"I am trying to be a good teammate here," Peyton Manning said. "But we had some problems with protection." With that statement, the star quarterback awkwardly summarized the game — a 21-18 playoff loss to the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers — his greater role within the team and the Colts' offseason goal.
A number of observers have voiced disapproval after Manning's statement, pointing out that in football, the ultimate team sport, no player should point the finger of blame at any other, no matter what the circumstances. Ordinarily I'd agree. But there are mitigating factors here. I think the first thing to keep in mind was that the comment wasn't an exercise in ego, it was a statement of fact. The Colts lost because they could not stop, or even slow, the Steelers' pass-rushers.
And, one should keep in mind that Manning (whether we approve of it or not) has a huge say in how the team is run. I don't think there are too many other players who can wave off the punt team after the coach has sent it in. Publicly pointing out the lack of effective protection is his way of lobbying for changes in the units involved. Colts President Bill Polian interviews the entire coaching staff for their opinions on personnel matters and with Manning a de facto on-field coach, his thoughts are important.
And, although I kind of hate to give him a pass on this, Manning had just come tantalizing close to pulling off one of the most dramatic comebacks in NFL history, with perhaps the most exciting single minute of football I've ever seen, after constantly living with the criticism that he "can't win the big one" his whole adult life. Things get said. A lesser man — such as I — would have been swearing, threatening and making a rapid flurry of obscene gestures.
Ah well, the game and the season are in the books now. Did it end happily? No. But it doesn't for 31 teams every year. The 2005 Colts gave their fans a season that was glorious, fascinating, tragic, enlightening, fun and ultimately understandable if not entirely satisfying.
• A quick release and talented wide receivers can't help you if you're running for your life. Despite the pressure, Manning put together a decent game on little but determination. His weakness has always been a lack of mobility and teams have done their best to exploit it. Some, like the Chargers and Steelers this year, succeed.
• He didn't get much of a chance to show it as he was often kept in to help neutralize the blitz or sent on pathetically short pass patterns, but Edgerrin James was his normal awesome self with the ball in his hands. Anyone who thinks he can be replaced by a rookie didn't watch the 98-yard series that led to the Colts' field goal. Had the Steelers not shot out to such an early lead, James could have won this thing. I was surprised to see James Mungro get the ball on the touchdown that never was, but James is generally considered his least effective inside the opponents' 5, so it made some sense. Although I like having Mungro around for a number of reasons, he's no fullback. He can lead on running plays, but he's just not an effective pass-blocker. The Colts could be well-served to consider integrating an actual fullback into their playbook and roster.
• With much else to do, the receivers dutifully ran their routes hoping not to be overthrown by yet another hurried cry for help from Manning. Some of the people I was with were calling for Brandon Stokely, but — as with much of the season — he was on the bench as the Colts preferred to play with two tight ends for added protection. When Stokely entered the game more regularly later on, it was a mixed blessing. Although he represented a more dangerous receiving threat than Bryan Fletcher, his positioning exposed Manning to even more harassment. Dallas Clark showed up as a receiver and was moderately successful as a blocker, especially when he lined up at fullback.
• Although the false start penalty on Tarik Glenn that wiped out Mungro's score stood out, Glenn actually graded out as the best of the Colts offensive line. The other four played significantly worse. I've seen Ryan Diem play very well this season, so I think his injury is still bothering him. There wasn't much excuse by the inside guys, though. They were just awful. It looked like an old-fashioned jailbreak. Look, if Casey Hampton flashes by you like a bullet train, there is something seriously wrong.
• The real bright spot for the Colts was the play of the defensive line. They, in particular Dwight Freeney and Montae Reagor, did a good job harassing Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and were fairly stout against the run. The problem with the Tony Dungy penetrate first, ask questions later philosophy is that it virtually subtracts the linemen from any sort of misdirection plays like the traps and screens that are the Steelers' bread and butter. Too often I saw a back amongst the Colts secondary while the Indy linemen were far offscreen in Pittsburgh's empty backfield. Raheem Brock was the worst offender, probably because I didn't see Josh Williams on the field.
• The traps and screens make life tough for the linebackers. Gary Brackett had to clean up most of the mess and did so boldly, if not always spectacularly. His fumble-causing hit on Jerome Bettis near the end of the game was a thing of beauty, however, and made me a believer. The Steelers usually ran and threw away from Cato June and were burned by a pick (aided by a big Freeney hit) when they did. His outside counterpart, David Thornton, was nowhere near as effective, especially at plays run right at him.
• Despite being stabbed in the knee by his wife not all that long before the game, Nick Harper was the Colts' best overall performer in the backfield. That's pretty sad. Bob Sanders showed his usual flashes of brilliance, but seemed to be overcompensating at times and played recklessly. Loath as I am to admit it, he really deserved that facemask call. Mike Doss was, at times, awful in coverage and weak in his tackling attempts. I really hope he can reverse his downward spiral and put his voluminous talent to use. Marlin Jackson still has a lot to learn before facing the NFL's best.
• If you pay a guy $1.8 million a year and don't ask him to kickoff, he should make 46-yarders, no matter what the situation. Perhaps Manning should get drunk and complain about him on PTI. Even had Vanderjagt made the game-tying field goal, there'd still be plenty to complain about on special teams. Troy Walters seemed not to see the whole field and generally made things more dangerous for himself than he had to. Dominic Rhodes was uninspiring on kick returns, but at least he didn't fumble. Hunter Smith's punting was as competent as usual, but also shed some light on another unsung player. Lots of people have praised Rob Morris for his work as a special-teams tackler, but I only recently noticed what an excellent job he does protecting the agonizingly slow Smith as he sets up. Jose Cortez may have locked up a job for next year, but they'll give Dave Rayner a shot to unseat him.
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