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Week 5: Colts vs. Rams
Bill Polian, in his eighth season as Colts president, has a resume unique in the NFL. One of two men to win NFL Executive of the Year five times, Polian in the 1980s built the Buffalo Bills into a four-time Super Bowl participant. In the mid-1990s, be built the expansion Carolina Panthers into a team that made the NFC Championship Game in its second season, 1996. Since joining Indianapolis in 1998, he built the Colts from a 3-13 team in 1997 and 1998 into one that has made the playoffs five of the last six seasons, including an AFC Championship Game appearance after the 2003 season and AFC South titles in 2003 and 2004. Each week during the season, in The Polian Corner, Polian and Colts.com will discuss issues pertinent to the Colts and the rest of the NFL.
Q: A long trip home on Sunday night and with the Colts 5-0 Monday – the NFL’s only remaining unbeaten team, you had chance to review the tape from Sunday afternoon’s 28-3 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. What were your thoughts?
A: Mixed feelings, actually. I thought we played a really good defensive game except for too many missed tackles. (Colts Defensive Coordinator) Ron (Meeks) pointed that out Monday in our staff meeting, that that’s an area that needs to improve. We gave them (the 49ers) too many extra yards and it’s really just a matter of wrapping up. It’s not a matter of physicality or hitting or getting there. We’re doing all of that. We got a little sloppy in terms of not wrapping up their ball carriers. Those (the 49ers’ running backs) are fellows who we’re not used to seeing and don’t have a book on, so to speak. So, some of that’s understandable, but we need to do a better job of that. Offensively, the fumble (at the 49ers’ 1-yard line in the second quarter) is absolutely inexcusable. You cannot have that. Reaching the ball over the goal line is neither a good play nor an excuse and it shouldn’t happen. It cannot happen. Having said that, for the first time all season, we lost our patience after that occurred and didn’t stay with the same patient approach we’ve taken previously. As a result, we put the defense in some awfully difficult situations. They rose to the occasion, thank goodness. But the fumble got us all out of sync. Up to that point, we’d been going up and down the field and it looked like it was going to be a nice game. That didn’t turn out to be the case because they are a well-coached team with a plan. (San Francisco Head) Coach (Mike) Nolan went in at halftime and I’m sure said to his team, ‘Look, we’re only 14 points down and seven of those have come because of turnover. Let’s go out and get the onside kick and score. They’re beatable. You’ve seen what they’re doing.’ They did just that and fortunately, after about a quarter and a half, we got patient again and got our feet under us and began to make plays offensively and then put the game away. Any time you get five turnovers – force five turnovers – you should score more than we did. We made a lot of errors that we can improve upon and must improve upon. You cannot fumble the ball on the 1-yard line going in and expect to be a good football team. It happened in New England (last season) and it happened Sunday and it can’t happen again. It’s that simple. There’s a lot to work on and a lot to improve, not the least of which is ball security. They are fundamental things and as usual, the players need to listen to one voice and pay attention to what (Colts Head Coach) Tony (Dungy) tells them from the first day of mini-camp until the season ends, that it’s fundamentals and the mastery of fundamentals and the execution of fundamentals that wins football games. Not your reputation, or the number of sacks you get, or the number of touchdown passes, or the number of yards you gain or any of that nonsense – or the number of stories that get written about you. It’s fundamentals that get the job done. I don’t know what Tony had to say in his press conference (Monday), but I think both of us feel we didn’t do the job Sunday as fundamentally soundly as we should have. That needs to improve.
Q: A big reason for that is because you’re going to need to play well against the St. Louis Rams Monday night . . .
A: They’re a big-time scoring machine. Their coach (Mike Martz) is now sidelined (with a medical condition), and our hearts and our prayers go out to Mike and to his family. I have served with him on the NFL’s Competition Committee, as has Tony, and he’s a wonderful man and we certainly wish him well. I hope this situation gets straightened out and he’s back on the sidelines and quickly as possible. He’s a good person and a good coach.
Q: Joe Vitt is the interim head coach. How much do you know about him?
A: Joe was in New Orleans for a while and I think he may even have been here (with the Colts as a strength coach from 1979-1981) for a while. He spent a lot of time with (longtime Rams, Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks Head Coach) Chuck Knox in Seattle. If any of Chuck rubbed off on him, we’ll see a lot of (running backs) Steven Jackson and Marshall Faulk. Joe’s a defensive coach by trade, so I imagine he’ll be active in the defensive side of it. The management of the game, I would expect he would not be as heck-bent for leather, if you will, as Mike would be. So, maybe a little bit different approach.
Q: Not a lot of challenges on the first play of the game?
A: (Laughter) Mike’s unique that way. He lets it go from Day One. There’s no holding back. He’s going to go for that end zone anytime, anywhere. He’s good for the game, but I might anticipate Joe playing a little differently.
Q: You always say, ‘Don’t look at the records. Look at the team.’ This is not a 2-3 team coming in here next Monday, is it?
A: Not at all. They’ve got probably the greatest collection of skill people in the NFC, for sure. If you like offensive football, tune in next Monday night. It’s not too long ago they were The Greatest Show on Turf. I suspect (wide receiver) Isaac Bruce will be back for them. They throw the ball awfully well. They run it awfully well. They’ve had a change in defensive coordinators, Lovie Smith having gone to Chicago as the head coach (in 2004) and Larry Marmie taking over. They’ve got a little bit of a different approach from the personnel standpoint. They’re not a totally Dungy defense, but a lot of it is. In that sense, both teams are familiar with the scheme, so it ought to be wild and woolly. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it were.
Q: What was the basis for taking Peyton Manning out near the end of the (San Francisco) game and putting Jim Sorgi in?
A: Jim was in there simply because Tony wanted to get him some snaps under game conditions. It was time to get Peyton out of there. The game was salted away. They weren’t going to come back and win it. It was a good opportunity to get Jim some snaps and get him working against an opposing team. All those snaps are like making a bank deposit. It all comes back and earns interest for you in the future. Even though he handed the ball off, you’ve got to read the defense and you’ve got to make the adjustments necessary if there are audibles to be called. It’s good for him to get the opportunity. So, that’s the reason he was in there.
Q: It really looked like the fumble near the 49ers’ goal line was a touchdown. It appeared the ball crossed the plane of the goal-line before Edgerrin fumbled.
A: First of all, no one fumbles on purpose. (Colts Offensive Coordinator) Tom Moore made that point Monday in our meeting. So, when we talk about fundamental errors, the issue is, ‘Do you execute your fundamentals as well as you possibly can?’ Not that you’re trying to make an error. No one does that. Least of all, Edgerrin. But you still have to execute fundamentally. That was the case in Boston (last season against New England), as well. There is a case to be made on third down or maybe even fourth down if you’re going for it to try and reach the ball our and get there. But early in the game, even if you don’t get in with three cracks at it, you still get a field goal. In Boston, a field goal would have tied the game and maybe we go to overtime. In Boston, we wanted to take time off the clock. It’s under two minutes. We had about 1:50 remaining at the time. If you don’t get it in, take all the time you want. We’d like for them not to get the ball back if we could help it. If you remember, last year the defense was no replica of what we have this year – largely because some of our guys were younger. (Then-rookie cornerback) Jason David was starting his first ball game on Monday Night Football to open the season against the World Champions. It’s not a good play. It’s just not a high-percentage play. It’s not what smart football teams do. You run the risk of fumbling and that’s what happened twice. My belief, based on people that I’ve learned the game from, is that the first priority on the goal line – or the first priority in close quarters for a running back – is ball security. It’s always ball security. You can kick a field goal, you can throw a pass for a touchdown, you can run the ball in on the next play. If you lose the ball, you lose the opportunity and you lose the momentum. We lost six minutes on the clock (after James’ fumble Sunday), which their offense used, and seven points. A minimum of three points, but probably seven. It’s not a good play. It really is not. And furthermore, based on what I saw on the replays, he did not score. It certainly would have been indefinite and they would not have reversed. I don’t like our chances with that official reversing. We’ve got a track record there, too.
Q: Will the Edgerrin fumble be reviewed by the league?
A: Yes, but they won’t do anything about it. They have plenty of more other important issues than that to review, believe me.
Q: Have there ever been any thoughts about the Colts occasionally wearing an alternate-color jersey? Black, perhaps?.
A: We won’t go with black. Our colors are blue and white and will remain so. (Colts Owner and Chief Executive Officer) Jim Irsay and I and Tony have made the point that the New York Yankees don’t change and the Los Angeles Dodgers don’t change and the Boston Red Sox don’t change. There’s a reason for that. It’s called tradition. Jim Irsay has said, ‘If it’s good enough for (Hall of Fame quarterback) John Unitas, it’s good enough for us.’ Now, as to an alternate jersey design, we really liked very much – including the players – the alternate jerseys, the throwback jerseys that we wore on Thanksgiving last year. They were very authentic, by the way. Those were worn when the Colts first came to Baltimore with Bert Rechichar and Co. There’s a possibility we might do something along those lines in future years and I think it’s a very viable idea. But not black.
Q: The linebackers, especially (outside linebacker) Cato June and (middle linebacker) Gary Brackett, have been very impressive this season.
A: I think you’d have to search far and wide to find a better pair of linebackers in the nickel situation than those two. They really do a phenomenal job covering the pass. They both play awfully well against the run, too. They’re a big reason we’re an improved football team defensively.
Q: How much does having played safety at Michigan help June in that area?
A: He did all the ball drills, that’s for sure. But (Colts linebackers Coach) Mike Murphy has really done a great job getting him acclimated to playing up there. It’s not as easy as we as personnel people make it sound. We say, ‘Oh, yeah, he played in the box at Michigan. He should be able to do it here.’ It’s different responsibilities and this level is much, much faster than the college level. Also, the play of the cornerbacks should be credited to (defensive assistant) Leslie Frazier. That was a group that by this time last year had given up seven or eight big plays. We don’t have anything near that at this point. That’s experience, but it’s also attention to detail. Great credit to all of them.
Q: The season is only five games old, but to only allow 29 points in five games is pretty darned good.
A: It’s been outstanding. We’ve turned the ball over. We’ve sacked the quarterback. We’ve done what it takes to be a very good defensive team and, of course, we’re going to have to bring all of that and more this coming week against the St. Louis Rams.
Q: Any concern at all on special teams? The punt returns seem to be struggling, in particular. (Punt returner) Troy (Walters) doesn’t seem to be hitting the holes.
A: I don’t know that that’s the case. I think you’re seeing the result of play and sort of reading things into that. The first responsibility of anybody on the kicking team is to make sure that we secure the ball, whether that’s recovering an onside kick, or making sure to catch the punts securely. We don’t want to turn the ball over in that situation anymore than turning it over on the goal line. You turn it over on special teams and you’re giving the other team 50 or 60 yards in field position. Troy’s been great at preventing that. On Sunday, he made very, very good decisions every time they kicked the ball. He had two nice runs, the last of which came in the fourth quarter, when he gained 14 of 15 yards. The other one was in the 9-yard range. The one in the fourth quarter was brought back on a call, that suffice it to say, we weren’t jumping up and down about. But that (the return game) has improved. We can see improvement in that on a weekly basis in the punt return game. Also, Dominic (Rhodes) is back (as a kickoff retuner). We hope that we only get one kickoff return a game. We had two Sunday and they were both onside kicks. We’ll take that every week, but we’re getting better. Would we like to have a dynamic, incredible, blow-it-out return guy? You bet. I don’t know of one that’s out there.
Q: In your opinion, what was the quick change of the game?
A: The quick change was Cato June’s first interception (in the second quarter), which was a touchdown. It couldn’t have come at a better time. It gave us a 14-point cushion. It was a great play and was clearly the quick change of the game and one that made the biggest difference.
Q: He might even be the defensive player of the week. His second interception ended any chance San Francisco had of a comeback.
A: If he’s not, I hope they pick somebody who was really outstanding, because Cato was as good as it gets Sunday.
Q: The defense has really come together this year. A lot of naysayers for a long time, but you really put it together in the off-season.
A: The credit for the defense goes to the players and the coaches for doing such a great job in preparation and working and developing fundamentals. You don’t get good teams overnight. One of the problems we have in sports these days is we live on a media cycle. Today is one story and tomorrow is another and there’s another after that. That’s not the way human existence works and it’s not the way athletics works. It takes time for people to grow and develop and learn and get confidence in themselves. When we said a couple of years ago that we’d be a good defensive team, we knew we had the raw materials and we knew we had the right coach in Tony and we also knew it would take time. That time has come and now we’re a pretty good team. We just need to keep playing at the high level we’ve shown in the past and improve on what we need to improve upon, the areas that I mentioned earlier. One thing that has to happen if you want to succeed is that you need to get better every week. Teams get better or they get worse. They don’t stay the same. You must get better every week. Along about Thanksgiving, that’s when the separation really takes place. Teams begin to skyrocket and play really great football and other teams begin to fall by the wayside. But that’s a gradual process, too. We just need to take a positive step every week. Sometimes, you don’t even come out on the right end of the scoreboard, but you may have played pretty well. Sunday, we came out on the right end of the scoreboard, but maybe only took a baby step forward.
Q: How will the Colts prepare differently with an interim coach on the sideline for the Rams on Monday?
A: That’s a very good question. First of all, I think you have to be prepared for an emotional game by the Rams. Mike is highly-respected by his players, well thought-of. They’ll want to win for him, so the emotional carryover will be there, especially on Monday night. Every once in a while during a 16-game season, you hit an emotional peak. I think this will be one of those for the Rams. We’ll need the help of the 12th man more than ever on Monday night. Secondly, although they are certainly married to the schemes they use and that won’t change, they may change the approach to play-calling. We don’t know that. We don’t have any track record of the offensive coordinator calling plays, so we don’t how much of an effect it will have on that side of the ball. Having said that, as Tony is fond of saying, if we play our game, we ought to be OK. That means don’t turn it over. Stop the run. Run effectively. It means be patient in the passing game. If we do that, we’ll be OK.
Q: Any thoughts on the theory that maybe NFL defenses have sort of caught up with the Colt’s offense this season?
A: Everybody in the NFL studies everybody else. When a team comes up with a new concept, or a highly-functional concept, like the Rams did a number of years ago with their offense and we did last year with our high-powered passing offense, everyone studies that in the off-season. Actually, there are coaches who are assigned to study projects in the off-season. Sometimes, the entire defensive staff. Sometimes, just members of the staff. They’ve got to report back to the entire organization, ‘Here’s what they’re doing. Here’s why they do it. Here’s what we would do to counteract it.’ That happens all the time. It’s a matter of course. It’s not as though they’ve figured something out. It’s just they studied us and we, like everybody else, have tendencies. Although we’re a team that really doesn’t have very strong tendencies compared to some others. Our whole concept is based on the fact that, whatever you do, you can’t defense everything. Whatever you don’t defense is what we’ll do. What people have said, by and large, in one way or the other, is, ‘We’re going to make you run the football.’ You can do it the way some teams, like Cleveland did, and rush three and drop eight or rush two and drop nine, and play your safeties in Kokomo. Then, you’re forced to run the ball. Or you can play the way the 49ers did Sunday and try to disguise coverages and mix coverages and hope we get antsy and make a mistake. We did on one occasion. The first interception, the one to (Colts wide receiver) Marvin (Harrison), we had an alternative receiver to go to that was open, but you’ve got to take a shot on that one. That’s Marvin. It’s like going up (in baseball) when the count’s 3-0. You get the green light and swing for the fences. You don’t want to hit a bleeder over second base. There was nothing wrong with that. The ball bounced the wrong way. The other interception was just not a good throw. We had other people available. And it was not a good strategic play at the time. Their defense had been out on the field a long time and we had great field position. It might have been better to run the ball for a time and let the defense catch their breath and set something up. So, from a tactical standpoint, it wasn’t his best call. If they had it to do over again, they’d probably do it somewhat differently. But by and large, we’ve avoided that. We’ve been patient. We’ve taken what the defense has given us and we’ve taken big plays in the passing game when they’ve given it to us. But I don’t think people are just going to line up the way Green Bay did (in 2004) and blitz and say, ‘We’ll cover you man to man.’ You’re going to get 45 points on you doing that.
Q: One player who hasn’t gotten a lot of recognition, but who has improved drastically this season, appears to be cornerback Jason David.
A: He’s really done a terrific job in pass defense. He had phenomenal interception Sunday. He’s a little bit of a ball hawk. He’s got a knack about him and he likes doing it. He’s feisty. And he’s nothing if not a guy who likes to play. He’s really improved his technique greatly. Obviously, the experience has helped. He was forced in there last year because of injuries and did a terrific job. He’s so much more improved this year because he has that year under his belt. He’s been doing a great job. With (rookie cornerback) Marlin Jackson playing in the nickel along with the other guys, we’re a very improved secondary. We hoped that would be the case and it has turned out to be true.
Q: Talk about Rams running back Steve Jackson. He came close to falling to the Colts in the draft two years ago.
A: We had decided we were going to take him if he got to us. We liked him very much. He didn’t. The Rams took him, I believe, two picks in front of us. If I’m not mistaken, we traded down and took (safety) Bob (Sanders) with the 40th pick. He’s really a good back. He’s big and strong and has great hands. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. They got him just at the time that Marshall (Faulk) needed someone to give him a blow every now and then. He’s a combination of a guy with size and speed, and he has all-the-way ability. He can take it the distance and still punish you. That’s a rare combination in this league. He’s a big-time back and they use him exceptionally well. With Marshall, they have a tremendous 1-2 punch. Better than anyone we’ve played to this point. I think Isaac Bruce will be back, and along with Kevin Curtis – who’s become the slot receiver – it gives them every bit as good a receiving corps, I think, as they had when they won the Super Bowl (in 1999).