Well, folks, guess who is first place in the AFC South? That’s right, the Peyton Manning Colts. Or are these the Jim Caldwell Colts? Or the Bill Polian Colts?
All three men deserve to take a bow. Maybe even my favorite pass rusher, Dwight Freeney, deserves some credit. In case you haven’t been following the Colts, they resemble that unpredictable, makeshift team from that old Elliott Gould movie "M*A*S*H". Five rookies played significant roles in Sunday’s win over the Bengals, and once again the Colts were minus eight starters from the season opener.
On the field, Manning is holding this revolving-door group together, by playing super-cautious football. He passed for only 185 yards but didn’t throw an interception or even a touchdown. The last time he played a full game and had such a low passing total was Nov. 30, 2008, against the Browns when he managed only 125 yards. His new tight end, Jacob Tamme, led with seven catches, and rookie Brandon James had four for 36 yards. Rookie running back Javarris James scored another touchdown as the Colts wait on Joseph Addai’s return.
“There is only so much that the coaches can do to prepare a young guy, a new guy, to play,” Manning said after the 23-17 win. “We try to spend some time with them after practice, kind of calling some plays and going through a mock drive of a game to give them a little feel for what it is going to be like on Sundays.”
Caldwell, who opened his Colts’ head-coaching career by rattling off 14 consecutive wins last season, is a very detail-oriented man. He also has a calm demeanor. Rarely, if ever, do you see sideline panic in Caldwell. In fact, he’s a lot like former boss Tony Dungy. Caldwell has always been a great teacher, learning from the likes of Joe Paterno at Penn State during the 22 years he spent in college football. Dungy brought him to Indy in 2002, and the rest is history. Yes, his team lost to the upstart Saints in the Super Bowl, but his overall NFL record is 22-6, a .786 winning percentage.
Caldwell leads a veteran staff, which includes the likes of former Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner handling the now-youthful receiving corps. Coordinator Larry Coyer has maintained an aggressive defensive approach which created five turnovers against the Bengals, including cornerback Kelvin Hayden’s 31-yard interception touchdown return of Carson Palmer. With the game on the line, the Colts sacked Palmer twice in the closing seconds, game over.
One cannot forget the contributions of team president Bill Polian and his general manager son, Chris, who keep finding players on an annual basis who fit what Caldwell wants to do on offense and defense. Polian changed his personnel ways for Dungy, who preferred undersized defenders with tons of speed and smarts. Hayden and fellow cornerback Jerraud Powers are in that mold along with rushers like Freeney and Robert Mathis.
Second-round pick Pat Angerer of Iowa has started the past four games at either middle or strong-side linebacker and was involved in 27 tackles in those games, and seventh-rounder Kavell Connor of Clemson started at weak-side linebacker Sunday and had five total tackles and a forced fumble. He also kept his role on special teams.
Right now, the Colts are winning because they have Manning and one of the best organizations in football. Caldwell doesn’t mess up on the sideline, where he’s in total control, while the Polians supply the necessary pieces to the player puzzle. The Colts have a big showdown game Sunday against the New England Patriots. Caldwell might not have Bill Belichick’s three Super Bowl titles, but there’s no question these two organizations mirror each other. They both turn over personnel yearly while maintaining a winning product.
NOTES & THOUGHTS
* It’s over in Minnesota. Brett Favre has evolved into a turnover machine, and now he’s moaning about yet another injury to his throwing arm. He signed with the Vikings to prove to the Packers they made a mistake in dumping him, and he was able to follow through, sweeping the series last year. But with Green Bay looming on the horizon, you wonder if Favre has the stomach for another rematch or if Brad Childress is prepared to throw in the towel and start Tarvaris Jackson against Aaron Rodgers, whose team is coming off a bye. Does anybody think Favre has one last hurrah left in the tank?
* There were some gutty performances Sunday, like Lions quarterback Shaun Hill throwing for 323 yards with a plate and a cast on his left forearm and the Seahawks’ Matt Hasselbeck returning to the game in Arizona after cracking a bone in his left wrist. After an elaborate halftime tape job, Hasselbeck put the finishing touches on 333-yard passing day in a big NFC West win against the Cardinals.
* The Patriots play the Colts next, but didn’t you think that was a pretty big statement game against the Steelers in Pittsburgh Sunday night? How about Tom Brady sneaking over for a touchdown and slamming the ball in the end zone like he owned the place? The Steelers were so frustrated with Brady’s passing game that linebacker LaMarr Woodley slammed Brady after he connected on his third touchdown pass to rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski. It was a big Sunday for the Gronkowski family. Brothers Chris, a fullback with the Cowboys, and Dan, a tight end with the Broncos, pulled off the trifecta with wins all around.
* I think the 49ers will keep Alex Smith on the bench whenever his shoulder heals. Troy Smith has played well in two straight wins, and coordinator Mike Johnson has installed a nice rollout package for the former Ohio State Heisman winner. In two starts, Smith has completed 61.7 percent of his passes for a gaudy 11.7 yards per attempt and has a 116.6 quarterback rating. Smith, who looks shorter than 6 feet, can escape the rush, something that will be coming a lot now with the loss of left tackle Joe Staley. If you caught the Rams-49ers’ game, Chris Long is definitely proving that he was worthy of being a top draft pick last year. Long manhandled No. 1 pick Anthony Davis at right tackle with an assortment of pass-rush moves.
* Josh Freeman continues to impress at the Bucs’ quarterback. In his past six starts, four of them wins, Freeman has seven touchdowns against two interceptions. Tampa Bay has found a runner in LeGarrette Blount who complements Cadillac Williams nicely. GM Mark Dominik needs to find a few more defensive players in the 2011 draft and this franchise looks like it’s back for good.
* The key for Jason Garrett and his enthusiastic Cowboys is to maintain this new-found confidence. The Lions are up next, followed by the Saints on Thanksgiving Day. One thing is certain, though, rookie Dez Bryant is the current super freak at wide receiver in the NFL. It will be interesting to see what the Lions’ Calvin Johnson thinks of him.