NFL Nation: Blair White

Breaking down Colts as they break down

October, 27, 2011
Peyton ManningDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireThe Colts were clearly ill-prepared for life without star quarterback Peyton Manning.
It’s ugly in Indianapolis.

At 0-7, the Colts are talking about sticking together, improving and giving themselves a chance to win.

But as they prepare for a trip to Nashville for a Sunday meeting with the Titans at LP Field, they are a severely broken team. Where they would be with Peyton Manning is an interesting hypothetical question, but we’re dealing with realities. And those realities are the sort that will test the franchise’s stitching -- seamwork that might not hold together when this is all over.

Who’s at fault? Everyone’s got a hand in it, but let’s look at the Colts from a couple different angles.

A big cover-up: It’s not a secret that Manning has helped cover up a lot of flaws and allowed the franchise to under-address certain areas.

The Colts during the Manning era have never been much concerned with size, always valuing speed and instincts more. They’ve never worried about stocking special teams with any veteran backups, in part because they spend their money on stars, or adding a high-quality return man. They’ve settled for being below average running the ball. And they’ve won despite a general inability to stop the run.

Without their four-time MVP running the offense, all of those things are magnified in ways they’ve never been before.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. They’re built to have Manning at the controls, and he’s been there all the time from the very beginning in 1998 until opening day this season.

There are maybe two teams and markets in the league that would not trade for what the Colts have done since 1999. Twelve consecutive playoff seasons followed by one complete dud? Where do I sign up for that?

[+] EnlargeJacob Lacey
Michael Hickey/US PresswirePersonnel decisions by the Colts put cornerback Jacob Lacey, 27, in a prominent role in a secondary that has struggled this season.
Construct questions: That said, regardless of a serious neck surgery to the star quarterback, what exactly was the plan in the secondary? Is an evaluation that leaves Jacob Lacey, Terrence Johnson, Kevin Thomas and Chris Rucker as cornerbacks No. 2 through 5 good enough? Absolutely not.

The Colts get credit for adding a couple outside veterans this season -- linebacker Ernie Sims and defensive ends Jamaal Anderson and Tyler Brayton. But the drafting has dropped off.

Set aside the most recent class, as it’s too early to judge.

The Colts drafted 41 players from 2005 through 2010. I count one star, safety Antoine Bethea, and two guys who can become stars, linebacker Pat Angerer and receiver Austin Collie (if he’s working with Manning). Running back Joseph Addai is a good fit who does more than people think. And receiver Pierre Garcon and cornerback Jerraud Powers have been pretty solid starters.

Sure, the Colts drafted higher in the five years before. Still, those classes produced five guys who rank among the best players of their generation at their positions: tight end Dallas Clark, defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, safety Bob Sanders and receiver Reggie Wayne. The next tier provided steady starters on the offensive line (Jake Scott, Ryan Diem) and linebacker (David Thornton).

That list is more than a third of a starting team, a big-time core. As those guys age or disappear, I'm not seeing a core in waiting.

Colts president turned vice chairman Bill Polian said recently on his radio show that they needed to have done better recently, particularly at defensive tackle and cornerback.

And there is a domino effect to the problem. Find Tarik Glenn’s ultimate replacement at left tackle in 2007, and then you don’t need to use your top pick in 2011 on Anthony Castonzo. Hit on Donald Brown in the first round in 2009, and Delone Carter might not be necessary in the fourth round in 2011.

The Polians: Bill Polian has been pulling back and yielding responsibility to his son, GM Chris Polian. (Chris politely declined to be interviewed for this piece.)

We don’t yet have much tape on Chris Polian, so to speak. Bill Polian is a good talent evaluator who’s had success in three NFL stops and has done well to build a team Manning has won with. But Bill Polian has also overseen those recent draft drop-offs.

His strong-willed personality is part of what has made him good at his job, and his big-picture assessment of important league issues is as intelligent as anyone’s. He’s got clout and influence that extends beyond Indianapolis.

Stylistically, he’s a stubborn and demanding boss. There are indications from within that, without the steady stream of personnel hits he provided earlier in his tenure, some inside the building are tiring of the way things are run.

Polian talked recently about how Curtis Painter's play vindicates the team for having faith in him, but failed to mention that the faith was so strong that the team signed Kerry Collins to a $4 million contract shortly before the season started and handed him the starting job.

I suspect Bill Polian’s got the backing of owner Jim Irsay for as long as he wants it. That would ensure safety for Chris Polian, too.

Bill Polian made the Manning-over-Ryan Leaf call in 1998. Because of the way Leaf busted, people forget that was a coin flip at the time, that Leaf was regarded as a big-time prospect just as much as Manning was. Polian called it correctly, built a team that’s been to two Super Bowls and won one, got a new stadium built and greatly enhanced the value of Irsay’s franchise.

Cryptic messages: Further complicating things is Irsay, who clearly gets a kick out of being the center of NFL attention in the Twitter-verse but has undermined some of his people with it.

He announced the team added Collins while coach Jim Caldwell was conducting his daily news conference. It did Caldwell no favors, as he appeared completely out of the loop.

Most recently, following the 62-7 loss in New Orleans on Sunday night, Irsay provided this gem:
“Titanic collapse, apologies 2 all ColtsNation...problems identifiable;solutions in progress but complex in nature/ better days will rise again”

A day later, he added:
"Just because you perceive problems on the horizon,and you possess solutions..doesn't mean they are avoidable and implementation is instant"

Solutions in progress, but complex in nature. That sounds to me like what would be written in big silver letters on the lobby wall of a consulting company on a TV show. Or a clever, but far-too-long name for a band.

It also sounds like change is going to come.

Coaching questions: While Bill Polian recently said that adding Jim Tressel to the staff as a replay consultant was Caldwell’s idea, it’s a weird looking move that’s made some of us wonder if a bigger role awaits the former Ohio State coach.

Caldwell does a nice job managing personalities, looking at things philosophically and staying on message. I believe he’s a good teacher and his patient, quiet style is generally healthy for a team with a good share of veteran stars.

But he’s got blind spots, too, and is hardly a strategy master. There are bound to be significant changes at the conclusion of what’s sure to be a dreadful season, and he’ll be at the front of the line.

If he does the best job we can remember at holding a terrible, ineffective team together, is that enough? I’d guess not.

Injuries: This team gets hurt too much. There is a huge element of bad luck to it, of course. But is there something bigger at work as well?

Last season as quality players went down, Manning helped some role players like tight end Jacob Tamme and receiver Blair White emerge. This season, guys like linebacker Gary Brackett and safety Melvin Bullitt were lost for the season early, and there's been a revolving door on the offensive line because of injuries.

The Colts are constantly testing their depth and shuffling the back end of their roster. There is only so much shuffling a depth chart can handle.

I believe they need to attempt some change that might have a positive effect on their overall health -- whether it be adopting new training philosophies, altering how they evaluate prospects or changing personnel philosophies.

It's easy to ask them to figure out why they tend to suffer so many injuries and hard to find an answer. But some sort of shift is due, even as we know it comes with no guarantee of better health.

When the current approach is failing, it's OK to try something else. It's not admitting some sort of failure, it's merely part of a necessary process of evaluating and revising operations.

Suck for Luck: Given a chance to draft Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, I think the Colts would. Bill Polian can give Chris Polian the guy expected to be the NFL's next great quarterback, and Chris Polian's legacy would be built on a fantastic cornerstone.

But there is no losing on purpose to get in position for Luck. You think Wayne or Mathis is interested in such a master plan?

Said veteran center and team tone-setter Jeff Saturday: “'I'll steal a Robert Mathis quote: I ain't sucking for anybody.”
Peyton Manning commented on his Monday neck surgery to Mike Chappell.

Chappell's Wednesday story expanded on what he wrote a day earlier, and included this passage, the first we've heard from Manning on workouts during the lockout.
The latest surgery accentuates what has been an atypical offseason for Manning and the rest of the NFL. The lockout of players by owners is in its third month. Not only have players had to work out on their own, they have been prohibited from having any contact with teams.

"The unfortunate thing is I have had to do all of this on my own," Manning said. "I've been able to have no help from the Colts because of the lockout."

Although he'll be relatively idle for the next few weeks, Manning emphasized he and his teammates have gotten in significant work. Manning, backup quarterback Curtis Painter, tight ends Dallas Clark and Jacob Tamme, receivers Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez, Pierre Garcon and Blair White, running back Donald Brown and others began gathering in various undisclosed locations April 1.

"We've had very good throwing sessions with Dallas and Gonzalez and Collie and everyone else," Manning said. "The timing and everything else really feels good."

That is not something the rest of the NFL wants to hear right now. Especially the Titans, with a new coaching staff, and the Texans, with a new defensive coaching staff.
It’s Peyton Manning's prerogative to be secretive about his offseason lockout work.

It’s Bob Kravitz’s prerogative to question it.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning has remained under the radar since the lockout started.
Radio friends in Indianapolis tell me Kravitz is being called a whiner for his piece today bemoaning Manning’s secret operations.
I'm looking for the right words to characterize the players' -- and by that, I mean Manning's -- insistence on working out in utter secrecy, keeping fans and media at bay.




He has a point, frankly.

I’ve known since they wrapped up work in Chattanooga after a week in early May that Manning worked there with Dallas Clark, Curtis Painter, Jacob Tamme, Anthony Gonzalez, Austin Collie, and Blair White. I had no reason to mention it until now.

What horrors will befall Manning and the Colts offense now that I have revealed it?

Control is a vital ingredient to Manning; it’s a big part of what makes him great at what he does. I know fans generally do not care about media access. But there is a built-in contradiction there, because I also know they do care about what Manning is doing and saying.

If he was taking questions anytime between now and the first time he has to once the lockout is over and he’s obligated to, I’d ask him these:

  • Why is it so important to be so clandestine?
  • Why won’t a guy whose name is on the lawsuit determining what happens to football not up for commenting on it?
  • What would it hurt to, at infrequent times convenient for you, talk with the local media and let your fans hear from you?
  • Don’t you think the media has respected your privacy in a way that deserves you throw it a bone a bit more often in exchange?

I think, honestly, Manning’s secret ops are more habit and routine than anything. He works under Bill Polian who takes a similar tact on many things. And he’s entrenched enough in the way things unfold that if he feels it works for him, why change them?

It's hardly a federal issue.

But if it’s whining to wonder the things I am wondering here, then group me with Kravitz. I’ve been grouped with worse.
INDIANAPOLIS -- As I filmed this, I had three things I wanted to say. I wanted to call it a Zapruder film, a Blair Witch Project tape, and I wanted to sign off saying I was sight unseen.

Of course I botched one of the three key elements, but that I used Blair White Project only shows you how focused I am on the Colts while in their hometown with none of them saying anything.

Onward. Be grateful I gave you a three minute, rather than three hour, tour.

Braylon EdwardsWilliam Perlman/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireThe Colts gave up big plays, including this Braylon Edwards catch to set up the winning field goal.
INDIANAPOLIS -- They trudged to the helmet painted on the turf at midfield, offering congratulations to the team that ended their season.

In time, the Colts might come to consider this pre-Super Bowl playoff exit the least painful and most dismissible of the seven they’ve endured during a nine-year run of postseason qualification. On Saturday night, of course, they were too close to it to think or speak that way.

They saw a blown opportunity in their 17-16 loss to the New York Jets in the opening round of the NFL playoffs.

So they’ll carry regret into the offseason, regret not so much about losing to the Jets, but losing to the Jets like that.

By blowing three leads.

The Colts were up 7-0, 10-7 and 16-14.

By watching the Jets convert five of seven third downs in the second half while they failed to convert two third-and-longs in the fourth quarter that left them settling for field goals.

The first, a third-and-7, produced only a 1-yard run by Dominic Rhodes against a heavy defensive-back set.

“They had seven DBs, they had 34, [cornerback Marquice] Cole at defensive end, it was 100 percent pass coverage,” Peyton Manning said. “That’s a lot of DBs. We just thought they’re not going to think we’re going to run it. We’ve got to be able to pick those up.”

The second, a third-and-6, was a Manning sprint out to the right and a throw to Blair White that looked to be a bit short on the right side. White couldn’t corral it as he went to the ground.

By allowing New York to keep the ball with a running-into-the-punter penalty, which resulted in two timeouts burned ahead of schedule and 34 fewer seconds on the clock when the Colts got the ball back.

Taj Smith was flagged despite trying to hold up Jets punter Steve Weatherford once he’d made contact.

“He did a good acting job and I should have played it more conservative, it just was a bad play on my part,” Smith said. “… They just said play it more smart and keep my head up.”

By allowing a 47-yard kickoff return with 53 seconds remaining that positioned the Jets for a quick drive and a field goal as time expired.

[+] EnlargeColts quarterback Peyton Manning
AP Photo/AJ MastThe loss to the Jets was the seventh time in Peyton Manning's 11 trips to the playoffs that the Colts failed to advance beyond their first game.
“It goes from putting a lot of pressure on the offense to putting a lot of pressure on the defense with that field position change,” Manning said.

The Colts aren’t used to watching that unfold with their offense on the sideline. They’re used to Manning and the offense making the other team’s offense squirm on the sideline, enduring a sense of helplessness.

“It’s just bad execution on our part,” left tackle Charlie Johnson said. “It’s bad because … I want to be careful here. You have to give them credit. They played a great game, but at the same time I feel like the better team didn’t win.”

It was the seventh exit in the Colts’ first game of the playoffs in Manning’s 11 trips to the postseason, the sort of context the Colts absolutely hate to have pointed out to them.

“We’ve been to the playoffs nine consecutive years. I don’t think this team has to explain itself to anybody as far as what we are doing in the playoffs,” linebacker Gary Brackett said. “A team’s pinnacle is to get to the playoffs and we’ve done that consistently.”

Said Johnson: “I think it’s bogus. I think there are some teams in the league that would love to have the success we’ve had, regardless of going to Super Bowls or not -- winning so many games over the years, winning 12 or more games however many years in a row, going to the playoffs nine straight years. There are a ton of teams that would take that and be happy with it.”

This exit will ultimately deserve a less harsh review than some others because of how deep the injury-riddled Colts had to dig along the way. They ended the game with Ken Hamlin at free safety. He signed Dec. 22 and was, at the very best, their fifth option at the position this season.

Coming into the game the question for Rex Ryan was, if his team couldn’t get past the Colts now, when might it ever?

Before Manning left the interview podium for the last time in what may be quite a long time, he offered a glimpse into how the 2010 Colts were looking at a potential playoff run, at how things might have been different this time.

“It would have been fun to have kind of gotten on a little run here, there would have been a different feeling,” Manning said. “I thought we would have been the underdog in every game. I thought we were the underdog tonight. We would have been the underdog going to Pittsburgh. That’s certainly a different feeling.

“Usually in the playoffs we’re always kind of usually the favorite to win, expected to win. This would have been a fun little run. This has been a fun little run, these last few weeks, we felt like they’ve all been playoff games. This was the best team we’ve played in some time. We certainly had a chance and just came up short.”

Final Word: Jets-Colts

January, 7, 2011
Wild-card Final Word: NY Jets-Indy | Baltimore-K.C. | N.O.-Seattle | G.B.-Philadelphia

Three nuggets of knowledge about Saturday's Jets-Colts wild-card game:

[+] EnlargeIndianapolis Colts wide receiver Pierre Garcon
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellColts wide receiver Pierre Garcon caught 11 passes for 151 yards in last season's AFC Championship Game against the Jets.
Will the Colts target Drew Coleman? Peyton Manning’s going wherever he finds an open receiver. But the Jets emphasized adding cornerbacks after Pierre Garcon had a huge game against them in the AFC Championship Game. ESPN Stats & Info says that Manning really took off in that game when he started attacking the middle of the field. Surely Reggie Wayne and Garcon will run routes that take them there. But if Darrelle Revis and Cromartie do well on Wayne and Garcon, respectively, we’re going to see how the linebackers can handle Jacob Tamme and how the nickel, Coleman, can handle Blair White. I suspect there will be at least a couple of moments when Colts’ fans grimace and wonder how much of a difference Austin Collie would have made. But Indianapolis has enough to still be effective.

Can the coverage contain Brad Smith? The Colts can’t let a big special teams play be a factor, and Smith can be exceptionally dangerous as a kick returner. Indianapolis should take a touchback every chance it gets. Seriously. There are two significant categories where the Colts and Jets are night and day. This is one of them. The Jets' average drive starts at the 31.5-yard line, the best spot in the league. The Colts start at the 22.7, the worst. It’s fair to cringe every time Indianapolis fields a kick, and that’s not a knock on Dominic Rhodes, who’s been handling the job. There is just nowhere for him to go.

What happens inside the 20? The other night and day contrast between these teams is in red zone production. The Colts don’t have to call on Adam Vinatieri a lot because they are busy scoring touchdowns. When they get close, they get touchdowns 67.9 percent of the time, the best percentage in the league by a good margin. New York doesn’t play great red zone defense. The Jets allow TDs 60.5 percent of the time with Indy’s defense faring better (52.1). On offense, the Jets punch it in only 40 percent of the time. That’s a lot of numbers to get to my point: A lot of Nick Folk on the field isn’t going to win this game, I don’t expect.

Double Coverage: Jets at Colts II

January, 6, 2011
Double IllustrationWho has the advantage in the wild-card game between the Colts and the Jets this Saturday? Our bloggers debate.
In last season's AFC Championship Game, the upstart New York Jets were on their way to scoring their third straight road upset in the playoffs. They'd already knocked off a pair of division champions and led the Indianapolis Colts in the third quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium.

But the Colts outclassed the Jets in the second half and won easily to advance to the Super Bowl. The Jets had to regroup, knowing that to attain their Super Bowl dreams, they had to figure out a way to get past the Colts.

They won't need to look for them in the playoffs this year. The Jets and Colts will meet in the first round Saturday night, again in Indianapolis. AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky and AFC East blogger Tim Graham break down the rematch.

Tim Graham: The first thought I have about the Colts is that Peyton Manning isn't going to win this game with his aura. Aside from past experience, the Jets don't have much reason to quake in their cleats Saturday night. They can beat this guy. Manning has proven to be a mortal without tight end Dallas Clark and receivers Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez to target. Seventeen interceptions? Almost knocked out of the playoffs by the Jacksonville Jaguars? These Colts are a shadow of what we've come to know.

Paul Kuharsky: How about with his chakra, then? You've been spending too much time with Ricky Williams, dude. Has Manning been perfect? Hardly. But as Colts blogger Nate Dunlevy points out, and our ESPN Stats & Information confirms, Manning threw for 4,700 yards, tossed for more than 30 touchdowns, connected on 66 percent of his throws, had an interception rate of 2.5 percent and won 10 games. If that's a shadow of what you've known, you must really know Tom Brady’s 2007 season then. Because that was the only other time it has happened.

[+] EnlargeNew York Jets' Mark Sanchez
AP Photo/Kathy WillensJets quarterback Mark Sanchez reached 10 wins two games faster than former league MVP Peyton Manning.
TG: Yeah, Manning won 10 games. So did Eli Manning and Josh Freeman. They didn't make the playoffs. The Colts' shadow doesn't have much to do with Peyton Manning slinging the ball all over the yard and racking up yardage. He's still great, but he's not a one-man show. If I were a Colts fan, my concern would be how they needed to close with four straight wins to avoid the embarrassment of being edged out of the playoffs by the Jaguars. The Jets, on the other hand, have shown to be a more complete team. That's how an erratic quarterback like Mark Sanchez can win one more game than Manning did and clinch a playoff berth weeks in advance.

PK: Well, Manning's always been crushed for being great in the regular season and not good enough in the playoffs. Congrats on being the first to hammer him for winning "only" 10 games and the division while throwing to Jacob Tamme and Blair White.

TG: That's what I mean. The Jets can contain those guys much easier than Clark and Collie. Plus, the Jets have been preparing for this matchup since last season's AFC Championship Game. They helplessly watched Manning carve the center of the field against them and realized immediately -- even though they had Darrelle Revis -- they needed more cornerbacks. Specifically with Manning in mind, the Jets traded for Antonio Cromartie and drafted Kyle Wilson in the first round. Previous starting cornerbacks Dwight Lowery and Drew Coleman gave them depth in nickel and dime packages. The Jets' biggest issue is at safety, where injuries have made them vulnerable.

PK: Manning has a bit of experience against teams with poor safety situations. His numbers against Houston and Jacksonville? Just nine touchdowns, one pick and a 101.5 passer rating. On the other side is the unspectacular Sanchez. I doubt Sanchez will be able to attack Aaron Francisco, the Colts' fourth-string strong safety, in a similar fashion, but we'll see. The Sanchize was near perfect in the first half of last season's AFC Championship Game. But the Jets asked him to throw only seven passes. After intermission, Indy greatly reduced his potency. The Colts didn't sack him and were credited with only four hits that day. The Colts' big-play potential from their Pro Bowl defensive ends was neutralized, and they still rolled to a 30-17 win. Of course, it might have had something to do with Manning throwing two-second half touchdowns to Sanchez's zero (and one interception). What happens this time if Dwight Freeney and/or Robert Mathis are able to introduce themselves to him a few times?

TG: Sanchez absolutely is the pivotal figure for the Jets on Saturday night. But, much like the personnel adjustments head coach Rex Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum made on the defensive side to thwart Manning, they made changes on offense with the playoffs in mind. Sanchez might not have progressed much in his second season, but he didn't have a sophomore slump either. He has gained another 11 months and 16 games of NFL experience since the last time he faced the Colts. Plus, the Jets' offense has the ability to come from behind, something it couldn't do before. Last season's Jets were all ground-and-pound, and if an opponent took a two-score lead, the Jets' chances to win were slim. Sanchez showed several times this year he can strike in crunch time. Santonio Holmes and LaDainian Tomlinson out of the backfield give him much better weapons to go along with Braylon Edwards and tight end Dustin Keller.

PK: The most dramatic on-the-field difference in the Colts this year as compared to last is how they finished up running the ball and defending the run. Indianapolis enters the playoffs coming off four games in which they ran for 4.5 yards a carry and held opponents to 3.5 yards. Last year in their final four meaningful regular-season games, they were getting 3.5 yards and allowing 4.1 yards.

TG: Maybe the Colts will morph into the 1972 Miami Dolphins before our eyes.

[+] Enlarge Indianapolis Colts running back Joseph Addai
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezColts running back Joseph Addai is averaging 4.3 yards per carry in an injury-plagued season.
PK: A month ago the Colts defense recommitted to playing fast and having fun. It's funny how a team can get away from such simple themes, especially when a return to them produces such fine results. Gary Brackett's been great. Fellow linebackers Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner have been quite good, even as rookies. Veteran Clint Session could return to take time from Conner. Offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen's willing to send in whichever back is best suited for a situation or a matchup, so we could see any sort of mix of running backs Joe Addai, Dominic Rhodes and Donald Brown on Saturday night. They are running more than well enough to give the Colts a balance that makes Manning's play-action super effective.

TG: Momentum on the ground has been a concern for the Jets since their bye in Week 7. Tomlinson went from MVP candidate to looking like the worn out player the San Diego Chargers thought they were bidding farewell. But Shonn Greene and Tomlinson found some traction in the closing weeks. Let's not even factor in what the Jets did against the Buffalo Bills in the regular-season finale, even though their backups trampled the Bills' first-stringers for 276 yards.

PK: I’m always willing to toss out Buffalo. I don’t even really like wings.

TG: Yeah, but I know you still have a cache of Rick James 8-tracks. Anyway, the Jets ran the ball well against three of the NFL's best run defenses late in the year. They surpassed the Pittsburgh Steelers' league-leading average by 43 yards and the Chicago Bears' second-rated run defense by 34 yards. As for stopping the run, the Jets pride themselves on it and improved statistically this year. They ranked third this year at 90.9 yards a game and 3.6 yards a carry. But -- and this is a big one -- they allowed more than 100 yards in each of their games before the finale. The Steelers averaged 5.8 yards a carry. The Bears averaged 4.4 yards. That said, I would be willing to bet if the Colts wanted to try to run the Jets to death and not have Manning throw so much, then the Jets would be thrilled.

PK: Give me a little impersonation of Rex Ryan thrilled after winning this game.

TG: It probably would go a little something like this ... "Well, shoot, doesn't feel much better than that, to be honest with ya. We played like Jets today. It was a dogfight out there; I'll tell ya that much. Those Colts are sunthin' else. One thing I'll say about them: I saw Joseph Addai running like Lydell Mitchell out there and was, like, 'Whoa! Wait a second! We could be in for a long day here.' But our defense was flying around and eventually found a way to wrestle him down out there. I said earlier in the week this was personal with Peyton Manning, and they do a great job. He's great, and it's hard to get to him, but I just feel like we knew what to expect and were able to find a way to bear down and put all our chips in the center of the table and beat him. That guy's had my number and it feels good to know I can beat the guy when it counts. But I gotta give a ton of credit to our offense out there, too. Mark Sanchez played great and showed why we traded up to draft him. That right there's what we saw when we scouted him and just knew this guy was going to be a special player. Their crowd was tough with the way they were roaring at the opening kickoff I was, like, 'Whooo! Here we go!' It was full speed ahead. But one thing I should point out is that I broke out my lucky sweatshirt with the pizza stain this week." ... How would Jim Caldwell react to a Colts win Saturday night?

PK: I can hear him, his voice just the same as if they'd have lost: "We're pleased to have beaten a good football team, a quality football team. It's gratifying that our work this week paid off. I shared with you some of the examples of the studiousness I encountered during the preparation week. You saw the rewards of that. We'll enjoy it, we should enjoy it, it was hard-fought and we’re fortunate. We will have to do those same things to prepare for Pittsburgh. It’s a tough place to play, an excellent football team. It's a new challenge. It will be fun to see them get out there and see what they can do."

TG: In that case, I'm glad I'll be covering the Jets' locker room, win or lose. It'll be more interesting. I think the Jets have a better chance to win the game than a lot of prognosticators are giving them credit for. But even if they can't pull off the upset, they'll face a lot of questions as an organization. With all of the negative attention they've generated this season, a loss against the team they spent a year preparing for should lead to considerable introspection in Florham Park. Should we make picks?

PK: Sure. I pick St. Elmo. Make a reservation.

Colts regular-season wrap-up

January, 5, 2011
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 10
Preseason Power Ranking: 1

AP Photo/AJ MastJacob Tamme stepped in for an injured Dallas Clark and caught 67 passes in 10 games.
Biggest surprise: Substitutes called into action because of injuries played very well. Jacob Tamme is not the player Dallas Clark is. But once Clark was done with a wrist injury, Tamme was a consistently productive piece of the offense. He was better than plenty of No. 1 tight ends in the league in terms of his work as a receiver. Justin Tryon was a find, rookie linebackers Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner are good players, Aaron Francisco was better than serviceable, Blair White was a contributor, and Dominic Rhodes was a smart late add. When all those guys and a lot more who were slated to be spot starters are in the mix, you’re not supposed to win your division.

Biggest disappointment: The injuries. The Colts finished the season with 17 players on injured reserve. They started 14 different players on offense and 19 on defense. By my count, 14 key players missed at least two games. The guys on that list -- Gary Brackett, Melvin Bullitt, Clark, Austin Collie, Brody Eldridge, Pierre Garcon, Anthony Gonzalez, Kelvin Hayden, Antonio Johnson, Jacob Lacey, Daniel Muir, Jerraud Powers, Bob Sanders and Clint Session -- sat out 44.2 percent of games they could have played. Sure, every team deals with issues, but these were extreme and few teams could have survived them and made the playoffs.

Biggest need: The offensive line. Team president Bill Polian admitted he underestimated Rodger Saffold in the draft and the St. Louis Rams left tackle could have been a nice piece for Indianapolis. The Colts made do, again, and the group they’ve gone with in recent weeks has shown marked improvement and has been getting very nice push in the run game. Still, Peyton Manning needs more time and a more reliable run game from Day 1. The Colts must invest in upgrading the offensive line through the draft, free agency or both.

Team MVP: Manning. He had a poor stretch during a losing streak. But the Colts needed him to throw, and he set a new league record for pass completions with 450 while helping turn some less-than-ideal targets into viable options.

Decisions loom: The Colts generally hang on to their people, but as they evaluate the injury issue and try to move forward, it may be time to conclude they can’t depend on guys such as Sanders and Gonzalez. You can’t blame a player for getting hurt and you can’t forecast bad luck. But you can get a sense of who may be more likely to get hurt than the average guy. How do you plan when you have little reasonable expectation of getting a long-term contribution from a player? They spent a third-round pick on USC corner Kevin Thomas, who had an injury history. He immediately got hurt and was not available at all his rookie year.
Peyton Manning AP Photo/Joe Howell Peyton Manning passed for 319 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions against the Titans.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Peyton Manning wouldn’t say he was relieved. He wouldn’t even say he had anything to be relieved about.

But a 300-yard passing game with two touchdowns and no interceptions in a 30-28 win over the Titans, following a three-week swing with 11 picks, wiped away the I’m-in-pain grimace and allowed for something else entirely.

After the Colts got their record to 7-6 and earned a long rest before a crucial matchup with Jacksonville on Dec. 19, Manning might as well have been at Zanies -- the comedy club a few miles from LP Field -- with some of the lines he delivered on the NFL Network and in the interview room.

“Somebody asked, ‘Are you in a slump?’” he said. “And I said, 'Well, I guess maybe I was, but I’ve been on about an eight-and-a-half year hitting streak going into that.'"

With a well-rounded effort in which the Colts took a big lead and held off Tennessee, they got into a lot of manageable third downs, ran the ball 32 times despite some ineffective carries, took the ball away twice while not turning it over and found enough big plays at pivotal moments to regain their balance.

[+] EnlargeIndianapolis' Pierre Garcon
Jim Brown/US PRESSWIREPierre Garcon caught both of Peyton Manning's touchdown throws against the Titans.
It ended a three-game losing streak and started a string of four games that Manning said feel like high school in that each one amounts to a playoff game. Win out, and the Colts will win the division and get in the playoffs, just as they have for eight years running.

On this night, when an inexperienced player like Blair White cut in front of a sure touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne and created an incompletion, it didn’t choke the offense.

And Manning was able to joke about a short week that was jammed with “What’s wrong with Peyton?” pieces on every website and sports show in North America.

Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz asked Manning if he was amused by all the theories.

“I really don’t want to offend you, Bob, but I don’t read your column, I really don’t,” Manning said, filling the room with laughs. “Sometimes I think people like delivering bad news. Because I don’t read it, but people tell me, they come up and say, ‘Did you see what he wrote?’ And I went, ‘Actually, I didn’t. But thank you for letting me know…’

“I really feel I’ve stayed really even-keeled throughout this whole time. I don’t really think it’s been a humbling experience because I felt like I was pretty humble going in. I don’t get too high, I don’t get too low, and I think it is kind of a test of faith and working through adversity.

“People always say, ‘Hang in there.’ And I went, ‘I never was out there, wherever there is. I’ve always been in there, I’ll always be in there.’ Wherever that is, I never have left.”

The Titans knew they’d be hard-pressed to see Manning have a fourth bad game in a row. They used the same plan they have for most of Jeff Fisher’s time at the helm. They tried to force Manning and the offense to drive the ball, hoping elongated drives increased the possibilities of mistakes, and did all they could to get punter Pat McAfee and field goal kicker Adam Vinatieri involved.

The league’s top red-zone defense allowed the league’s top red-zone offense inside the 20-yard line five times. Tennessee gave up touchdowns the first three times, then made things more difficult and forced a couple field goals.

“[Manning] doesn’t make mistakes unless you pressure him and get him off his spot,” Titans safety Chris Hope said. “That’s what caused those interceptions in those previous games, and also he was playing against teams he doesn’t really play against a lot. He knows us well. He’s played us a thousand times.”

Kerry Collins overcame a poor first half and rallied the Titans, with three scoring passes after intermission. But he knew the odds were long that Manning was going to offer up any prime field position or points as he had so frequently in the past three weeks.

“You knew the guy was going to come out and play well, he’s Peyton Manning, you know?” Collins said. “He had that fire tonight that he was going to play well and he did.”

Like Manning, Dwight Freeney said he’s not paid attention to reviews of what the Colts have been doing, leaving his TV off while the results were bad.

“Obviously, you don’t see a lot of interceptions most of the time,” Freeney said. “I think because of how good he is and how consistent he is on a regular basis, it’s a shock to everybody when you see the turnovers. But he’s human like everyone else. We knew he would turn it around and do a great job just like he always has.”

In leading the Colts back to the win column, Manning helped them maintain control of their fate. He could laugh and the Colts could relax as they made their way out of Music City and started to think about Jacksonville.

They could roll their eyes at the idea that following injuries to Charlie Johnson and Jamey Richard, their next option on the offensive line was going to be tight end Brody Eldridge at guard.

“We stopped the bleeding for one game,” Freeney said.

And, he said, for about five minutes, all felt right with the world.


Five things to watch: Colts at Titans

December, 9, 2010
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Barring a scoreless overtime, the Colts' appearance at LP Field guarantees that one AFC South team will end a losing streak Thursday night.

As they brace for the first of two head-to-head matchups in the final month of the season, the Colts (6-6) and Titans (5-7) have combined to lose eight straight.

Somebody gets to leave the stadium tonight feeling a lot better. Here are five questions to consider before we see who that is.

1. Will Peyton Manning break out of his funk? He has 11 interceptions in his past three games. But the Titans have only three interceptions during their five consecutive losses. Look for corner Cortland Finnegan to draw the difficult Reggie Wayne assignment, but to have plenty of help as the Titans show themselves more willing to take chances with Pierre Garcon, Jacob Tamme and especially Blair White.

Rookie Alterraun Verner is the second starting corner and will face Manning for the first time, and second-year man Jason McCourty will work in the nickel. McCourty started last season in a loss to the Colts when the Titans gave up 309 passing yards and three passing touchdowns to Manning with only one pick.

Tennessee has been getting crushed in time of possession -- it hasn’t held the ball for 21 minutes in its past two losses. Manning will be content to take what’s given and string together long drives if he can.

2. Who’s playing in the Colts' secondary? The Colts' starting cornerbacks are out -- Jerraud Powers is finished for the season after surgery to repair a broken forearm and Kelvin Hayden is not recovered from a neck injury. That means Jacob Lacey and Justin Tryon are in line to work as the top two corners with rookie Cornelius Brown as the nickel.

The Titans have hardly been slinging it. They haven’t scored an offensive touchdown since Nov. 21. But Kerry Collins will have receiver Kenny Britt back after a four-game layoff with a hamstring injury and surely Tennessee will finally throw a jump ball to Randy Moss, right?

A drop-off at corner can mean extra strain on safeties Antoine Bethea and Aaron Francisco. Unless, of course, defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are regularly able to hurry Collins and shorten the clock for all the guys in coverage.

3. How many catches will Tamme have? While the tight end has been productive, he’s not Dallas Clark. But the Titans' defense has given up significant yardage to tight ends far less talented than Clark this season.

I don’t know that anything has changed for the Titans' linebackers, who are most responsible for those issues, and I look for the Colts to be primed to attack the soft underbelly of the Tennessee defense until Stephen Tulloch or Will Witherspoon or Gerald McRath prove things are any different.

Heck, watch the banged-up Brody Eldridge make a couple of key catches.

4. How much will Indy even try to run it? The Colts would like to show some semblance of balance and some effective runs would help keep the play-action believable -- though everyone seems to bite on it even when they can’t run. It will be interesting to see how coach Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen deploy Donald Brown, Javarris James and Dominic Rhodes.

“They won’t run on us if we play Titans’ defense, to tell you the truth,” defensive tackle Jovan Haye said. “If we have somewhat of a repeat performance from Sunday, then they will. They utilize it in their offense, but they’re not a big run team. If we play like we did [surrendering 258 rushing yards in the loss to Jacksonville], they’ll run the ball.”

5. Can Chris Johnson get something going? He wants more carries and the Titans are desperate to get him going to help elongate drives, keep the defense off the field and alter the time of possession trend. But last year the Colts didn’t allow him a carry longer than 11 yards in two games while holding him to a 4.1-yard average.

Titans fullback Ahmard Hall said tackle Fili Moala, in his first year starting, and rookie linebacker Pat Angerer have been very effective run-stopping pieces on top of what the Colts had previously.

The Titans need to show a willingness to throw deep to Britt and Moss to keep the Colts honest and buy a bit of extra space and time for Johnson.

“He is an outstanding back with outstanding numbers,” Caldwell said. “I think what happens just like anything else, people get spoiled. He is a talented guy and I think he has been performing well. We have to get ready to handle him because he is a heck of a back.”
NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 11.

Either the Colts were intent on feeding Austin Collie or the Patriots were willing to yield some yards to him while concentrating on taking away other stuff.

[+] EnlargeBlair White
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesRookie Blair White hauled in two TD passes Sunday against New England.
Either way, the receiver saw a lot of action before leaving the game in the first half. Whether he suffered a new concussion, had symptoms resurface or something else we are not certain.

But losing him looked to be a blow to the Colts.

Until Blair White showed himself perfectly capable of filling the role. White, an undrafted rookie out of Michigan State, caught two touchdowns from Peyton Manning, helping the Colts rally for a late challenge that fell short in New England.

“Blair has performed and performed extremely well under some circumstances that typically you would anticipate that a rookie may not be able to function at a high level, but he has been able to do that,” Jim Caldwell told Indianapolis reporters on Monday.

“He’s been able to create space and find openings and make outstanding catches. He’s a very, very integral part of what we do. He’s just worked himself into that position. He’s one of those guys that works extremely hard at his craft. He pays attention to all the little details and tries to find a way to get better. We certainly are glad that he’s able to step up and perform for us consistently.”

White has 14 catches, including three touchdowns.
Peyton ManningJim Rogash/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning passed for 396 yards, but also three interceptions, including one his final throw.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Devin McCourty had just intercepted a pass intended for Pierre Garcon. The Colts were down 14 points in the third quarter. Peyton Manning was understandably unhappy.

He wore that Manning grimace and repeated that Manning head shake as he walked to the sideline, settling near offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen. Hands on hips the two talked, side by side, facing the Patriots' offense on the field. Soon the pictures arrived, and the dissection started.

Manning and the Colts rebounded in a big way from there at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The quarterback found Blair White for two touchdowns in a span of 3 minutes, 11 seconds and Indianapolis was improbably back in it, with the ball and a chance to win or tie at the end.

But when it came time for that score, the Colts couldn’t find it. Manning’s deep ball up the right side for Garcon wasn’t deep enough. James Sanders went up and grabbed New England’s third interception, sealing a 31-28 win.

Manning’s perturbed meter was well beyond grimace or head shake level after the game.

“If you’re asking if I’m stewing about it right now, the answer would be yes,” Manning said not long after it was over, and not long before he sat in front of his locker in his suit, head down, angry.

His Colts have lost four games or fewer eight times in his 13 seasons, including the last seven. Now they’re 6-4 with six more left to play.

A team built on meticulousness was simply too imprecise on the road against a top team to pull it off, just like two weeks ago in Philadelphia when a field goal could have won it but Manning threw a late pick.

If the 14th head-to-head game of the Manning-Tom Brady era is played this postseason, it will almost certainly be played in frigid Foxborough, not inside Lucas Oil Stadium.

“They’ve won numerous Super Bowls,” wide receiver Reggie Wayne said. “We’re trying to win numerous. Me personally, I kind of feel like we’re kind of chasing them a little bit. And to catch them you’ve got to beat them. Each time we play them it’s always tough. We almost got it done. But that’s the way it goes. Hopefully we do what we’ve got to do and we see them later.”

The play that ended the Colts’ hopes was a first-and-10 from the New England 24-yard line that started with 37 seconds on the clock and Indy still holding two timeouts.

Manning said he looked to Garcon because he was one-on-one with McCourty in press coverage. But rushing linebacker Jermaine Cunningham closed on Manning and if he didn’t graze or bump him he at least affected his throwing motion. There wasn’t enough on the ball to beat Sanders.

“It was a bad throw, I certainly didn’t get everything on it that I wanted,” Manning said. “… I’m just sick about not extending the game, there’s just no excuse not to extend the game there, give [Adam] Vinatieri a chance at a field goal. We were going for the win, we had some time, we had some timeouts and felt like we had a good play called.

“It was just a poor throw and it’s just really, really sickening.”

The Colts allowed New England six third-down conversions in six first-half chances. Through three quarters, they allowed 5.2 yards a carry while gaining only 1.3 yards a carry themselves. And they failed to do anything to offset Manning’s three interceptions with no takeaways.

Tyjuan Hagler had the best chance, but an errant Brady pass around the New England 40-yard line with about 2:32 left bounced right off the nickel linebacker.

The Colts are built to play from ahead, which allows two of their best defenders, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, to rush a passer trying to forge a comeback. But against the Eagles and Patriots the Colts have played from behind.

Manning with possession and time at the end of the game is still typically a pretty good formula. But it hasn't been working.

“Usually that’s one of our strong suits, we’re able to move the ball,” Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. “I think you saw it in the previous drives. But we just didn’t finish it like we typically do.”

Manning said the Patriots managed to disguise things and confuse him, creating the two earlier interceptions. He absolved Garcon on plays where it seemed there was miscommunication and the receiver might have gone to the wrong spot.

“New England was really mixing them up, moving around,” Manning said. “So I had a couple misreads on the coverages.”

Tied with Jacksonville at 6-4 atop the AFC South, the Colts are actually down a tiebreaker to the Jaguars because of a loss in Jacksonville on Oct. 3.

Six other AFC teams have a record as good as or better than the Colts, who play host to San Diego next Sunday night. They’ve lost four of their past five games against the Chargers.

Before the team boarded their bus and headed for the airport, cornerback Kelvin Hayden mentioned how Tennessee and Houston had lost too.

The Colts, 10 games into the season, monitoring the results of the rest of the division? Given their record this decade, it seems unnatural. For those who’ve endured heartbreak by Manning’s hands, it’s surely enjoyable.

“We have high expectations,” safety Antoine Bethea said. “So four losses before Thanksgiving is awkward. But if you look at it, we’re still first in the AFC South. If we win, if we take care of what we need to take care of, we get to the playoffs, and once you’re in the playoffs it’s a new season.”

Rapid Reaction: Patriots 31, Colts 28

November, 21, 2010
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A few thoughts from the Colts' 31-28 loss to the Patriots.

What it means: The Colts are 6-4, tied with Jacksonville atop the AFC South. But the Jaguars hold a head-to-head tiebreaker right now.

What I didn’t like: For a good stretch, the Colts didn’t have the firepower or precision to compete with the peaking Patriots despite turning it into quite a game at the end. Peyton Manning threw four touchdowns but also three interceptions. After featuring Austin Collie early, Manning lost him to a concussion and saw some of his targets, like Pierre Garcon and Jacob Tamme, play less than their best at times. Aside from a 31-yard carry by Donald Brown, the Colts could hardly run it and they struggled to stop the run while the Patriots built a lead.

What I liked: The comeback. The Colts were down 31-14 in the fourth quarter and rallied to get within a field goal. They were driving for overtime at the end. The pass protection was effective and Manning did what he needed to in order to avoid a sack. It took a while for Manning to go his way, but Blair White scored two touchdowns in short order to get the Colts to within 31-28 with about five minutes left in the game.

What I want to know: Did Garcon do what Manning was expecting on the final play of the Colts last possession when the Patriots' James Sanders leaped and pulled in the interception?

Postseason certainty: If these teams come across each other in the postseason, this result all but assures the game will be played in the chill of Gillette Stadium not under the closed roof of Lucas Oil Stadium.

What’s next: The Colts host "Sunday Night Football" and the San Diego Chargers, a team that’s given them problems in the recent past.

Was Collie play officiated correctly?

November, 7, 2010
PHILADELPHIA -- Austin Collie was wheeled off the field, eyes open, but apparently motionless after absorbing a tough hit late in the second quarter of the Colts-Eagles game.

The combo hit on him came from strong safety Quintin Mikell and cornerback Kurt Coleman and was called an incomplete pass.

But it appeared that Collie completed the catch and was protecting the ball as he was hit from the right by Mikell, who was called for unnecessary roughness on a defenseless receiver.

Mikell's hit jolted Collie into Coleman, coming from the left, and their helmets collided.

It was a scary scene as medical personnel and coaches surrounded Collie. Many somber teammates watched from a few yards away on the field on a knee. Bill Polian left his seat in the press box, presumably to go check on things. The team said Collie suffered a concussion but was alert, sitting up in the locker room and had motion.

I thought Collie took a big hit to the head a few plays earlier, too.

Peyton Manning ran to Collie as he was being rolled off the field, orange tape or bands affixing him to a backboard, to say something before returning to action.

Manning then connected on a 33-yard pass to Collie’s replacement, Blair White, setting up Javarris James’ short scoring run.

The Colts got the ball back and managed a 37-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal with three seconds left.

Thoroughly outplayed, they’re up 17-16 at the half.

We’ll update you on Twitter and in our Countdown Live chat when we hear anything more on Collie.

Final Word: AFC South

November, 5, 2010
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 9:

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMatt Schaub will have to match Philip Rivers' performance if the Texans hope to take down the Chargers.
Canceling out Rivers: The odds are good that San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who’s got record passing yardage through eight games, will be able to move the ball against Houston’s porous pass defense. Rivers should succeed even with injuries at receiver and to Antonio Gates, who's doubtful. The Texans' best defense might just be a big offensive day for Houston, too. Matt Schaub was shaky last week, especially in the first half. He needs to carry the Texans and match Rivers.

New venue: The Colts’ game in Philadelphia is their first in the city since 2002 and their first visit to Lincoln Financial Field. In two games in the city with Peyton Manning at quarterback, he’s thrown six touchdown passes and the team has two wins and 79 points. Mike Tanier thinks the Colts’ defensive scheme, with lots of defenders in short zones, is perfect for containing a scrambling quarterback like Michael Vick. But this version of the defense will be missing two or three key pieces, depending on the status of cornerback Jerraud Powers.

Watch first down: San Diego’s offense is the second best in the league this season on first down, while Houston’s is dead last, Aaron Schatz tells us. The Texans have to fare better on first down, and Gary Kubiak has to do better with the play calling there. Last week’s failure in Indy was pinned largely on third-down ineffectiveness. But more yards on first and second down produce more manageable third downs and presto. Well, I guess you can fail to give the ball to Arian Foster enough there, too.

More shuffling: The Colts pulled Philip Wheeler for Pat Angerer at strongside linebacker last week, but they’ll probably shuffle linebackers again this week. This time it wouldn't be by choice, it would be because of Clint Session's elbow/arm injury. It’s a guess as to how he’s replaced if he's out, but the candidates to be the third linebacker include Wheeler, Cody Glenn, Tyjuan Hagler and Kavell Conner. We’re also expecting receiver Anthony Gonzalez to be out, which means Blair White could get work if Austin Collie isn’t ready or is limited.

Hurry up and wait: The arrival of Randy Moss in Tennessee ranks as one of the biggest stories in the division this season. But the Titans are closed up for the weekend and his head start might not begin until Monday or Tuesday. As far as the potential to hear from him about being released in Minnesota and claimed by the Titans, we may not hear from him until Wednesday. We don’t know if he’ll provide both the questions and the answers as he said he would when he last talked as a Viking. The Jaguars, who also have a bye, will have a quieter return.



Thursday, 10/16
Sunday, 10/19
Monday, 10/20