With a win against the Titans, the Colts managed to overcome unprecedented team injuries and their worst five game series since 2002 for a NFL record (tie) ninth consecutive playoff berth, and their seventh AFC South Championship in the last eight years. Peyton Manning was able to get through his toughest stretch of games since his rookie year and somehow Indy has managed to enter January with the three seed in the AFC.
It is extremely important for Colts fans to step back and think about the gravity of this accomplishment. Frankly, this team had no business overcoming all of the adversity it has faced in a sixteen game season.
When Jamie Silva went down in preseason competition, fans realized it hurt the team’s depth at strong safety.
When Bob Sanders came back healthy to play through all of training camp and showed a bit of his old self against the Green Bay Packers in preseason, many had high hopes for his chances to make a meaningful impact in 2010. After less than one half against the Texans in Week 1, Sanders suffered another torn biceps injury and was destined to make another return to the injured reserve.
Colts fans have grown immune to losing Sanders early in a season though, as his career has unfortunately been marked by numerous injuries, scars, and missed games. When Melvin Bullitt went down in a Week 4 match-up against Jacksonville, however, the team moved into uncharted territory.
Now, without the entire depth chart at strong safety from 2009, the Colts had to turn to Aaron Francisco, who was a part of the team as a special teams player a season ago. For the Colts to lose so many players at one position and still find success speaks volumes about the franchise’s personnel and management teams.
When both Jerraud Powers and Kelvin Hayden went down with injuries when the Colts needed to win four straight games to make the playoffs, it was a hurdle that very few teams would really expect to overcome. Winning out without your two best cornerbacks against NFL competition? Forget about it.
Justin Tryon, Jacob Lacey, and Cornelius Brown have played well enough to keep the team moving. In fact, the players offer a very bright and deep future for the Colts. Brown and Lacey may be better as depth than as starters, but both have shown enough to not blow their assignments and cost the Colts games.
Tryon, an early season trade acquisition from the Redskins, has played well enough over the course of the year to arguably surpass Hayden as Jerraud Powers’ counterpart starting on the outside in 2011. Overcoming the loss of Tim Jennings heading to Chicago, and the two starting cornerbacks missing significant time is admirable.
In previous years the Colts have played with a very thin group at linebacker. When Gray Brackett got hurt in 2008, it made a huge difference in San Diego. This year, two rookies have stepped up for the “sure-starters” at the beginning of the year, who have both missed significant time. Second Round choice Pat Angerer and Seventh Round pick Kavell Conner are playing well enough that players like Philip Wheeler, an injured Clint Session, and former starter Tyjuan Hagler are “backups.”
As the team stands now, even with losing their two top linebackers for significant games, the linebacker position is stronger and deeper than it has been since David Thornton was on the team, at the very least. There are even six linebackers on the team who could take the field without causing Colts fans a great deal of consternation over the team’s chances to win games, even against the NFL’s elite in the playoffs.
One of the positions that has generated a great deal of debate in previous years is defensive tackle. This year? Fili Moala has steadily shown improvement and is beginning to look like the player the Colts thought they were selecting when they traded up to grab him early in the Second Round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
The team of Daniel Muir and Antonio Johnson have been able to work together to create a real rotation at nose tackle that is formidable in a way the Colts have not had since Corey Simon, Booger McFarland, and Ed Johnson were on the team in previous seasons.
2008 undrafted free agent Eric Foster has started to step up as the pass-rushing interior defensive lineman the Colts hoped he would develop into. Additionally, he has made real strides this season to play a Raheem Brock-like role capable of playing at defensive end or defensive tackle depending on down, distance, and package.
Even Seventh Round rookie Ricardo Mathews has had a chance to get into the mix at defensive tackle. Although it took him much of the season and an injury to Daniel Muir to get his chance, he has shown real potential.
Who would have predicted that a Colts team whose receiving corps would be at or near the top of the league in dropped passes on the year, with a disappointing second-year starting performance from Pierre Garcon, with Anthony Gonzalez missing most of a second-straight season due to injury, and even second-year wide receiver Austin Collie making an early exit late in the year, would still be good enough offensively to win four straight and push into the playoffs?
Who would have predicted that undrafted free agent Blair White would perform well enough and consistently enough, even with limited snaps with Peyton Manning coming into the year, that he could start and fill the rather large shoes of the Colts talented starting receivers.
When Dallas Clark went down with a season-ending injury in Week 6, no one could have foreseen that the impact of his loss would be replaced so effectively by third-year tight end Jacob Tamme. Entering the year, Clark would be on the list as the second most important receiving weapon on the team.
Plug in Tamme, a player who worked hard to become a special teams ace, and Clark’s production is replaced. Even with rookie Brody Eldridge suffering through some injuries and Gijon Robinson having to return to the roster, the group did not suffer enough to turn the tide and keep the Colts out of the playoffs.
When starting running back Joseph Addai went down with a shoulder injury, second string running back Donald Brown struggled to get things going after he started the year with a hamstring injury, third string running back Mike Hart was very productive for a couple of games only to go down with injuries of his own. Fourth string running back and kick returner Devin Moore’s season ended prematurely after he took a big shot on a kick return.
Fifth string undrafted free agent Javarris James (Edgerrin James cousin) came in, carried the ball for six touchdowns, and managed to inspire confidence in his abilities, even if the Colts need him in the playoffs. The Colts elected to bring back Dominic Rhodes who has also been surprisingly effective, and has looked a bit like he did in when he started all of the regular season and was arguably Peyton Manning’s biggest competition for Super Bowl MVP honors in 2006.
On top of all of the injuries and the unknown heroes who stepped in to make a playoff berth possible, the Colts offensive line has had its worst season in years.
The point should be clear, a great deal of credit, admiration, and appreciation should go out to all of those responsible in the Colts organization for making something so unlikely happen. Bill Polian, Chris Polian, and Jim Irasy have put together a staff capable of giving the Colts a multitude of talent at almost every position on the field at an affordable price. Jim Caldwell, Clyde Christensen, and Larry Coyer have been less than perfect but when it mattered most and the team’s back was against the wall, they put a team on the field prepared for the challenge ahead of them and brought home a division championship.
In the face of contract concerns, questions, and numerous growing pains for a team that took three-quarters of a season to show signs of an identity, Peyton Manning hung in there and played one of his best games of the second half of the 2010 season at home against Tennessee. He did not turn the ball over and if his receivers helped him, would have had at least another touchdown and over 300 passing yards.
Mookie Johnson, Kavell Conner, Justin Tryon, Gary Brackkett, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Dominic Rhodes, Jacob Tamme, offensive line — all deserve props for a solid performance against the Titans to close out the year. Gentlemen, thank you for your efforts, thank you for staying tough, thank you for refusing to give in.
The 2010 Colts have been a lot of things, and many of them are things fans might want to forget. One thing no fan should forget about this group of men is that they played with heart, they overcame, and they represent the reason Colts fans could never feel the same about another team.