Summer Showdown: Tony Ugoh v. Charlie Johnson

When the 2009 season ended an era ended in Indianapolis.  After 12 years serving as the offensive line coach for the Colts, having developed some of the best offensive lines in the NFL during his tenure, Howard Mudd retired.  Replacing him is Pete Metzalaars, former NFL tight end who played for 16 years and whose 235 games is the most for any tight end in NFL history.

Any time a new coach takes over, change is inevitable.  It is possible that one of the changes Metzalaars will make is beefing up a notoriously small offensive line, which is known for excellent pass protection but poor run blocking.  In that effort he will likely take a fresh look at all of the offensive linemen on the Colts roster and choose the five players he thinks are best suited to fill in as starters.

One of the decisions he will have to make, and a decision that could differ from a decision Mudd made a season ago, could determine the futures of both Tony Ugoh and Charlie Johnson in the NFL.

IndyStar Photo

At 6-foot 5-inches tall and 301-pounds, Tony Ugoh entered the NFL with a promising future as a left tackle.  Unfortunately for Ugoh, his predecessor Tarik Glenn was a three-time Pro Bowl selection and a ten-year starter at the position who became one of the Colts most trusted and respected offensive linemen in franchise history.  Needless to say, Ugoh would have some large shoes to fill.

What made his transition to the NFL even more difficult is that Glenn unexpectedly retired shortly after the 2007 NFL Draft, throwing Ugoh into an immediate starting role and starving him of the year-long education the Colts management had hoped Glenn could impart before he ended his career.

Despite these difficult circumstances, and the demands of a very steep learning curve, Ugoh did not fair too badly in his first two seasons.  No, he was not the next Tarik Glenn, and yes he did have a nasty habit of missing some assignments in pass protection, but despite those errors, the Colts offensive line allowed the seventh and fourth lowest quarterback sacks in the NFL in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

Two issues kept Ugoh from becoming a facet at left tackle in his first two seasons.  The first is that Ugoh missed nine games in his first two years due to injuries.  The second is that blowing pass blocking assignments in an offense which features Peyton Manning, quite possibly the most prolific passer in the history of the NFL, was not acceptable in the eyes of Bill Polian, Jim Irsay, or Howard Mudd.  When the entire franchise is just one blown pass-blocking assignment away from an injury to the franchise quarterback, mental mistakes will not be tolerated.

The mental part of the NFL ultimately cost him his starting job in 2009, when one of the Colts most well-rounded offensive linemen, Charlie Johnson, took over his role.  That summer, owner Jim Irsay indicated that Ugoh would have to prove capable in the mental aspect of the game or he would lose his starting spot.  “Tony Ugoh has to be more consistent,” he said. “We gave up a lot for him to play left tackle. He’s got to be more focused. He’s got to be ready to go.”

Apparently Ugoh was unable to move past his mental mistakes and so he sat behind both Charlie Johnson and Ryan Diem as the Colts back-up offensive tackle.  He has had an entire season to think about his weaknesses, sitting as he watched other players playing in his place, and should have all the motivation he will ever need to get things turned around.  In order to win his spot back though, he will have to unseat a surprisingly capable and very consistent Charlie Johnson.

Johnson made a name for himself as a rookie in Super Bowl XLI when he took over at right tackle for an injured Ryan Diem.  Although he had been in the game for nearly a half, Peyton Manning commented that he did not even realize that Johnson had entered the game.  He took that experience and the important role he played in the Colts bringing home the Lombardi trophy to start at left and right tackle in 10 games in 2007.  If it is not enough that he proved capable in his roles as a back-up at both tackle positions in his first two years, he had a new assignment in 2008.

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Johnson started all 16 games in 2008, 12 at left guard replacing Ryan Lija who missed the entire season to a knee injury, and four games at left tackle for Tony Ugoh.  All told, this means that Johnson was capable of digesting and filling the roles of three positions along the offensive line in his first three years on the team.  It is not too surprising then that if Ugoh was to lose his starting position in 2009, it would be to Charlie Johnson.

The Colts allowed the league’s lowest quarterback sacks in 2009, and it really was not even close.  If Johnson failed to protect Manning or allowed his assignment to get through it was rarely if ever due to a mental mistake and more often due to physical limitations.  He seems better suited to play right tackle or guard than he does left tackle physically but did the job well and only missed a couple of games due to injury.

The question before Pete Metzalaars will be whether or not Tony Ugoh has figured out the mental aspects of playing left tackle in the NFL, whether Ugoh or Johnson is more physically capable of playing left tackle, and whether Johnson would be better suited to start at another position in 2010 (possibly at left guard like he did in 2008).  What is clear is that Johnson proved capable of filling the starting role and doing a good job, that Ugoh is physically capable and very expensive as the team used a 2008 first round draft pick to select him in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft, and that someone will need to fill the vacated position at left guard since Ryan Lilja was released and signed by the Kansas City Chiefs.

If Ugoh can pull it together mentally and Charlie Johnson can move inside or take over at right tackle, it is possible that the Colts will have a very solid and experienced offensive line in 2010.  Otherwise, Ugoh’s future in the NFL will be in doubt, and it is possible a new, young, or far lesser experienced player will have to fill in on the offensive line, leaving fans with legitimate concerns heading into the new season.

UPDATE:  Tony Ugoh is getting reps at left guard in OTAs this week.

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