. I hate that about it. But it’s the only way I knew to do the process, to find out what makes the most sense. I’m glad all that part’s over with. I can get down to football now. ...”
“I’m sorry that it took long. I didn’t know what the baseline was. The baseline for me was to feel good about a decision and then go out and make it the right decision.”
On his powers: He’ll offer opinions when asked. But he stressed he’s not in Denver to coordinate the offense or make personnel decisions.
Yes, he’ll be influential. But being a franchise quarterback is a full-time job. It’s silly, really, that so many people need to be reminded.
Center Jeff Saturday has a visit scheduled with the Broncos. Speculation is rampant that tight end Dallas Clark, tight end Jacob Tamme, running back Joseph Addai and/or former offensive coordinator Tom Moore in some role could follow Manning to Denver.
“There is never a teammate that I’ve had that I didn’t want to play with for the rest of my life, I’ve always said that,” Manning said. “Guys who played in Indianapolis, it was hard to see them retire or move on. ...I know there are some players out there that the Broncos are looking at.
“When asked about those players I told them exactly how I felt about the great teammates that I’ve had. But once again when it comes to personnel, that’s just not my department. They’re going to do whatever it takes to get the best players here to help us win games and that’s all I want.”
On his sales pitch: He didn’t put on a hard sell to the three teams he wound up choosing from.
He offered up his medical records since 1998 and he threw about 60 balls for teams, asking them if they needed to see anything else.
He said he told teams what still felt awkward or shaky. And after providing all that info, he asked them if they still were interested. He said he was pleased and encouraged that they were.
One that’s a lot like what he ran while he was with Indianapolis.
We can do a lot of speculating about what’s most important to Manning going forward. My belief is a guy who is a creature of habit and loves routine and repetition will be most inclined to go somewhere where he gains a good measure of control. Where the coach and offensive coordinator will be willing to bend things to him. Where he can continue to do the things he's been honing for years.
That’s why I don’t see Washington as a good fit at all.
Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona has shown a willingness to fit a scheme to a signal-caller. Joe Philbin in Miami is just starting out and would surely be willing to tilt things. Pete Carroll in Seattle seems to be a flexible guy when dealing with big personalities and stars. Romeo Crennel in Kansas City is a defensive guy.
John Fox is intense, but he and John Elway wouldn’t jump in unless they would mold things for Manning. And we certainly know they are willing to move away from the offense Tim Tebow was running.
“In the end, the chances are that whichever team Manning lands with will incorporate its present offensive system intertwined with what Manning did with the Colts,” writes Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc . “Manning's offense in Indy included a zone run-blocking scheme that featured athletic, movement-based linemen, limited personnel groupings and formations, a ton of pre-snap reads, and a timing-based passing attack that thrived after hours and hours of practice time.”
I can’t give away the store of the Insider piece, so I won’t share the order Williamson lists the matches in. We’ll go alphabetical as we share some snippets. As a bonus, my blog network brethren have chimed in with a flexibility rating for the coach/staff/scheme. A "10" means the team would hand over the keys to Manning and a "1" means he’d be expected to run precisely what the coaching staff wanted.
Williamson: “This is the offense I would expect to change the most for Manning. Ken Whisenhunt is a very good offensive mind, but his philosophies have changed dramatically in his tenure as head coach, depending on the quarterback he's had at his disposal.”
Flexibility index from Mike Sando: 7
Not on Williamson’s list.
Flexibility index from Bill Williamson: 10
Williamson: “Adding Manning should make the team the clear favorite to win the AFC West, if not more. But, without a quarterback of the future on the roster, if Kansas City swings and misses on this acquisition, it could cost it dearly. Cassel is mediocre, and probably always will be, which could make the Chiefs too complacent in terms of finding a replacement or successor. It's time for them to be aggressive.”
Flexibility index from Bill Williamson: 10
Williamson: "With Joe Philbin taking over in Miami, the team will be installing an offense very similar to the one in Green Bay, which would fit Manning with all the pre-snap reads it requires. Also, limiting some of the injury risk of signing Manning and putting all the eggs in that basket is that Miami has Matt Moore returning. Although Moore is far from elite, you could do much worse as backups go."
Flexibility index from James Walker: 7
New York Jets
Williamson: "I don't think Manning would put New York over the top because it has problems at right tackle, No. 2 wide receiver and possibly at running back on offense. On defense, the Jets have a hole at safety, at outside pass-rusher and with an inside linebacker who excels in coverage."
Flexibility index from Walker: 10
Williamson: “Manning wouldn't have to put the entire team on his shoulders in San Francisco. The wide receiver position certainly needs upgrading, but Manning could have a reduced role from his time in Indianapolis -- which might be best for him now -- and consistently get his team into strong play choices at the line of scrimmage.”
Flexibility index from Sando: 3.5
Williamson: "With a power ground game, an improving offensive line and some young receiving weapons to work with, Manning might be able to accomplish quite a bit with this offense. If Seattle signs Manning, it definitely could make a run."
Flexibility index from Sando: 8
Williamson: I also have some concerns about how well Mike Shanahan would be able to -- and how willing he would be to -- alter his offense, which stresses a move-oriented quarterback, to fit Manning's cerebral skill set.
Flexibility index from Dan Graziano: 3
Paul Kuharsky: I would think they‘d expect there will be some form of free agency at some point.
So it’ll be an interesting flip -- for years if you didn’t get something in free agency, you’d say, “Well, we address it in the draft.” Now you’ll say, “If we didn’t get it in the draft, we can get it in free agency.”
The wrench this time is a team may not have worked real hard to retain its own guys in February because it didn’t want to give out bonuses heading toward a lockout.
But in a league where more and more of the quality programs are draft builders, it almost seems to make more sense with the draft first, particularly if those salaries are in line to wind up more manageable.
I think bad, panicky teams will panic and force need in the draft, while better non-panicky teams won’t, and will get even better.
Cory from Denver writes: If there is a lockout and the NFL season is lost, what happens to Indianapolis hosting the Super Bowl? Do they host the following year or lose out completely? Thanks.
Paul Kuharsky: Can’t take away New Orleans’ Super Bowl in 2013 or NY/NJ’s in 2014. Presumably Indy would go to the back of the line and get the game played in 2015.
But the season won’t be lost. Players won’t be able to hold out that long.
Jim in Greenville, S.C., writes: With the draft so full of DTs in the first 2 rounds, could you see the Titans going to a 3-4 by taking someone like Marcell Dareus in the first and Drake Nevis (LSU) in the second or is it far more complicated than that? I'd love to see Jason Jones on the outside of a 3-4. Would he fit there? Would he stay healthier in that rather than the current circumstance?
Paul Kuharsky: It’s amazing how many people like to suggest the Titans should go to a 3-4. Even if they intend to go bigger at defensive end and part with Jason Babin, Dave Ball and Jacob Ford, all free agents, they still have some of their best players on the defensive line -- Jones, Derrick Morgan, William Hayes. Their three linebackers last year were unproductive, and Stephen Tulloch is a free agent to be. So you want a team with two starting linebackers who were unproductive, Gerald McRath and Will Witherspoon, to change to a defense that calls for more linebackers? I’m not following the logic no matter who they can draft. It’s a two-year transition minimum, and they’ve got personnel that can be effective in a better 4-3.
Jeff in Nashville writes: Are we going to get a follow-up article to your "Cocky Mallett..." article that details how impressively he threw the ball today? His on field performance has garnered rave reviews across the board and one person even said it was the best QB performance at the combine in the last 10 years. When should we expect that article?
Paul Kuharsky: So defensive. Are you related to him or just a passionate Arkansas fan? Apparently you stopped paying attention right after you read the entry you didn’t like.
Here’s a piece I did less than 24 hours later on how the interviews can be over-interpreted. Did you also miss this one highlighting Mallett’s workout?
Also you do know that he SHOULD dominate a workout with no defenders or decision-making involved, right?
Chris in Phoenix writes: What are the odds that the Colts look into the recently released Tommie Harris since both Antonio Johnson and Dan Muir are currently FA's as well? I would also like to know your thoughts on the impact he would have with his unique speed at the defensive tackle position playing alongside Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
Paul Kuharsky: I don’t think the Colts are in a panic over the contract status of Daniel Muir or Antonio Johnson. I could see the Colts drafting a guy to be a front-liner with Fili Moala.
I would have been very surprised to see the Colts active cutting players before free agency.
Logan in Duluth, Minn., writes: In regards to the NFL schedule length, I was wondering why they have to have either 16 or 18 games. Would it not possible to drop two preseason games and add one regular season game? Is it because of playoff tie breakers?
Paul Kuharsky: An odd number of games is sloppy. Then some teams have an extra home game, others have one fewer. How does that affect competitive balance as teams vie for the same division crown or playoff berth?
And they would never drop two preseason to add one regular season. They have to have the same number of total gates or more, otherwise they are giving up money and they won’t be doing that.
Titansfan from Dover, Del., writes: What is the situation with Chris Johnson's contract?
Paul Kuharsky: He’s under contract. They can’t talk about an extension until July, presuming a new CBA is in place by then. A player/team can’t renegotiate the same deal twice inside a year.
Jesse in Muncie, Ind., writes: I am trying to find the complete draft order, but I can only get the first round. Are all seven rounds not yet determined? If that's the case, when will they be set?
Paul Kuharsky: Three rounds are set. Compensatory selections are announced in late March, and they start at the end of the third round and are tacked on to the end of every round after that. That’s why there isn’t a seven-round order yet.
Brent H. at Columbia, Tenn., writes: With the Broncos turning to Kyle Orton as the starter to open camp, could the Titans target Tim Tebow as a possible trade candidate as the QB of the future? He may not have the skills to be the answer immediately, but will be as ready as any rookie QB that we draft, and possesses great intangibles and leadership that the Titans have lacked from their QB position in the past (see Vince Young).
Paul Kuharsky: The Broncos have no idea who will start. John Fox and his staff have not been on the field with those guys. It doesn’t matter what they say right now.
If the Titans scouts weren’t high on Tebow a year ago, why are the high on him now?
They don’t need a quarterback with physical gifts OR with intangibles. They need one with both. Who cares if Tebow can lead if he can’t throw?
Jwill25 from Columbia, S.C., writes: Now that it seems like the Raiders will not be able to sign Nnamdi Asomugha, would it make since for the Colts to cut Kelvin Hayden? Hayden is scheduled to make a little over $9 million next season and for $4-5 million more we can get a top-notch cornerback in his prime that can hold up a hold season. Not to mention the numbers he produces turnover-wise is worth that much alone. I really believe he could do for us what Charles Woodson does for Green Bay. What are your thoughts?
Paul Kuharsky: That’s not what Hayden is scheduled to make, it’s what he’ll count against the cap. He’s scheduled to make $6.015 million. Asomugha will cost a lot more than that.
And Jim Irsay has publicly said they won’t chase Asomugha. So that basically ends that.
Jonathan in Nashville writes: Chris Johnson Trade!?!?I happened to catch the tail-end of a conversation on XM Radio this morning that the Titans were going to "Shop" CJ around for a QB trade, is this true and if so why would they give up their best offensive player?
Paul Kuharsky: Not true. If it was true, why would the team be talking about it?
A top three running back is not worth a top 10 or 15 quarterback. Who’s trading a good quarterback for a good running back, when the rushing champ was undrafted and the good quarterbacks are almost all high picks?
Drew from Richmond, Va., writes: Any info on this DeMario Pressley? I mean from what I can put together he is essentially a second year player when it comes to playing time who has not proven that he is a playmaker much less a starter. The Colts already have six men listed at defensive tackle. Can we expect a few guys getting cut off that list, and how did this guy grab attention when there are bigger names on the market at that position? I agree that the Colts need to strengthen the run defense and start with the middle of the line but is this guy close to an answer?
Paul Kuharsky: I wouldn’t get excited about Houston’s toss-offs. Maybe he’s a serviceable, back-of-the-rotation guy.
Claiming a guy off waivers is a much cheaper and lower-risk option than signing Shaun Rogers or Tommie Harris or Marcus Stroud. They never said Pressley is a big answer. Such an addition means they think he’s worth bringing in and working with. He could easily be cut two weeks after coaches get to know him. Having him means nothing about their willingness to draft or look at a free agent later.
That said, don’t get caught up in big names. Did you know a lot about Antoine Bethea before they brought him in? Robert Mathis? Jerraud Powers?
Joe in Murfreesburo, Tenn., writes: Mel Kiper Jr. has the Titans taking a DE at #8 in the draft. I don't know if Mel remembers, but the Titans are fine at defensive end. They don't need to re-sign Jason Babin. In fact, they might be better off avoiding a big deal if it turns out he was just a one-year wonder. Derrick Morgan will be back, and he will be ready to go with Dave Ball OR Babin on the other side. Either way, they have much bigger needs than to draft another defensive end, when they will basically have a first-round rookie in Morgan next year. Talk some sense into the man Paul, we need a QB.
Paul Kuharsky: Of course they need a quarterback. But if they don’t like an option they have at No. 8, they’d be dumb to force it.
Babin, Ball and Ford are all en route to unrestricted free agency, they are all undersized and they all faded down the stretch. There is great defensive end talent high in this draft and the Titans have indicated they’d like to have more well-rounded, sturdy guys at the spot.
I’d have no problem with the Titans taking an end to go with Morgan and Hayes. A sustained pass rush that can defend the runs makes everyone better -- including a second-round quarterback.
Jarell from Atlanta by way of Gary, Ind., writes: I read a piece you linked the other day about the Colts free agents. I was shocked to realize how many of our guys are going to be up for free agency, who do you think we keep, specifically between Joseph Addai and Melvin Bullitt? I think Charlie Johnson is a talent, though not the best option at tackle, but the only option we have right now. And what about the tackles... Antonio Johnson came on last season at the end, and can be the reason why the rush defense fell behind while he was out in the playoffs. And Daniel Muir has become a staple in our community...what do you think?
Paul Kuharsky: Well first, I think being a staple in the community doesn’t mean much if you’re a middling player looking for a contract.
I don’t see them choosing between Addai and Bullitt and don’t know why you do.
Think they’d like to have Addai, Bullitt, Johnson, Johnson, Muir and Clint Session all back. They generally work hard to keep their own. I don’t think Addai, either Johnson or Muir draw a lot of interest from other teams. They are all tailored to the Colts, a team that works hard to keep core, valuable guys they drafted or brought in as rookies.
A quality O-line pickup could mean Charlie Johnson is moved to guard or sixth man. A quality defensive tackle in the draft or free agency could mean the end of Antonio Johnson or Muir.
Bullitt may be the toughest to retain because there is a lot of safety need around the league. The Texans and Jaguars would both be wise to chase him.
We’re Colts and Titans heavy, so I tweeted a request for Texans and Jaguars questions and did a rapid fire Twitter session. (I’m @ESPN_AFCSouth.)
@JoeDowntownVS2 so have the texans still decided safety dosent matters even after last year?
PK: Should have looked at available guys. But they still have draft and real free agency. If they don't act then, they're nuts.
@TheMizellGroup being that Garrard never seems to close out the season we know have consecutive seasons in the "L" are we drafting a QB
PK: Absolutely they'll look hard at a developmental QB.
@DustyGmoe With the signings yesterday from #Texans, can you tell where they will go in the first two rounds?
PK: Defense, defense, defense. OLB, FS, SS, CB and despite what they say, DT.
@baron_von_brad any other team make a play for Hawk?
PK: Don't think there was time and he may not have been interested knowing they were working on a new deal.
@HoustonDiehards is gerald sebsabaugh's history w/ Wade going to land him in Houston once free agency happens? Or are we counting on Nolan?
PK: Nolan in the mix. I hope they do better than Sensabaugh.
@tntitansfan10 how much long will Garrard be Jags QB?
PK: Five or six games if they aren't good ones.
@JasonEmbry With Texans' defensive changes, what does future hold for Okoye? And should Texans upgrade No. 2 WR?
PK: Will get a chance to play 3-4 end for Wade. I'd like to see another option at No. 2, though they invested in Walter.
@Hodari11 Does Rahean Mathis have any trade value?Trade now instead of getting nothing when he leavesWants alot more than he is worth
PK: It's not baseball, where you trade a vet for prospects before he's done. They need Mathis, too young in secondary without him.
@AnnaMegan Is getting a new deal for Vonta Leach a must for Texans?
PK: He was very good last year and I wouldn't mess with the formula. But FBs are generally replaceable.
@eggsngrits Not a #Texans fan, but I have to ask: Why would Arian Foster report to camp for a one-year $480k tender offer?
PK: Because he's under contract to do so. I think they'll try to reward him, but they get a financial reward for grabbing him.
@sumpteravada if we had had the social network we hve now n the 80s...wud Marino/Montana/Moon/Elway been held under the microscope?
PK: Their lives would have been different for sure.
Hate the contents of this mailbag? Change the next one by writing me here, via Twitter @ESPN_AFCSouth or via Facebook at Paul Kuharsky ESPN.
Previous head coaching experience was an important factor for John Elway, who’s now at the controls for the Broncos. Fox had an nine-year run in Carolina (not eight as I initially wrote), where he won one NFC title and posted a 78-72 regular season record.
Koetter worked as head coach at Boise State and Arizona State. Dennison has not been a head coach but had strong ties to Denver as a former Broncos player and coach.
Houston would have hated to lose him, but it would have been a survivable blow as Gary Kubiak calls plays.
Jacksonville would have likely struggled to replace Koetter, as Jack Del Rio’s staff is moving forward with only one-year contracts.
Koetter had a good year with some severe limitations with the Jaguars. That Elway identified and interviewed him was big. I’m sure that doesn’t make Koetter feel better about losing out, but it should. I suspect he’s a head coach in the league before his final football bio is written.
Koetter and Texans offensive coordinator Rick Dennison each interviewed for the post on Tuesday. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams took himself out of consideration and offered Broncos executive John Elway a ringing endorsement of Koetter.
According to Jeff Legwold, Williams wrote: "Dirk Koetter is a GREAT find on your part. I have very high regard for him."
Denver knows Dennison well, as he played with Elway and served as an assistant there.
Terry Frei looks back at a column he did on Dennison a few years ago when Dennison was a Denver assistant.
Koetter would be a bigger loss for the Jaguars than Dennison would be for the Texans.
Dennison works for an offensive coach in Gary Kubiak who calls the plays, and Dennison has only been with the Texans for a year. Koetter is heading toward his fifth season working for Jack Del Rio, a defensive coach.
Another candidate for Denver, John Fox, has had trouble getting to his interview because of weather delays.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
Ron Meeks resigned in Indianapolis when it became clear the Colts were going to go a different direction under Jim Caldwell.
Meeks has landed in Carolina, where he will take over for the departed Mike Trgovac as John Fox's defensive coordinator.
Trogovac turned down an extension and went to coach the defensive line in Green Bay.
Fox lauded Meeks after landing him for a staff that's had major defections.
"He's an outstanding teacher who has enjoyed great success as a coordinator in the league and brings a strong background of coaching championship defenses," Fox said.