Wilson's Word: Sorting out center conjecture

Colts coach Chuck Pagano would not name his starting center for Sunday, saying everyone will just have to wait and see.

It’s been a somewhat curious week at the Indianapolis Colts’ complex.

Something had head coach Chuck Pagano snippy on Wednesday, when for the first time I can remember he ruled out a player, rookie guard Jack Mewhort, this early in the week.

“I will not string anybody along with that,” Pagano said. “We’re just up front and honest and forthright around here, try to be as honest as we can.”

The comment surprised me, since I know Pagano to be fair in weekly give-and-takes with reporters. Yet someone obviously irked him.

That agitation appeared to reach a different level when he asked about a report regarding the Colts’ plans to make a change at starting center. Local sports talk show host John-Michael Vincent of ESPN 1070-TheFan was tipped off that rookie Jonotthan Harrison was going to replace A.Q. Shipley.

We in the media get tips all the time. Sometimes, they’re legit. Sometimes not.

Pagano responded, “I don’t know where that’s coming from. … I heard somebody tweeted something about CBA and rules and things that I can and can’t do. I don’t know where this stuff comes from. I’d just be careful what you listen to and read. Wait until game day.”

In the meantime, locker-room interviews didn’t provide anything concrete, nor was it to be expected. Players aren’t stupid about keeping quiet about changes. Shipley handled the media masses like a pro, saying he’ll play wherever they tell him and do whatever is asked.

Problem is, the speculation continued to intensify. Harrison was seen taking some snaps with the first team during the drills portion of practice, which may or may not mean anything. We only get to watch so much of practice, and never see 11-on-11 stuff.

Many of us covering the team were mindful of what happened a couple of weeks earlier, when speculation swirled that second-year pro Khaled Holmes might get his first NFL start. He got most of the reps with the first team that week, Pagano admitted they were taking a look at him, but by Friday the coach said Shipley would stay at center.

So you don’t want to give too much credence to what someone else has heard, especially an anonymous tip.

But Pagano clearly didn’t want to talk much about it Friday. And his brevity on the topic suggests there’s probably something to this.

He was asked if the Colts were staying with Shipley, who has started all four regular-season games, and would it benefit him that the opponent is Baltimore, from whom he was claimed off waivers at the end of preseason?

Coach answered the latter half of the question, saying it was a plus to have a player with intimate knowledge of the opponent.

A different reporter followed with the direct question: Is Shipley starting at center on Sunday?

“Yeah, he’s a center on our team, yeah,” Pagano said.

“The starting center?” the inquisitor said.

“He’s a center on our team,” coach said. “We have a lot of centers on our team. You guys know that.”

It’s at this point where most of us understand he doesn’t want to say who is starting at center, regardless of how we phrase the question. It’s common for lineup changes to be kept a secret, so the other team doesn’t know, but if true this secret clearly leaked through someone. And if Shipley was staying at center, you would anticipate Pagano would just say so, as he did two weeks earlier.

Former colleague Mike Chappell revisited the subject two questions later: “Chuck, just so I don’t misunderstand, we’re going to have to wait until Sunday to see who your starting center is, right?”

Pagano stared at Chap for a few moments. Silence.

Then coach said, “I think, yeah. We’ve got a bunch of guys in that room that are more than capable of playing a bunch of spots on that offense. We talk about position flexibility all the time. Everybody has got ample reps at all the spots. Not only center, guard and tackle. Our guys do a great job of making sure, whether we have seven up, eight up, it doesn’t matter. Every man is ready to go.”

If the Colts are making a switch, it could be for several reasons. First, not having Mewhort means they are thin at guard. Shipley is experienced and can back up either guard position should someone go down. And you don’t like to switch a guy from center to guard in the middle of a game, then send out an inexperienced guy for snaps on the fly.

Second, maybe the Colts think Harrison is better than Shipley. An undrafted rookie, it’s quite possible the team just wanted Harrison to learn for a while before getting the nod. What’s worth noting is the Colts had penciled in Holmes, a 2013 fourth-round pick, as the starter at the beginning of training camp. But it seems as if he’s fallen off the radar.

Third, because Shipley knows the Ravens, it’s also true they know him well, too. They cut the guy after acquiring him from the Colts. So if Shipley has a weakness, the Ravens would know it. So the Colts don’t want to give the visitors that edge of trying to take advantage of something.

Or fourth, perhaps there’s some disagreement on making a switch and the Colts either haven’t figured it out yet or the change is a matter of following orders. If general manager Ryan Grigson has pushed for this, then nobody is going to say it. You don’t cross the boss, regardless of your line of work.

I’m not writing this to be critical of Pagano. But to ignore this subplot means I’m not doing my job to report what I hear, and perhaps more importantly, offer my two cents. Part of the job means throwing out an opinion now and then.

It sure sounds like Harrison will get his first NFL start Sunday. Either that or, possible reason number five, Pagano is just messing with the Ravens, for whom he used to be an assistant coach. That’s called gamesmanship and it happens all the time in the NFL.

As coach said, we shall see on Sunday.

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.


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