...It's as though the 14-2 Colts, judged too good, were forced to play without Edgerrin James, Bob Sanders, Ryan Diem, Cato June, Brandon Stokely, Corey Simon, Montae Reagor, and Robert Mathis and with just token appearances by Peyton Manning, Dwight Freeney, Tarik Glenn, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and a whole lot of others. Conversely, aside from the grievously injured Kurt Warner and the stunk-up-the-joint Antrel Rolle, the Cards fielded the best team they had. And, in tribute to Rozelle's vision, the game was a nail-biter that the Cards won, then didn't win after an official review of a quarterback keeper from the Colts' 1 with just a few seconds left.
However it was induced, the game was exciting, offered Colts' fans a good look at their team's depth and, because it resulted in a win, gave the players and coaches a confidence injection on the way into the playoffs.
• Although the NFL (unofficially) records quarterback win-loss records by start, using baseball scoring, Jim Sorgi got off the schnide and raised his career record to 1-2. Watching him against the Cardinals, I saw a much more confident and mature quarterback than played against the Seahawks a week before and the Broncos last year. Despite the abject failure of the running game and a patchwork offensive line, Sorgi managed to make some decent reads and avoid big mistakes. He did throw one pick, but it looked to me like it was more Troy Walters' fault than his. Considering what they pay for him, Sorgi certainly earns his keep.
• I hate to beat a dead horse, but is there still anyone out there who thinks Dominic Rhodes is as good as Edgerrin James? On four attempts on Sunday, Rhodes gained just five yards. I hate to pile on the guy when he's down, but it seems like he's got Terrence Wilkins syndrome. You know, a fearless player with magic in his feet who gets a big injury and plays cautiously and tentatively afterward. I've always thought of Rhodes as an excellent kick returner and very good occasional back, but he's been a bit down in each category this year. He's also been a touch more lax about ball security, pass-blocking and route running. It says a lot about Rhodes that Sorgi (Jim Sorgi!) would rather try to win a close game single-handedly than hand off to him. Rhodes backup, James Mungro, had seven yards on just one carry and looked smoother in the passing game — both receiving and blocking. But don't put too much faith in him if James goes down. Even against a dispirited and under-talented Cards' defense, he looked very, very slow. I was sorely disappointed that reserve back Kory Chapman didn't get any real action on offense. Since only he and Rhodes are under contract for 2006, it would have been great to see what he could do against an NFL defense.
• It was great to see Ben Utecht get some real playing time. He looked smooth, elusive and strong. He appears to have the talent to be an excellent No. 2 tight end, but I worry about whether he has the toughness to succeed at one of the NFL's hardest positions. Is he Cam Cleeland or is he Chad Lewis? At this point, I don't know, but it should be interesting to see what he does in the playoffs. You can take Ben Hartsock's face off the milk cartons for now, as he caught two passes for 8 yards and had a false start called against him. Still, he didn't exactly reserve himself a 2006 roster spot — at least in Indianapolis. The wide receiver play was uninspired, although it was nice to see Marvin Harrison was healthy enough to take a few snaps. I was wondering why he played at all until I looked at the pre-game stats and saw that Wayne had one more catch than him. Sure enough, after two catches, Harrison called it a season. Sorgi clearly has some rapport with the Colts' backups as he practices with them every day, but neither Aaron Moorehead nor Troy Walters did much to impress. Walters, in particular, appeared to hear some footsteps whenever he sensed Adrian Wilson might be near.
• Considering Sorgi's slo-mo release and the absolute absence of a running game, the offensive line played pretty well. It's hard to pass-block play after play, but the backups managed to put in a decent day's work. I always thought Ryan Lilja would be better off at center than guard, but I changed my mind after Sunday. He's got the blocking assignments down pat, but just isn't much of a snapper. And that is a big part of being a center. Kurt Vollers did allow a sack, but actually got some decent push on the left side and gave a pretty good overall performance. He could emerge with a roster spot. I was much less impressed with Dylan Gandy and Matt Ulrich, both of whom looked lost at times and neither of whom looked strong. Jake Scott played an okay game, but only okay.
• It was a strange day for the Colts bargain-basement defensive line. They got good pressure and harassed the Cards' Josh McCown, but put up very little resistance to the most tragic running game I've seen since the '82 Colts. I know he won't get many votes for MVP, but the last three games have shown exactly how valuable Corey Simon has been to the Colts. With him, the defense is a brick wall; without him, it's a paper bag. The third (Larry Tripplett) and fourth (Josh Williams) defensive tackles managed some push, but were brushed aside with depressing regularity. It was a sad reminder of what life was like when they were both starters. You know who played a good game despite a limited role? Darrell Reid. Kid's got a future. The only bona fide starter on the line, left end Raheem Brock, played with great ferocity. He doesn't get much attention with Freeney and Mathis piling up sacks like cordwood, but he has been one of the defense's most stalwart players. Also, Josh Thomas is a much better player than most people think.
• I learned more about the Colts defense on just a few plays of the Cardinals game than I did in any other game. The final drive started at the Cards' 11 and somehow stumbled to the Colts' 2 some 18 plays (if you include penalties) later. The Colts linebackers — exposed by their milquetoast defensive line — were abused on both running and short passing plays. But when push came to shove, when the Cards were on the Colts' 2, unheralded Keith O'Neil took Marcel Shipp apart for a one-yard gain. Earlier in the game, when the Cards had a first and goal at the Colts' 2, starter Gary Brackett swam past his own stumbling linemen to stop Shipp on consecutive plays for just one yard. Even Rob Morris, whose head was literally spinning as he was overloaded with responsibilities, managed to make a few plays, and literally won the game when he scooped up McCown's last-gasp fumble on 4th-and-goal from the 1. A lot has been said and written about Morris, but he's a pretty good linebacker when the guys in front of him do their job — they just haven't very often throughout his career. Gilbert Gardner played his best game as a Colt, but still made me long for the cerebral and fluid Cato June to return. I was surprised to see Jonathan Goddard play outside linebacker, I really thought the Colts saw him as a rush end. After watching his performance Sunday, I think they should.
• While it may appear that rookie corners Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden were overmatched playing against talents like Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, I saw real progress by both. In fact, I think Hayden actually outplayed the more heralded and experienced Jackson. Facing perhaps the smartest and most wily receiver in the league (Boldin) and being targeted by McCown, Hayden managed to keep his cool and lay down some lumber. Good for him. I see both as 2006 opening day starters. You'll notice that Mike Doss played a lot more than the other starters. That's because he needed it. He's been sloppy of late and probably needed a metaphorical kick in the pants to get back on track. Matt Giordano played with some spark, but still hasn't made me wish the Colts didn't draft Michael Boley instead.
• I have to admit I was greatly impressed by kickoff man Jose Cortez, who allowed the Colts' normally lollygagging coverage men to get downfield at their leisure. The Cards managed just 14.50 yards a return as compared to the 65 or so it seemed the other teams got this year. Conversely, the Colts return teams looked awful. Rhodes seemed indecisive and cautious on kick returns and recorded and average about 8 yards less than his career average. Although it won't be publicized, Walters actually broke Chad Morton's single season NFL record for fair catches. How do you congratulate him for that — a golden airbag? Safety first, I suppose, but that's not my style of football. Lost among the rest of the game, as usual, was an extraordinary game by Hunter Smith.
If you think the Colts are set at outside linebacker for 2006, keep in mind that David Thornton and Rocky Calmus are unrestricted free agents and that Cato June and Keith O'Neil are restricted. If the thought of Gilbert Gardner and Jonathan Goddard or Kendyll Pope starting on the outside seems far-fetched, be aware that Colt GM Bill Polian has a history of letting linebackers walk when they demand a raise. While the starters will probably be okay, there's no doubt that the team will need depth at the position and will draft at least one OLB, probably more. One guy I'd like to suggest is Vanderbilt's Moses Osemwegie. Although he's a bit undersized, he's tough, a sure tackler and a real student of the game. Highly productive (118 tackles, 9.5 for a loss, 3 sacks, 2 picks, 4 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries as a senior), he has a nose for the ball and is not afraid to mix it up with the big boys. A former basketball center, Osemwegie is a top all-around athlete with toughness and courage. And, since the Colts prize character, they should be delighted to know that he's almost done his degree in a difficult discipline, his father was a doctor and his mother is a cop-turned-attorney.
Jerry Langton's "Observations"
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