INDIANAPOLIS -- Making a point in a conversation with his defense, Larry Coyer planted an idea and image with lasting power.
“During training camp he was talking about how balance is the key to everything and he said that he could stand on one leg and hold a TV over his head,” rookie cornerback Jacob Lacey said, chuckling at the memory. “I don’t know if he could do it. I’d like to see him try. It’d be a small TV. A hand-held TV.”
The picture of the white-haired, 66-yard old veteran coach in a Karate Kid pose pressing a Sony overhead says a lot about Coyer's first year as the Colts' defensive coordinator.
In preaching balance, Coyer reflected on a theme that has keyed a Super Bowl year and remains important as the Colts prepare for New Orleans. A once-predictable defense now mixes things up. Like new players, he plugged in and didn’t rock Indianapolis’ boat. Like his boss, Jim Caldwell, and the rest of the staff, Coyer’s been an effective teacher.
In a league where young players can sometimes experience a disconnect with old coaches, Coyer’s methods have worked quite well.
“The guy’s got a lot of life lessons and stuff that he instills in us. He’s got some pretty funny stories that he tells,” Lacey said. “He’s a great teacher, a hands-on guy. He’s been around for a while so he knows a lot of inside things."
Said veteran cornerback Kelvin Hayden: “He’s an old guy, but he brings energy. He tries to do things to get us going, especially the night before a game. He sometimes puts music on and he gets to dancing. Everybody’s watching him, laughing at him. Just to loosen guys up and let them know we’re going to take care of business but we want to have fun as well.”
And how’s the dancing?
“I think the 'Pants on the Ground' guy is better than Coach Coyer,” Hayden said.
Coyer passed on a chance to defend his moves. He politely declined interview requests last week and the Colts didn’t act on league rules that say coordinators must be available to talk weekly.
When Caldwell took over for Tony Dungy, his biggest change was at defensive coordinator. He let Ron Meeks go and brought in Coyer. The talk was of being a bit bigger and more aggressive defense.
During training camp, a coach with another team told me he expected it would take a much longer work week to prepare for a Colts defense moving forward. Dungy’s Cover 2 system was a straightforward deal, and the variations of coverages and rush packages were minimal. The Colts relied on their basics and played them well.
Under Coyer, there has been more blitzing, and more man-to-man coverage change-ups from the bedrock zone principals.
“I think they are quite a bit different and I think they’re more different than even they thought they would be,” said a coach who devised a game plan against the Colts’ defense. “He’s certainly put his own spin on it.
“They would never really play man coverage and hardly ever blitz you before. You very seldom were going to get surprised by anything they did. They’re much more willing to do a wider variety of things that they used to, and they are still doing them pretty well.”
That coach believes Coyer was willing to look at his players outside of the box they’d been drafted or brought in to fit. He looked at speedy undersized linebackers or defensive backs who were especially good in zone, and found their boundaries extended much further.
It’s clear that with expanded possibilities, some veterans got an extra charge out of the extra charges.
Rookie corners like Jerraud Powers and Lacey, asked to fill in, played effectively in both zone and man. Safeties Antoine Bethea and Melvin Bullitt have done some pass rushing. Clint Session emerged as a playmaker on par with Gary Brackett.
Bringing a fifth rusher with expanded blitz patterns into the mix can mean more stunts and games up front. Those open up more inside rushes for the team’s dynamic tandem of defensive ends, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
Ted Sundquist worked as general manager in Denver while Coyer worked for the Broncos and rates as a huge fan.
“I do see Larry’s fingerprints on them,” Sundquist said. “I see an aggressive, attacking, confident unit. For all his years in coaching, I think Larry has a tremendous ability to relate to today’s player. That’s a tribute to him. His teaching ability is timeless. He’s got a manner about him …
“I think it’s a rare coach that can adjust his teaching and still stick with the principles that worked 45 years ago, but can adjust his teaching methods and his stories to get those points across to today’s athlete. With Larry, in the 1960s or 2010 he’s able to get that message across.”
As the Colts' middle linebacker, Brackett covers a great deal of ground. He is a good storyteller too, and he got excited last week when asked for a Coyer story. He told this tale about working to be a “swamp drainer.”
And sticking with the animal analogies he shared this favorite Coyer line as well: “Don’t be the dog that barks out loud, be the dog that is quiet that’ll bite you.”
Brackett’s the sort of football player who soaks that stuff up.
“I’ve always been a guy who respected my elders and just loved to sit and talk because of the wisdom he has about how to use the story in real life,” he said.
Before they take the field against the Saints in Miami, Coyer may tell another story that sticks with his players. He may dance again. He may even offer up a vocabulary lesson.
“When we played Baltimore the first time, he was talking about a donnybrook,” Hayden said. “Guys didn’t really know what he was talking about when he said it: donnybrook. I’m like. ‘What is a donnybrook?’
“He’s said: ‘Don’t you know when you’re at a bar with your boys and somebody starts a fight and then no one is standing around, everyone is going? This game is going to be a donnybrook where everybody has to be into it, everybody has to be ready to hit and be physical.’”