Six Points for Week 11: Colts find their missing grit against the Falcons
They've been saying it for years now, at the behest of their coach, as a means of habit formation by constantly repeating the word and hoping it stuck.
"Grit." "Grit." "Grit."
Chuck Pagano's Indianapolis Colts have been uttering it over and over again, yet their performance had been anything but gritty. There was nothing gritty about the way they fattened up their record in a weak division the last three years, only to be bounced out of the playoffs by a combined 74 points.
This season, which began with rumblings it would be Pagano's last and has continued with multiple injuries to Andrew Luck, has required a certain something. It's sort of like mental toughness, particularly when things aren't going well. It was a determination on display in Sunday's 24-21 comeback victory over the Atlanta Falcons that was fueled by backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and sealed by ever-reliable kicker Adam Vinatieri's 43-yard game-winning field goal.
It was ... what's the word we're looking for?
One quick walk through the Colts' winning locker room served as a reminder.
"Grit." "Grit." "Grit."
Ah, that's right. And this time, they might actually be showing it.
"We know what it means now. We've been through it, we've experienced it," said linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who tied the game with a 6-yard touchdown return of an interception of Matt Ryan just under 5 minutes into the fourth quarter. "It's a powerful word in this locker room and it got us over the hump ... especially this year, out of all years."
This year's Colts team doesn't have the flash or the scoring punch of the past few years. Through 10 games, they've scored 224 points. Last year, they had 310 points by now and the year before they'd put up 252.
However, it was clear those teams weren't ready to go toe-to-toe with some of the AFC's best in the playoffs. All of that scoring masked a lack of, well, grit.
The hope is this year's trials are building up some toughness in this team and preparing the players for what's to come in January, provided they make it there. At 5-5, they're tied with the Texans for the AFC South lead, though they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker for now. They're doing it by surviving. In each of their wins, the Colts have either been tied or behind in the fourth quarter.
This was supposed to be a one-man team, yet they're thriving in Luck's absence. That says a lot about the beleaguered head coach, embattled general manager Ryan Grigson's roster and the work of the entire coaching staff.
"These are not perfect circumstances. You would love to have your starting quarterback playing, you would love to have a lot of different things," said Hasselbeck, who was 23-for-32 for 213 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in leading the Colts to a third win in his three starts. "We have (new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski) calling plays now and doing a great job.
"It's hard. It's not how we envisioned this year going, but he's doing a great job, we're working together and we're working hard."
Sunday might have marked the hardest the Colts have had to work all season.
They won despite falling behind 21-7 early in the third quarter and losing cornerback Vontae Davis to a hamstring injury. Late in the game, offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo joined Davis on the sideline because of a knee injury a few plays before Vinatieri lined up his game-winner. Just a few feet away, an anxious Luck was pacing the sideline while covering his mouth with his hat so the cameras wouldn't be able to read his lips. Meanwhile, tight end Coby Fleener was about to run into the game to play defense against the Falcons' Hail Mary attempt.
All of this came after a sloppy first three-plus quarters that included two interceptions from Hasselbeck and a desperation lateral to offensive tackle Joe Reitz -- a bad decision that the 40-year-old passer chalked up to a "mid-life crisis."
Asked what he would have thought if he'd been told before the game that Reitz rush would happen on the same day he would have his first career interception, Fleener replied, "It sounds more like a circus than a game."
The Reitz rush for no gain capped a three-and-out after the Falcons had gone 80 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown to open the third quarter to go up two scores.
"That was a get-down (route)," said Reitz, who was surprised to see the ball coming his way. "In my mind, I'm thinking it's illegal touching, which happens a lot when the lineman gets the ball. So I'm running and I'm just thinking, 'Get down, do not fumble the football,' so I went in the fetal position. If I had more situational awareness, I could've gotten the first down."
As ugly as that sequence was, it didn't look good for Indy at that point.
But a defensive stop, followed by a 90-yard touchdown drive, changed the complexion of the game. It showed the Colts were battling, even when Hasselbeck's second interception gave the ball back after the defense had forced a turnover deep in Falcons territory.
After punter Pat McAfee pinned the Falcons at their 1-yard line, Jackson made the game's big play. It came after he initially bit on a play-action fake.
"'Fitzy' (linebackers coach Jeff Fitzgerald) always tells us, if we take the cheese, haul ass to get out of there," Jackson said. "So that's what my thought process was, to get the hell out of there and get back to my drop where I was supposed to be."
In case you forgot, Jackson is the one who intercepted Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game to spark the Deflategate scandal. That really has nothing to do with this story, so let's get back to his intercepting a presumably properly inflated ball.
"That's what it is -- an 'Oh, s---' drop (into coverage). I was in that mode," Jackson said of his panicking after biting on the play fake. "I stopped my drop when (Ryan) stopped his. I was surprised he threw it. I don't think he saw me."
Now tied, the teams traded punts until the Colts got the ball back with 4:54 left. Running back Frank Gore, who -- grit alert! -- returned from a thigh injury suffered early in the game, took a screen pass 31 yards. Hasselbeck hit Ahmad Bradshaw for 9 yards and then Donte Moncrief for 10. Three plays later, Vinatieri gave the Colts the win.
"He may be a little older, but he plays young," Reitz said of Hasselbeck. "You think he's 10, 15 years younger than he really is."
Someone joked that still makes him old.
"Yeah, that takes him from Grandpa to Dad," Reitz quipped.
Hasselbeck was all smiles leaving the field. Pagano gave emphatic fist pumps toward the crowd. Luck was still covering his mouth with his hat as he talked to staffer on his way into the end-zone tunnel. Fleener still had the football from his first ever interception -- until he gave it to a kid in a Colts shirt in the seats over the tunnel.
Right before they got to the locker room, the Colts' players heard praise from a stadium security guard.
"You guys hung in there. You kept fighting," the guard told them. "You were tough. Congratulations."
They call that grit.
"It falls in line of adversity, perseverance, discipline," Jackson said. "You can put all of those in the same box and, when a team does that, you come out with grit.
"It's been proven this year."
KAEPERNICK'S CONTRACT CONUNDRUM
Sources close to Colin Kaepernick were adamant in telling FOX Sports the San Francisco 49ers' quarterback didn't consider his contract status when deciding to have surgery to repair a complete tear of the labrum in his left shoulder. They also noted Kaepernick lost money by giving up $875,000 in per-game roster bonuses this year by heading to injured reserve.
That might very well be the case, but that doesn't mean the contract won't be a sticking point this offseason.
With FOX's Jay Glazer saying on Sunday that Kaepernick is likely done with the Niners (unless Jim Tomsula gets fired and a new coach wants Kaepernick to stay), it means Kaepernick's $11.9 million salary for 2016 is up in the air. Right now, it's non-guaranteed money. That changes on April 1, if he's still a member of the team.
The 49ers don't anticipate an injury in Kaepernick's non-throwing shoulder would prevent him from passing a physical five months or so from now. But remember, physicals are subjective and open to interpretation. Kaepernick could cite other doctors who have differing opinions and fight the team via a grievance.
The point is, if Kaepernick wants to maximize his 2016 payout with any team, it starts with getting that salary guaranteed with San Francisco -- or at least convincing them it will be guaranteed -- so that they trade him instead of release him. As of now, execs around the league think a guaranteed salary of nearly $12 million is too high for any one to swallow. But there's always a chance of a restructure from a team that believes in Kaepernick.
Oh, and don't discount the surgery and the whispers he was hurt dating back to the loss to the Green Bay Packers in Week 4 as Kaepernick's way of saying he just wasn't right this year.
It was after the Kansas City Chiefs wasted multiple chances in a 16-10 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Oct. 18 when Andy Reid said he believed his team was capable of playing much better than they were playing.
Turns out, Reid was right.
The Chiefs have now won four straight, all by 10 points or more. They've won back-to-back wins on the road and sit a half-game behind the Buffalo Bills for the second wild-card spot. They face Buffalo next Sunday. Kansas City is just one game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers, whom they've already beaten.
The Chiefs are a legitimate contender for a playoff spot because their schedule lines up very, very well for them. They have four home games and only two road trips left. They also have just one game remaining against a team with a winning record, and that could change on Monday because the Bills (5-4) face the New England Patriots.
Plus, Joe Flacco's torn ACL makes one of Kansas City's two remaining road games seem a lot less daunting. They'll face the Flacco-less Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 20.
Jamaal Charles' injury staggered these Chiefs, who fell apart against the Chicago Bears after Charles got hurt and then seemed to be sleep-walking against the Vikings. But they're back and that's a credit to Reid and his confidence in this group.
KEEP DABBIN' ON THEM FOLKS
In case you missed the controversy last week, that's the name of the dance Cam Newton did in the end zone against the Tennessee Titans that stirred up controversy and a letter from a Tennessee mother to the Charlotte Observer.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera played it a bit down the middle by saying Newton's dance might have been a little long but is a part of a league that's changed since he played and is now about showmanship as entertainment.
Rivera didn't exactly say he hoped Newton keeps dancing all the way to the Super Bowl, but he was behind his quarterback.
Sure enough, as shown on FOX's "The OT" on Sunday evening, Rivera celebrated Newton's five touchdowns and the win over the Washington Redskins by dabbing in the postgame locker room. The players erupted.
Panthers sources have made it clear this team, with cornerback Josh Norman emerging and Newton playing outstanding football, has more personality than some of the franchise's recent teams, and that Rivera wants to foster it as long as the players remain focused on the field.
Winning is fun. It should be enjoyed. Rivera was right to stand by his quarterback and bring it all home by dabbing in the locker room. Despite what one mom in Tennessee thinks.
FISHING FOR HIS JOB?
Jeff Fisher's St. Louis Rams are now two games out of a playoff spot, with games against the Cincinnati Bengals and Arizona Cardinals on deck. The way it looks now, Fisher will be 0-for-4 in attempts to reach the postseason as coach of the Rams. Including his last two years with the Titans, that would be six straight seasons for him as a coach without a trip to the playoffs.
And before anyone gives Fisher an out by saying he hasn't had a decent quarterback, sources say he was the one who pushed the Nick Foles trade to completion back in the spring. When he got back from a competition-committee meeting and learned the trade has stalled, he leaned on his staff to get it done.
Fisher has one year left on his contract. The future of the Rams' franchise is obviously uncertain -- as his tenure with the team should be.
FIRST-YEAR COACHES HITTING THE WALL
Head coaches in their first year with their teams (including the four coaches with experience elsewhere before getting hired this offseason), got off to a great start. In September and October, they were a combined 26-19.
However, in November, the tide has turned. So far this month, those coaches are a combined 9-15.
No coach has dropped off more than Todd Bowles, whose Jets started 4-2 but are 1-3 in their last four games. The Jets have had injuries to quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and center Nick Mangold that have slowed their offense, but they've lost winnable games in recent weeks. They have the Miami Dolphins at home next Sunday in a game they'll badly need to stop their skid and keep their playoff hopes alive.