Walking up to the Colts’ practice field, which is Anderson U’s game field, during a night practice almost gives you to the feel of going to a big high school game. That’s not bad, in comparison with some other places.
THREE THINGS TO SORT OUT
Offensive line: The Colts have done some shuffling, moving Tony Ugoh – once considered the future at left tackle – inside to left guard, and trying to re-install 2008 second-round pick Mike Pollak at right guard. The hope is that those moves can pump life into a stagnant running game. The Colts not only finished last in the NFL in rushing last year, they rushed for 129 yards fewer than anyone else. Yes, Indy has Manning, and so there’s plenty of room to make up for those numbers. There’s talent in the backfield, with Joseph Addai and Donald Brown. So the Colts’ ability to build balance starts up front. Indy doesn’t need an elite left tackle (and doesn’t have one, in Charlie Johnson), since Manning’s presence and ability to unload the ball quickly is off the charts. But they’ll need better tackle-to-tackle production to fix what ails a once prolific run game. Improvement here would make it much harder for opponents to throw the kitchen (sink included) at Manning.
Contracts: Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis grumbled, before showing up and falling in line. The team’s most important player, Manning, is heading into a contract year. So is it anything worth worrying about? Maybe in the future, but this ultra-steady outfit doesn’t figure to be knocked off course by that in the short-term. It’s quite possible that talks on the franchise quarterback continue through the season. As we hear it, negotiations are going slowly now, and the Colts are working with the league on structure and through the rules restricting them in the uncapped year. If nothing happens before February, the Colts will franchise Manning at a cost of $23.2 million. And when all is said and done, word is that his deal might be worth closer to $25 million a year than the much speculated figure of $20 million per. Bottom line: Both sides are confident this will get done. So while there isn’t a more important business matter to the franchise now, it shouldn’t spill on to the field.
Business as usual: The most upheaval the Colts underwent in the offseason came on the coaching staff, with long-time offensive coordinator Tom Moore taking another step back and line coach Howard Mudd departing. Clyde Christensen will call plays for the first time, and Pete Metzelaars will take Mudd’s place. Will it make a difference? Metzelaars will be important, because of all the moving parts up front, but the bottom line is that this is another example of how the Colts have used succession plans to slowly replace people. It happened with Jim Caldwell replacing Tony Dungy and Frank Reich replacing Caldwell as quarterbacks coach, it will happen with Chris Polian eventually replacing his father Bill, and so the new OC and line coach have been groomed for their roles for some time.
“If you look at what we’ve established over the years, with guys being in position to take over once someone leaves on the staff, we’ve had a pretty decent system,” Caldwell said. “That’s what Tony did with me, giving me an opportunity behind the scenes to work with things, putting together schedules for OTAs and training camp, a lot of the little things, sat in when Tony was talking to players about discipline, had an opportunity to watch the draft, how Bill and he worked together. … Obviously it’s a bit easier, in terms of the transition.”
TYING IN THE PATRIOTS
This has been sitting in my mind for some time now – Is Brady-Manning the greatest quarterback rivalry of all-time? They play against each other every year, each has won a championship and played in multiple Super Bowls, and neither missed the playoffs as a starter more than once in the last decade. Considering all that, I have to wonder if it’s even close. My buddy Don Banks of SI.com and I came up with a quick list of QB rivalries: Staubach-Theisman, Bradshaw-Stabler, Kelly-Marino and Aikman-Young. All seem to blown away by Brady-Manning in the categories above. So I asked Caldwell for his take: “Anytime we play that game, that is something you look at, having two great players under the center … just absolutely outstanding at what they do. A lot of similarities between the two of them, they’re great workers, very dedicated, deadly accurate, great leaders, great courage. They have everything you’re looking for in terms of a leader. It’s incredible, and to have those two guys battle year-in and year-out, it’s been unique. It’s been a pretty special thing to watch.”
THE QUOTE THAT CAPTURES
“I don’t think you ever turn (the page on a Super Bowl loss). It’s always there. You have to just get past it. It’s not going to change. It’s in the history books. They’re not going to suddenly decide that we can replay the game. It’s there, it’s not going to change, you have to live with it, but you got to get beyond it.”
-- Colts president Bill Polian
It’s been eight years since I lived in the Midwest, so I’ve forgotten some things, and two were on full display upon my arrival here. One, the lake-effect humidity is as heavy as lake-effect snow. And two, vicious storms burn that humidity off. On my way to last night’s practice, at about 6:30 p.m., the temperature gauge in my rental car said it was 97 degrees out. But about 10 minutes into the 7:30 p.m. session, that searing sunlight was gone and lightning was illuminating the sky. Eventually, the practice was stopped then called – Since another storm was following the first one – which meant an early end to Wednesday’ work day and a long one to come today. And today, the humidity is right back at us. Hopefully the rain holds off tonight.
THE GUY TO WATCH
OLB Philip Wheeler -- Wheeler burst on to the scene in Week 10 with his goal-line strip of Laurence Maroney, became a starter the next week, and totaled 48 tackles in the team’s final eight games. The staff loves the athletic, 6-foot-2, 240-pounder’s playmaking ability, but that has to transfer more over to the field. He could be the next big disruptive force on a defense full of them. Running back Donald Brown, the team’s 2009 first-round pick, is another player expected to break out. Playing in that offense, though, he’ll need to prove trustworthy in pass protection to earn an even split with Joseph Addai.
The line’s issues might well be a problem, but this club’s offensive skill positions have the potential to be the deepest Manning’s ever had. At receiver, beyond Wayne, there’s developing youngster Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon, and coming back is former first-round pick Anthony Gonzalez. Addai and Brown are capable in the backfield and Dallas Clark might be the deadliest weapon of them all. If there’s a sure thing in the NFL, it’s that this group (barring an injury to No. 18) will produce. … Polian said that, talent-wise, the defense might be the best he’s had. There’s a lot of confidence around here that Bob Sanders will be able to play, and if he can, and young players like Jerraud Powers and Wheeler ascend, the club president might be right. … For what it’s worth, the team now has a whopping $242 million in contracts tied up in six players (Dwight Freeney, Mathis, Gary Brackett, Bob Sanders, Kelvin Hayden, Antoine Bethea) on that side of the ball. … Caldwell said the two areas he’s looking to improve in are running the ball and stopping the run. He didn’t want to make comparisons to past clubs, but it’s interesting that those are two things that the 2006 team did exceptionally well in their playoff run to the Super Bowl, even after the run defense was dreadful during the season.