Colts Are a Franchise 'Built Like a Family'
This is a dance all NFL teams seek to master. To impart truth but also be able to cloak any doubts or secrets. The Colts are better at it than most. If they are fretting over their ability to corral the Saints' hybrid, piercing offense, they are not showing it. If unsure that they can prevent multiple turnovers against the Saints' pressure defense, they are not revealing it. If injured defensive end Dwight Freeney cannot go in Super Bowl XLIV, they say, "Next man up," and tell you they can win it all without him.
This calm, reassuring mindset, this trait of being authentic and straightforward laced with keeping some things close, some things covered, has its roots in former coach Tony Dungy. General manager Bill Polian also helped to cultivate it. Coach Jim Caldwell has continued the teaching, the craft.
"I'm pretty authentic and straightforward,'' Caldwell said in his news conference here on Monday and used the same words to describe his offensive line coach, Howard Mudd, who after 36 NFL seasons, the last 12 with the Colts, has told the franchise that this will be his last game. The Colts have 12 of 22 starters back from their Super Bowl championship team from three years ago. It is a veteran team with youth sprinkled in spots. Everyone involved knows to follow the template of Dungy and Polian and now Caldwell.
"All three men are similar,'' Colts defensive tackle Daniel Muir said. "They are humble and hard working. They all worked together for a long time. And when you do that, there are certain traits that you pick up from each other and that you pass down to the players. Polian is at practice every day. You can talk to him and coach Caldwell every day about anything. I'm not sure that is the setup with other teams around the league.
"The way we are as a team, it's something that is taught. This franchise is built like a family. There is a family atmosphere in the locker room. You can see why, with good players, that would be successful.''
Colts linebacker Gary Brackett added: "Our leadership has good guys and a knack for getting good guys. You learn early here that the chatter on the outside does not dictate what we are going to do on the inside. And they will take chances on players when they think it fits. We are taught that nothing is bigger than life. And as football players, expect greatness. We are told, 'Don't be surprised if the ball finds you or you find the ball in the play that wins you a Super Bowl.' "
Popular belief is that the Colts begin and end with quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning tries hard to deflect this. He specializes in turning negatives into positives. And though people on the outside believe he is the nexus of anything good that will happen for the Colts in the Super Bowl, Manning always pushes the conversation from "me'' to "we.''
Manning did this repeatedly in his news conference Monday. And he revealed something about the communication between Colts players that mirrors the rapport of coaches and management to the team.
He said that, since the Colts offense does not huddle often, he uses time on the sidelines to talk to his receivers and get their "real suggestions.'' Not simply that they are open, but on which routes, and also gaining insight on which ones they are not open. Manning said he wants his receivers to be assertive. Authentic. Straightforward.
When he was asked about Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' saying last week that his defense wants to give Manning "remember-me hits,'' and even knock him out of the game, Manning said he was not aware of those words.
"I've been playing long enough,'' he said, "to not have a reaction to it.''
Do you really believe that Manning is not aware of Williams' words? Of course he is. But in finding a way to be direct in his answer, Manning relied upon his experience. On what he has learned. On what he has been taught. Little fighting fire with words. Just answer with touchdown passes.
The great teams, the great franchises most often do this. In their battle with the New England Patriots over the last decade for NFL supremacy, the Colts picked their spots for verbal spats and relied more on their play, good or bad, to do the talking. This sprint against the Patriots is real and lasting. With New England claiming three Super Bowls in the last decade, the Colts know this chance for their second title in Indianapolis moves them closer to the results in this Patriots/Colts scrap that most count.
"No sir, I have not revisited it,'' Caldwell said when asked about his decision to rest players at the end of the regular season that cost the Colts a shot at an undefeated season. "We have moved beyond that. We wanted to be fresh for that first playoff game against Baltimore. I think we got that accomplished.''
Polian added: "First with Tony and now with Jim, we think alike in football. We think alike about people. That carries you a long way.''
They have been here before, unlike the Saints, and you can tell how much that means to the Colts. Dungy said he retired a year ago, in part, because he wanted to make sure that he did not leave Caldwell a "run-down team.'' Far from it. He left a mature, confident team that knows how to spew strong truths while reserving a place for intimate doubts and secrets.
And if Freeney cannot play, and they line up for the Super Bowl kickoff with an authentic and straightforward belief that they will win, and do, they will have pulled off their greatest feat yet of turning a negative into a positive.