AFC South: Ray Rychleski
If he does, he will have a new special teams coach. The team announced it will not renew the contract of Ray Rychleski.
“I felt we needed to make a change and head in a new direction,” Caldwell said in a statement released by the team. “Although the special teams unit made some improvement as the season progressed, it was not enough to continue our current situation. We appreciate Ray’s service and hard work during his three seasons with the team.”
When Caldwell took over the top job following Tony Dungy’s departure in 2009, the new coach made two significant hires. Defensive coordinator Larry Coyer was fired late in the season and now Rychleski will also be replaced.
Jim Irsay spoke highly of Caldwell in his Monday news conference discussing the firing of vice chairman Bill Polian and general manager Chris Polian. While Caldwell remains with the team, a new general manager will likely have a hand in determining the coach’s fate. That’s an awkward situation and most incoming executives given full powers prefer to hire their own coach.
In that news conference, Irsay praised Caldwell for his accountability and said he had admitted Coyer was a poor fit to run the Colts' scheme and it amounted to a mistake.
It does not say a lot for Caldwell that both the coaching hires that qualifies as his guys are no longer on the staff.
Bill Polian de-emphasized special teams and it's an area that a new regime should pay more attention to.
Cut-blocking, which is legal, is viewed as "cowardly," per Cleveland defensive end Jayme Mitchell via the Akron Beacon-Journal, writes Jeffrey Martin of the Houston Chronicle. The Texans continue to hear opponents grumble about their style. But when opponents say "dirty," the Texans hear "hard," as in the opposite of "soft," which is a tag that has saddled the team for years. That their style gets in people’s heads ahead of time gives them an advantage, I believe. They are a tougher football team than they used to be.
Cut blocking is legal. But Jerome Solomon of the Chronicle asks if it’s ethical. I ask if a football team needs to be concerned with such a question as it tries to plot a course to success. The Texans are very good at what they do, and have built a roster to do it.
What has Chris Polian done to assure his long-term security, asks Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star. Kravitz spoke to several former Colts people who said Polian has been “a toxic force who has brought this franchise to its knees for reasons other than Peyton Manning's injury.” “Tell me, what has Chris Polian actually done besides win the genetic lottery?” Wow. Those are some very strong words.
Special teams coverage and returns have stubbornly defied sustained improvement for years, writes Phil Richards of the Indianapolis Star. Through three head coaches and special teams coordinators -- Jim Mora and Kevin Spencer, 1998-2001; Tony Dungy and Russ Purnell, 2002-08; Jim Caldwell and Ray Rychleski, 2009-present -- they have remained largely substandard. I believe the team is simply too willing to not be good on special teams.
Gene Frenette of the Times-Union offers his midseason report card for the Jaguars. He’s got an F for passing offense and a D for coaching, grades that offset some Bs.
“It would completely fly in the face of (Wayne) Weaver’s image as a patient owner to jettison (Gene) Smith after three years,” writes Frenette. “My goodness, he’s given (Jack) Del Rio nine years, longer than any coach in history without winning a division title. He gave Smith’s predecessor, James Harris, six years despite totally setting this franchise back with repeated first-round draft busts.” I agree. A housecleaning should not include Smith, and he should be hiring the next head coach.
Javon Ringer finds himself a larger part of the Titans’ offense than he or anyone else would have envisioned at the start of the year, writes John Glennon of The Tennessean. Ringer is averaging more yards per run and reception than Chris Johnson, carried the ball a career-best 14 times last week against the Colts, and was on the field for the last three drives of the game. If he’s running better, he needs to play more, I believe. I’d make him, minimally, the third-down back.
Marshall Faulk knows what hitting a wall looks like and feels like, and tells Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean that Chris Johnson has not hit a wall. But Falk has serious questions about CJ: “Right now, he looks like a guy who doesn’t have a good grasp of what they are trying to accomplish in the running game. He is running like a guy who is not certain about how teams are attacking him.”
Let’s touch on a few of Polian’s points:
Polian: “In terms of this particular game, we weren't outplayed. We weren't outhit. We weren't out-hustled. We weren't out-coached. The statistics -- whatever statistics mean or don't mean, they mean nothing. We didn't execute in the critical times and therein lies the story of the game, nothing more, nothing less.”
Kuharsky's take: Polian repeatedly stressed that there was no fault in preparation, that the outcome of Super Bowl XLIV was about the Saints' ability to execute and the Colts' failure to do the same. It must be a coping mechanism for him, because I haven’t heard any criticism about Indy’s preparation.
Polian: “The offensive line, by our standards, did not have a good game. They were outplayed by the Saints' defensive line, I thought, pretty decisively."
Kuharsky's take: Um, didn't that first quote say "We weren't outplayed"? I said Tuesday it’s time to consider revamping the O-line and that as Pete Metzelaars takes over for Howard Mudd, he needs to have more physical options. The Saints D-line isn’t an all-star cast. It shouldn't have been able to win so many plays.
Polian: “Our special teams, in terms of handling the ball -- both in the return game and on the onside kick were outplayed by the Saints. Therein lay the result. It had nothing to do with strategy or preparedness of toughness or effort. All of that was there. We just didn't execute.”
Kuharsky's take: Um, didn't that first quote say "We weren't outplayed"? For too long the Colts have been content with average special teams. I’ve gotten to know Ray Rychleski, the special teams coach who just completed his first year, a bit and I think he’s good at his job. He needs more to work with. Start with some sort of explosive possibility at the return spots. The kicker situation needs resolution so the team has the comfort level there it has with Pat McAfee, the strong young punter and kickoff man.
Polian: “I made it clear to Gary [Brackett] on Sunday night that we very much want him back and will do what is necessary within all reasonable bounds to get him back. It may take a while, as it did with [center] Jeff Saturday last year, because you have to work through budgets.”
Kuharsky's take: The Colts are usually tight against the cap. But we are heading to no cap. If they are fair, they should be able to keep Brackett. His would be a big hole to fill.
A final thought: Out-played, out-executed, out-prepared -- all that stuff is pretty meaningless in the big picture where all that matters is out-scored.
"Be careful how you think. Your life is shaped by your thoughts."
This week he also pointed to Proverbs 23:7: "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he."
If one thing is clear about Caldwell -- a serious, guarded and thoughtful man -- it is that he is a spiritual person, unafraid of using biblical messages to help guide his players.
Members of his staff are in line with that.
“One thing that’s neat about coaching is it makes you walk by faith, it’s not a by-sight thing,” receivers coach Clyde Christensen said. “We could be home next week and I could be unemployed. You just trust. There is a great verse in Exodus that we shared as a staff Tuesday morning: 'God doesn’t take you the most direct route.'
“He didn’t take the Israelites the most direct route to the Promised Land because they couldn’t handle it. They needed to develop some character and of course they screwed it up and took 40 years. But he didn’t take them the most direct route.”
Hearing Caldwell and Christensen early Wednesday morning, I started to think about how I view the spiritual aspect of the Colts.
Certainly the atmosphere Tony Dungy created and Caldwell inherited fosters faith. But it’s not a pushy environment and wouldn’t make someone who might be uninterested in such things uncomfortable.
That’s because when Caldwell points out a biblical passage, it typically has undeniable football and life applications. When coachable guys are offered such nuggets, they generally gobble them up.
“He’ll tell you it’s all about winning football games,” special-teams coach Ray Rychleski said. “Now he has a certain belief beyond football obviously, but he wants to send a message that helps our football team -- ‘This is how it’s been, this is what can work for us.’
“Everybody makes analogies with things and tries to compare things and that’s his way of doing it and people understand it. Whatever he’s selling, everybody’s buying into it.”
Clint Session said he feels like the bulk of the team’s roster is invested in the spiritual and biblical, that Bill Polian even works to find guys who will fit in with it.
“Guys that know, ‘Whatever this coach is telling me, it’s for a good reason,’” Session said. “… He comes out some mornings and throws a Bible verse on the board, and you look at it and think, ‘This has so much of a connection to our team and what I deal with throughout life.’
“He’s not only teaching us to be better players, he’s also teaching us to be a man with dignity and pride and integrity. Words we will be able to use throughout football and after football. When you take care of that, it’s going to show on the field.”
I thought I’d give you a run through of where I believe AFC South candidates should fit in the voting. Please note I don’t have a ballot, and could be missing good candidates here from outside the division. I'm also two games early.
As always, I invite a conversation in the comments.
MVP: Peyton Manning should win it and I believe he will. I’m not big on the “without-him” criteria, where you say how bad the Colts would be without him. I’m not big on the “so dependent” criteria, where you say the team’s run game is poor and they are so dependent on Manning it increases his value.
Here’s what I am big on: I believe he’s the best football player in the league right now. Seven fourth-quarter comebacks, a 14-0 record and early clinching of the big trifecta -- the division, a bye and homefield advantage. What else could you ask him to lead his team to?
Johnson is miles ahead of the next most-productive running back, while Manning and Andre Johnson, the NFL’s leading receiver in yardage, have no such distance between them and their competitors.
Chris Johnson has run for 1,730 yards. Steven Jackson is second with 1,353. That 377 yard difference amounts to 22 percent more for CJ. Johnson is 17 percent ahead of Ray Rice on scrimmage yards.
Manning is one of six quarterbacks with a passer rating over 100. He leads a group of eight signal-callers who’ve already eclipsed 4,000 yards or are all but certain to.
Andre Johnson has 1,433 receiving yards. How many guys are within 22 percent of that total? Six.
Are running backs down? Sure. Is it more and more a passing league? Absolutely. Are people still handing the ball off? Yup.
Chris Johnson’s rushing performance this season is the single best offensive performance of the season. He should win this award by as large a voting margin as any postseason award is won.
Defensive Player of the Year: A case can be made for Dwight Freeney, who’s got 11.5 sacks in a very consistent rushing season. But the Colts defense has been good at all three levels and his push doesn’t stand out. Charles Woodson and Darrelle Revis are the buzz guys now and I think Woodson is a worthy winner. I’d lean to Darren Sharper.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Percy Harvin looks to be in line to win it, and he’s been an explosive addition to the Vikings. But just be sure you’re not putting him here as a receiver alone, because it’s his additional work as a kickoff return man (his 28.3-yard average is third in the NFL) that puts him over the top. Austin Collie's receiving numbers (53 catches for 567 yards and seven touchdowns) aren’t too far off Harvin’s (49, 691, six).
Coach of the Year: Jim Caldwell deserves serious consideration. Broad national thinking is he inherited a great situation and didn’t screw it up. But he made two significant staff changes. The defense, under coordinator Larry Coyer, has been excellent, and the special teams’ coverage, under Ray Rychleski has been better. The Colts didn’t plan on life without Bob Sanders or Anthony Gonzalez, yet they’ve not missed a beat with those guys missing.
But voters traditionally lean heavily on turnarounds or surprises. I figure that means Sean Payton and maybe Marvin Lewis get the most attention here. If the Jaguars find a way into the playoffs, so should Jack Del Rio.
Comeback Player of the Year: I’ve heard some Vince Young talk. I think this requires coming back from more than a self-inflicted benching, and more than a 10-game season. I don’t think he’s in the same class here as Cedric Benson, who had been dismissed as a bust. And I know a lot of folks will look to Tom Brady.
» Draft class lists: Indianapolis | Jacksonville | Houston | Tennessee
Best get: Not everyone was sold on Brian Cushing coming out of USC, often because of his injury history at USC. He missed most of camp hurt and has missed a lot of practices, but none of it has gotten in the way of his being an impact player every Sunday. The Texans need more defenders and more players in his mold. He’s a legitimate defensive player of the year candidate.
Worst unaddressed spot: The Texans had plenty of reason to expect they had a feature back in Steve Slaton, but completely misread their situation after that. Interior line injuries and a second-year slump for Slaton have made a second back even more important, and Chris Brown, Ryan Moats and Arian Foster all have proved incapable of handling the pressures of the work. A second running back ranks as one of the team’s highest priorities in free agency or the 2010 draft.
Still uninvolved: Tight end James Casey came in as a versatile fifth-rounder who was going to be a unique weapon for head coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to tinker with. He’s got six catches for 64 yards in 11 games. He needs to have more of an impact, given that the Texans lost top-flight tight end Owen Daniels to a season-ending knee injury.
Still to be determined: First-rounder Donald Brown has shown he will be a good NFL player. But he’s missed five games with injuries, including the last three. He’s more capable than Joseph Addai of breaking off a big run. The question: Does Brown understand that looking for the big gain isn’t worth risking a play resulting in second-and-12. If Brown is healthy, he could see a lot of touches in the last two games. The Colts are 14-0 with just 59 carries, 263 yards and two TDs from their top pick. (They haven’t gotten much out of second-round defensive tackle Fili Moala, either.)
A perfect fit: Fourth-round receiver Austin Collie, not Minnesota’s Percy Harvin, leads all rookie receivers in catches. Collie's nabbed 53 passes for 567 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s a perfect fit for the Colts' system, and adopted the necessary work ethic to win over and work with Peyton Manning. Whether Anthony Gonzalez re-emerges for the post season push or not, Collie’s crucial to it.
Best special teams addition: The Colts had eight touchbacks in 2008. With rookie punter Pat McAfee taking over kickoffs from Adam Vinatieri, they have 18 with two games remaining. Better kickoffs are a big factor in coverage improvements under new special teams coach Ray Rychleski. McAfee’s also got a net punting average of 38.0 yards, less than a yard off former Colts' veteran Hunter Smith’s number from last season.
Long-term solutions: Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton were the top two picks and have played the bulk of the season at left and right tackle, respectively. They have not been consistent, but the team loves their skill sets and upside. And early work means they’ll get to the levels the team projected when spending such high picks on them sooner rather than later.
Eighth-rounders: First-year general manager Gene Smith needed additions beyond his draft class and found a couple: Cornerback William Middleton out of Furman and linebacker Russell Allen from San Diego State are undrafted free agents who made the team and have been contributors. In the nationally televised Week 15 Thursday night loss to the Colts, Allen led the team with 12 tackles. Smith is down a second and seventh rounder in 2010 because of trades, and he hopes to hit on some undrafteds again, and annually.
Three is key: Smith did great work in the third round, landing two small school players who’ve established themselves as productive starters with upside. Cornerback Derek Cox from William & Mary has not been intimidated by anything or anyone. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton from Temple has been a stout and reliable run stopper.
Biggest breakthrough: Since 1998, the Titans have spent draft picks in the top three rounds on Kevin Dyson, Tyrone Calico, Courtney Roby, Brandon Jones and Paul Williams. Dyson was involved in two of the franchise’s biggest plays in 1999 and did OK otherwise, but none of them solved the team's long-standing woes at receiver. First-rounder Kenny Britt is a great combination of size, power and speed who goes and gets the ball. Britt seems like he can be a consistently productive weapon.
Disappearing act: The Titans gave away a second-rounder to draft tight end Jared Cook in the third, and in camp he seemed like a great addition. Then he suffered an ankle injury, faded and never really re-emerged. Long-term he’s still very compelling. But the Titans sure could have used a jolt from him during their 0-6 start.
An heir: Gerald McRath seems comfortable and been effective as an outside linebacker when needed. He will start the rest of the way and, after bulking up in the offseason, stands to inherit the spot of either David Thornton (breaking down) or Keith Bulluck (free agent who tore an ACL in Week 15) next year. If both veterans are gone (a likely scenario), the second replacement needs to be a free agent or a draft pick.
|Jim Caldwell may be a first-year head coach, but he was an assistant in nine Colts-Patriots matchups, so has experience preparing for Patriots coach Bill Belichick.|
Jim Caldwell’s not some newbie who has been dropped into a matchup against New England and is preparing for Bill Belichick’s game-plan wrinkles for the first time.
As one of Tony Dungy 's former assistants, he was been part of nine Colts-Patriots games, including three in the postseason. Indy was 4-5 in those games.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, Belichick is 28-19 in his career against first-year coaches, 20-11 while with the Patriots. Belichick is 1-2 this year, with losses to Rex Ryan and Josh McDaniels, and a win against Raheem Morris.
“[Caldwell] is not like most first-year coaches. He’s been there for seven years, he’s seen it, he’s dissected the matchups, he’s supervised a lot of the game-planning especially offensively for however many games they’ve played,” Dungy said on a conference call arranged by NBC, for whom he’s now an analyst. “So it’s not like a new guy coming in. He’s very aware of everything that’s taken place those last seven years. I really don’t look at this like a first-year coach in a normal sense.”
Caldwell’s been excellent in his first eight games as Dungy’s successor, maintaining the good thing he inherited.
He’s been a bit more aggressive on offense with some bold fourth-down calls. He’s installed a defensive coordinator, Larry Coyer, and allowed him to increase the frequency is which the team blitzes and plays man defense. His new special-teams coach, Ray Rychleski, hasn’t solved the team’s long-standing return game issues, but he does have the coverage teams playing much better.
Caldwell is tied with Potsy Clark, of the 1931 Portsmouth Spartans, for the second best winning streak to start a career. (You remember those Spartans, of course. They went 11-3 and finished second. Yes, it was the same year the Frankfurt Yellow Jackets went 1-6-1.)
With two more wins, Caldwell will catch Wally Lemm, who won his first 10 in 1961-62 with the Houston Oilers and St. Louis Cardinals.
“They are obviously playing well and he’s got them hitting on all cylinders and playing with a lot of confidence, playing good football,” Belichick said. “I respect the job that he’s done as a head coach, as an assistant coach and the job he’s doing now with the Colts.”
Belichick is notorious for changing things up game to game, so the Colts are unlikely to see much that looks familiar from the Patriots’ performances in recent weeks. The ability of Caldwell, his staff and quarterback Peyton Manning to adjust as they go will be a major storyline in Sunday night’s game.
Former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, also an NBC analyst, said Belichick would flip him to corner against the Colts, with Ty Law playing some safety.
“The thing that Bill gave us to do was create a lot of freedom by trying to disguise the coverage,” Harrison said on a conference call this week. “… We wanted to create some level of confusion for Peyton Manning as well as jam and wear down Marvin Harrison.”
Dungy said that was very unusual.
Other wrinkles the Patriots used against Dungy's Colts were more about what Belichick deployed when, not unveiling something brand new.
“Usually what happens is, it’s not something you haven’t seen, it’s just something that you don’t expect or they haven’t done,” Dungy said. “Usually you’ll come into a game, New England’s showing a lot of blitzes, five-man pressures, and in our game they decide to rush three and drop eight, or vice versa. There has been a lot of three-man rush before and now it’s a different look or it’s nickel and dime defense on first down or it’s four-man line.”
“That’s the thing from the Colts’ standpoint that we’ve always admired about the Patriots. They’ve been able to have a different game plan even for halves sometime -- first half there is a four-man line, second half there is a three-man line, first half is base defense, second half is nickel or dime. You have to be ready to adjust when you play New England.”
Tom Brady said Caldwell’s Colts play a more straight-up defense, relying on the pass pressure of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
“They’ll have some new wrinkles,” Brady said. “They always find a way to mix up some of their tendencies. But in the end -- through eight games -- that’s really what they do. All of that’s on film now.
Texans-Colts is one of the three games Clark Judge would like to see Sunday.
- Writes Richard Justice: “In some ways, this week feels like the end of one era in the franchise's history and the beginning of another. The Texans will play the Colts this afternoon, and for maybe the first time, the rest of the NFL will be watching to see how these new guys measure up.”
- The Texans are 0-7 in Indianapolis but could be on the cusp of a meaningful breakthrough, says Dale Robertson.
- Ryan Moats will start at running back but Steve Slaton is expected to play, too.
- Owen Daniels’ surgery is scheduled for Nov. 17, says Mark Berman.
- Charles Davis says if the Texans split with the Colts they are a playoff team.
- Putting Matt Schaub in a bit of historical context, from Cold, Hard Football Facts. Thanks to Battle Red Blog for the link.
- Punt and kick coverage teams have been steady under new coach Ray Rychleski, says Mike Chappell.
- Against Houston, Antoine Bethea will be the only Colt in the secondary the team envisioned putting on the field when the season started, says Phil Richards.
- John Oehser reviews an eventful week for the Colts.
- Reggie Wayne and Andre Johnson have a special bond from playing at “The U,” says Tom James.
- The case for the Colts as the better of the NFL’s two undefeated teams, says Vinnie Iyer.
- Eighteen things to watch for, from Deshawn Zombie.
- If cornerback Jack Williams clears waivers, the Colts should sign him says Stampede Blue, which provides nice background info. I agree he could help them depth-wise. But won’t a bad team claim him on waivers?
- A midseason report card from Gene Frenette.
- Random midseason thoughts from Vic Ketchman, who’s anxious to see Gene Smith get to work on the roster in the offseason.
- Examining the coordinators with Collin Streetman.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
Here's what I think they are thinking in the headquarters of the four AFC South teams heading into the season openers. (Before the opener, this amounts to the “highly optimistic edition.”)
There is no way our run defense against the Jets will look like it did in the preseason against the Saints and Vikings. Brian Cushing is going to step right in and be a playmaker. Dunta Robinson will give the secondary a boost. And we will create a variety of ways to rattle Mark Sanchez. Even if the Jets score some points, we’re going to stay composed against Rex Ryan’s new defense, we’re going to protect the ball, we’re going to be more productive in the red zone and our offense will click on day one. A lot of the people say they’ve been burned before by picking us to break out and are wary of us now. But we’re going to do so well Sunday, they will be left wondering if they made a mistake.
There is a share of people out there who think we've slipped. New coach, couple of new assistants, no more Marvin Harrison, shaky left tackle. That’s fine, but not particularly smart. Our MVP quarterback Peyton Manning is sharp and ready to go. We can look at every unit on our roster and make a legitimate case for why we are a better team at each spot than we were last year. We’re bigger defensively without sacrificing athleticism, and we’re going to be a lot less predictable under defensive coordinator Larry Coyer. Even special teams, under our fiery new coach, Ray Rychleski, has a chance to be better. We're going to surprise people with a big special-teams play. Can we stop the run better? Maurice Jones-Drew will give us a big chance for an early answer.
Nobody knows what we can really do, how much we’ve bought in and how well we are capable of playing coming out of the gate. Sure, the Colts will say they are wary and should be fired up for opening day, but if we can hit them in the mouth and show them it won’t be easy, we can beat them. Jones-Drew’s seven touchdowns against the Colts are four more than any other player has against them over the last three seasons. He’s topped 91 yards against Indy in four of his last six games against them. With our rookie tandem of tackles blocking for him, things won’t be easy. But we’re also going to throw to him a bunch. And if they overplay him at the line, David Garrard can connect over the top to Troy Williamson or Torry Holt -- we just need to get Garrard the extra second he’ll need to do it.
Pittsburgh is physical, and is always recognized as such. But people in the know understand we are one of the league’s most physical teams, too. Don’t think we’re going to spend any time missing Albert Haynesworth, either. He was out hurt last year when we beat the Steelers in Nashville in a game with giant home-field playoff implications, sacking Ben Roethlisberger five times and doing a good job keeping him or funneling him to where we wanted him. They know we’ll look to do more of the same, and that’s fine because we can. We’re not going to have all our new weapons because of injury, but we’ve got enough that we can stand toe-to-toe with the defending champs and ruin their homecoming party.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
Three quick hits on the Indianapolis Colts:
1. Jim Caldwell will be a steady leader. Sure, there is still some adjusting for a team led by Tony Dungy for so long. But Caldwell has a similar demeanor, and the first time this team faces a crisis and looks to him, I expect it'll like how he responds. Too much has been made of other changes on the coaching staff. Tom Moore and Howard Mudd are back in place leading the offense and offensive line, respectively, after retirements that helped with their pensions. And new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer and special teams coach Ray Rychleski replaced coaches many thought Dungy had been loyal to for too long.
2. The defense is bigger and more physical. Philip Wheeler and Clint Session are more rugged as the outside backers. The interior defensive line is much bigger with Ed Johnson back and rookies Fili Moala and Terrance Taylor in the mix. That should mean the team fares better in run defense, but all these guys can run too, so the team hasn't sacrificed its dedication to speed. Look for more variety on defense, as indications are a Cover-2 team will play more man and do more blitzing. Whatever the new wrinkles to the scheme, the mindset is more aggressive. Safety Bob Sanders many not be ready for opening day but the team has an excellent fill-in with Melvin Bullitt.
3. Marvin Harrison was hardly himself last year, and while not having him makes things different for Peyton Manning, he's got a solid stable of weapons with Reggie Wayne, Anthony Gonzalez, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Donald Brown, Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon. While protection and run blocking are issues at the start, firepower shouldn't be. Addai looks primed for a rebound after a second-year slow-down and Brown is a more dynamic second option out of the backfield.
|Scott Boehm/Getty Images|
|New coach Jim Caldwell has made a number of changes and the Colts appear happy with the alterations.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
But Freeney is content with new coach Jim Caldwell's changes at defensive coordinator and special teams coach. The Colts' star defensive end surveys a landscape that no longer includes Ron Meeks and Russ Purnell and feels just fine.
"I think that's one thing people need to understand: We had a lot of success in the years with Meeks and Purnell and, yeah, we are changing personnel as far as those coaching positions are concerned. But change is not always a bad thing," he said. "If you look at the end result, and I'm not saying it was their fault, but we only achieved the end goal once even though we were very successful.
"And I'm not saying it was because of them. But there is always room for improvement. You never know -- you change things around, it brings new energy, it brings new fire. We could see some bigger things."
That energy was palpable early in camp from a team that overcame a lot to go 12-4 last year, then botched a big opportunity in a playoff game in San Diego.
The Colts have had a smooth transition because they anticipated the change and had Caldwell serve as associate head coach under Dungy. Caldwell removed Meeks and Purnell, replacing them with Larry Coyer and Ray Rychleski, respectively.
But the other key people in the organization who provide major stability are still in place -- Bill Polian is still the team president and Peyton Manning is still the quarterback.
Like Freeney, Polian believes some change can be a good thing.
"Sometimes that's good -- you hear a different voice, you hear a different approach, it gets the message across in a different manner," Polian said. "Both are excellent coaches, both are terrific guys.
"They're both organized and they're both good teachers, so I don't think there is any real change there. But maybe the way the lesson is taught might be a little bit different and it's probably, in the end, good."
1. Can the third-down defense get Manning the ball back?
The Colts tied for second worst in the league in third-down conversion rate, allowing teams to convert on third down 47.4 percent of the time. Bend-but-don't-break is going out of fashion under Coyer, according to many of his players. And with third down as a focus, they hope to get the offense back on the field and allow their best people to spend more time working.
Only six teams fared worse in time of possession than the Colts (28:39) last year. No matter how opponents try to play keep-away, getting Manning and the offense on the field more must be a priority.
2. Does Manning have the weapons and protection?
Reggie Wayne has been the de facto No. 1 receiver for a while already. And Anthony Gonzalez is primed for a great year in his third season, with a lot more opportunities to come. Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie were both impressive early in camp and appear primed to be steady contributors, and Donald Brown provided a second running back with dynamic possibilities.
The protection question may be a bigger conc
ern. Charlie Johnson has been inserted at left tackle. While he has been an effective fill-in, if he is the guy for 16 games, defensive ends named Mario Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch are going to find the holes in his game. Perhaps Tony Ugoh responds to the demotion and seizes the job back. Either way, could Manning have to worry more about getting hit from a blind side rusher than he has in the past?
3. Can special teams provide a boost?
Mediocre to poor special teams have been the norm for the Colts, and under Dungy there seemed to be a level of tacit acceptance. Enter Rychleski, a fiery and passionate special teams coach who Caldwell hired from South Carolina. As in many of the departments where the Colts ranked poorly in the past, just a moderate improvement can make a big difference.
The return games have been the worst element. T.J. Rushing is the leading candidate right now, but rookies Collie and Jerraud Powers could provide a boost. Another rookie, Pat McAfee is slated to be the new punter.
Working predominantly as the third receiver last season, Gonzalez had 664 receiving yards. Bumped up to No. 2, he should be poised to top 1,000 yards and improve on the four touchdown catches he totaled in 2008. He is typecast by too many as a slot guy, but in three wide receiver sets it appears more likely that Wayne or Collie will line up inside.
Gonzalez is a complete receiver who has established a great rapport with Manning -- so much so that Manning invited the receiver to serve as his caddy at a pro-am golf tournament in April.
|Scott Boehm/Getty Images|
|The Colts are counting on Donald Brown to have a big impact in his rookie season.|
Newcomer to watch
While most analysts figured the Colts would look wide receiver or defensive tackle late in the first round, Polian spent the 27th pick in the draft on highly productive UConn running back Brown. An indictment of Joseph Addai? Perhaps. An upgrade over Dominic Rhodes? Absolutely.
The Colts' plans for Brown and their opinion of Addai after an off year in which he struggled with with knee trouble are both unclear. But Caldwell has made it clear he anticipates significant work for his top two backs. Brown was effective in his first preseason action, even as it came against a mix of second- and third-string Minnesota defenders. High draft picks on offense are expected to help right away and rookie running backs regularly plug in and excel. It's what Addai did in 2006 as the league's leading rookie rusher and it's what Brown may well do in the same offense.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri (hip) isn't expected back until the very end of the preseason. When he's kicking again, he will work intensively with McAfee, his new holder, to get their rhythm and timing down. ... If everyone is healthy in the secondary, work as the dime won't be sufficient for safety Melvin Bullitt. Expect the Colts to creatively find other ways to get him on the field regularly. His development likely means Antoine Bethea won't be re-signed when he becomes a free agent. ... Ryan Lilja is the best run blocker on the line and will also help Jeff Saturday provide an additional veteran influence on the younger players in the offensive line meeting room. ... While Harrison was locked in to lining up in the right, Reggie Wayne will move from the left into the slot, making him tougher to predict and defend. ... Curtis Painter's preseason play could determine his fate. The team doesn't intend for the rookie quarterback to be Manning's backup this season -- that's still Jim Sorgi's job. But injuries and numbers at other spots could impact their ability to keep three signal-callers. Ideally they would have Painter on the practice squad, but what if someone else wants to sign him away? ... Gijon Robinson can block and catch and qualifies as a starter. Buy the development of two second-year right ends could cut into his time. Jacob Tamme runs good routes and has good hands, qualifying as more of a pass catcher while he's emerging as a better blocker. Tom Santi can be a combination guy but has had health issues. ... Because the Colts added three big bodies to the defensive tackle mix -- veteran Ed Johnson and rookies Fili Moala and Terrance Taylor -- two guys who contributed in the interior last year could see far less action. Keyunta Dawson has been moved to end and Eric Foster could get caught in a numbers crunch. ... If Philip Wheeler and Clint Session lock in the outside linebacker spots, then Freddy Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler will give the Colts something they have not often had -- veteran linebackers available for a lot of special teams work. ... Dante Hughes looks to have fallen out of favor, which creates a lot of opportunity for Powers. ... Maybe I just caught him on a good couple days of practice, but receiver Taj Smith looks like a guy with real potential to develop. Look for him on the practice squad again.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
INDIANAPOLIS -- It's been a gorgeous day in Indy and the Colts-Vikings game will unfold beneath an open roof and window at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Three pregame thoughts/questions:
1) Sage Rosenfels is starting for the Vikings against a team that is not playing any of its starting secondary. On the one hand, Minnesota fans should feel confident the candidate for the starting job will be able to complete some passes. On the other hand, take a look at the picture atop this post from last October and revisit, if you will, a game famous for the "Rosencopter fumble" in an appearance against the Colts.
While we are touching on the Indianapolis secondary, let's take note of where cornerback Dante Hughes lines up. Is he second team (and thus starting)? Third? I don't get the sense the team is big on him right now, but what does playing a lot in a Colts' preseason game mean for a non-starter? That they like you? That they don't? That they need film to decide? It's harder to tell with them than with a lot of other teams.
2) Roy Hall is already gone, and I think Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie are both in line for roles as contributors at third receiver. Here we get our first game-pressure looks at them with big expectations. Peyton Manning won't play long and Anthony Gonzalez won't play at all. We shouldn't read much into it if Manning throws to one a bunch and the other not at all or hardly to either or a lot to each. But provided he aims for them a couple of times, do they look poised and comfortable and is it clear they are getting to their spots or are there hints of any hesitation?
3) Is there a discernable difference on special teams? I had a chance to talk with new coach Ray Rychleski, a very interesting guy with great passion for his job. Will we be able to see a difference in his charges? And how does rookie Pat McAfee fare punting and holding for Shane Andrus, who's keeping Adam Vinatieri's seat warm?
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
Fred Bennett needs to play a lot better than he did last year, says Dale Robertson.
More on Arian Foster from Alan Burge.
The Browns signed former Texans offensive lineman Fred Weary.
Ray Rychleski is making an impression on Colts special teamers, writes Phillip B. Wilson.
In John Oehser's seven observations on the first week of camp, he says Jerraud Powers could be a find.
If the Colts want to bring in a veteran quarterback while Jim Sorgi is out with a hamstring injury, stampedeblue.com has a list of possibilities.
The Jaguars need work on the 2:00 drill, says Vito Stellino.
David Garrard is sailing some passes, says Vic Ketchman.
Clifton Brown looks at Jacksonville's overhaul.
A late look at Damon Hack's postcard from Jaguars camp.
Lavelle Hawkins ran the wrong route on Vince Young's interception, reports Jim Wyatt in his story on the Titans-Bills game.
Wyatt assesses quarterback play with help from assistant coach Craig Johnson.
Young was not so hot, says Nancy Gay.
Injured Titans got some work in before the game, says Wyatt.
David Climer says Bud Adams should be in the Hall of Fame.
Heard this before? The Bills were totally tricked by the Titans special teams, says Jim Wyatt.
Young was confident after the preseason opener, says John Wawrow.
Titans Radio recaps the game.
Dale Robertson looks at a couple record-setting receivers who led the Oilers to their first AFL title.
|Bill Baptist/Getty Images|
|A healthy Chris Brown could be a big plus for Houston.|
Training camp site: Houston, Texas
Campfires: Weakside linebacker appears to be the biggest battle for a starting spot. Xavier Adibi has bulked up in an effort to become more rugged and withstand the 16-game pounding. Zach Diles appears to be an underdog here, as does veteran Cato June, who signed up after spending time in Indianapolis and Tampa Bay.
Finding a back to complement Steve Slaton is a big priority, but the Texans didn't spend much to increase their options. A healthy Chris Brown could do well in the role, but Houston is living on the edge if it's counting on 16 games from him. Undrafted rookies Jeremiah Johnson and Arian Foster are in the mix along with Ryan Moats and Clifton Dawson
Camp will be a downer if: Anything bad happens to Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson or Slaton. This is an offensive team keyed around that trio, and the loss of any of them for any extended time will be a huge setback.
Schaub's been labeled as injury prone, but it's really been more about being unlucky. It's not as if other quarterbacks would have played through some of the things he's faced. Still, Gary Kubiak's talked about how players can learn how to stay on the field, and he needs his signal-caller to do that.
Camp will be a success if: A defensive identity develops under new coordinator Frank Bush, who's pledged to be more aggressive.
The Texans need some preseason success on both sides of the ball to carry into the regular season, because another shaky start will be cause for concern based on the team's history. If Houston is to plot a course to its first playoff berth, it needs to avoid a poor start.
Second time around: Slaton was a revelation as a rookie, and while there is uncertainty about who else will get carries, the line should be better. It's the second year for the group under Alex Gibbs running his scheme, which should mean better and more consistent play.
Additionally, not only does the unit have Gibbs and John Benton as coaching resources, but can look to assistant Bruce Matthews, the Hall of Famer who's now part of the staff.
Training camp site: Terre Haute, Ind.
|Donald Miralle/Getty Images|
|Peyton Manning's receiving corps will be without Marvin Harrison this year.|
icamp, with Hall not generating much buzz.
Returning defensive tackles Keyunta Dawson, Eric Foster, Raheem Brock (an end on early downs) and Antonio Johnson will be fighting for roles at a position that welcomed back Ed Johnson and has two young, thick additions from the draft in Fili Moala and Terrance Taylor. Getting bigger inside while maintaining athleticism was a priority for the Colts.
The plan at linebacker is for Clint Session to play on the weakside and Philip Wheeler to replace him on the strongside. But guys with starting experience like Freddy Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler will be looking to take the team away from that blueprint.
Camp will be a downer if: Left guard Ryan Lilja, perhaps the team's best run blocker, can't make it back after the knee injury that cost him all of 2008. Trouble on the return path for cornerback Marlin Jackson (knee) would also be a bad thing.
With those injuries, the two surgeries on Manning's knee, a dinged Joseph Addai and a bunch of additional problems for the offensive line, the Colts got to show that they could survive. It's not anything they want to be in position to prove again.
Camp will be a success if: New head coach Jim Caldwell sets an early tone that gives the team no room for doubt about the transfer of power from his mentor, Tony Dungy. The players also must take to the thinking of new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer (a bit more aggressive) and new, fiery special teams coach Ray Rychleski.
It also would be great if Manning develops increased rapport with Anthony Gonzalez, who's graduated to No. 2 receiver with Marvin Harrison gone. Manning also needs to gain a real feel for the guy who wins the battle for No. 3 as well as the young tight ends, Jacob Tamme and Tom Santi.
Off the record: Even with a new coach and changes on his staff, it's unlikely there will be any different emphasis on preseason results. Indianapolis is 3-15 in the preseason over the last four years and 51-13 in the regular seasons that followed.
The Colts have a good feel for how to get ready and don't have to worry about building fan enthusiasm with preseason wins. Everyone knows to look at smaller things early in the game to gauge the team's readiness.
FRANKLIN, Ind. -- Some observations and thoughts from Saturday afternoon's public minicamp practice at Franklin College's Faught Stadium:
Outreach: Bill Polian spoke to the crowd before things started and told those in attendance that owner Jim Irsay had charged the team to create more outreach and more interaction with fans, which was the impetus for a practice like this one.
Boomer: New special teams coach Ray Rychleski has a booming voice that carries. He's got some enthusiasm for sure and offered critiques and compliments with equal fervor. Rookie punter Pat McAfee bombed a couple, but was inconsistent.
Stumble: Tyjuan Hagler provided some comic relief, tripping over his own feet during a linebacker drill where players zigzagged in a back pedal before breaking on a ball.
Third wide: I tried to read into how the receivers deployed, but there is no telling at this stage how the candidates for the No. 3 job -- Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie and Roy Hall -- stack up. My eye -- which has no experience training receivers, just lots watching them -- puts them in that order right now.
It got even harder to gauge Garcon against Collie when Anthony Gonzalez dropped out, seemingly with a right thigh issue. Those two worked in three-wide with Reggie Wayne. That might tell us something about Hall, though.
Clyde Christensen is working as the offensive coordinator now, but is still with the receivers as their position coach. The Colts are creative in some of the drills they use when the wideouts work alone. I don't recall seeing other teams, for example, run short stuff where they cut behind a blocking bag that interrupts their view as they angle back to collect a pass. But it seems a smart way to recreate some real-world experience in this sort of mild setting. I saw Collie, Hall and Taj Smith drop short passes in that segment.
Details: While special teams work went on at one point, quarterbacks worked alone. Peyton Manning lined up in the spot where he imagined a defender would be on a specific play and looked to offer detailed commentary/advice/coaching to Curtis Painter before he took a few drops envisioning the full 11 that could be opposite him.
Protection: The first offensive line that worked in front of Manning in a team drill was, left to right: Tony Ugoh, Jamey Richard, Jeff Saturday, Dan Federkeil and Ryan Diem. (Charlie Johnson and Mike Pollak didn't work and Ryan Lilja didn't work that deep into the session.)
Scrambled backers: I tried to look at linebackers the same way, but it seemed like there was a lot of mix and match going on. One early group had Jordan Senn and Philip Wheeler bracketing Adam Seward. Of all the things not to read much into -- which is virtually everything here -- I'd rank this first.
Coming back: Watched Lilja, who's coming off a season lost to a knee injury, a little bit. He wore sleeves on both knees and seemed comfortable firing off the line and cutting down a blocking bag/tackling dummy as the O-line concentrated on some individual technique.
Off day: Among those who sat out at spots other than the O-line: Running backs Joseph Addai and Mike Hart, defensive end Dwight Freeney, cornerback Marlin Jackson, safety Bob Sanders and linebacker Gary Brackett.
Catches: In work with just quarterbacks and wide receivers, Gonzalez ran on to a nice line drive post from Manning, stopping it with one hand and then catching up to it as he accelerated. In the same period, Austin went to the ground to collect a pass from Chris Crane.
The break-up: Third-round cornerback Jerraud Powers made what I thought was the standout defensive play of the afternoon. In the team period, matched up with Wayne and with Manning, Powers broke well on mid-range pass to the left side, got a hand in front of Wayne and broke it up.