Last week, Colts GM Bill Polian had a phone in conversation with Grady and Big Joe at 1070 The Fan in Indianapolis. I wanted to highlight a few interesting points that have gone largely unmentioned thus far. After the jump we’ll take a look at a few of these quotes and why they stood out. If you’d like to read the full interview, head over to SportsRadioInterview.com to read the transcript.
The first question asked by Grady and Big Joe (who is a former Colts offensive lineman) what Anthony Castonzo and Benjamin Ijalana brought to the running game, Polian answered:
Well first of all let me say that I think the discussion about the running game is way off base. This is stat geeks looking at a stat and saying ‘oh gee Indianapolis has a problem’. We finished first in the conference and I believe second in the league in total offense. We’re always among the top four or five in scoring every year. The object of the game is to score. It’s not to make stat geeks happy in terms of yards per carry. I’m criticizing people, make no bones about it, who deal only in statistics. The object of our running game because we are high scoring, high powered, offense is to run effectively, i.e. run in the red zone, which we do very, very effectively. And run in four minutes and short yardage, which we have not done effectively. The improvement there I believe has to come from the back. That’s not the responsibility of the offensive line. You get a body on a body and a back has to either make somebody miss or more likely in short yardage you as know Joe run through a tackle. You know the idea of the idea of the statistical analysis of the running game is about as far off base as it possibly could be, in my opinion.
The use of the term, ‘stat geek,’ upset at least one writer. Those familiar with my work at Coltzilla will know that I tend to be the resident Stat Geek in Chief. Interestingly enough, I fully agree with Polian on this topic, and do not see his ‘stat geeks’ comment as directed at anyone but those who base their assessments of the team solely on statistics. Direct visual evidence of what Polian describes is quite obvious in game film. While the eye test and my own collection of stats show that the offensive line had a negative impact on the running game when plays ventured anywhere near the right side of the line, there are instances where — despite good blocking — running backs failed to do their job. The instances Polian mentions specifically seem to lay blame at Donald Brown primarily.
Javarris James was a stud on the goal line and in short yardage situations, and was regularly used in situations that put him up against determined run defenses, and yet he was still able to succeed. Mike Hart had numerous runs where he would get hit at or before the line of scrimmage and would somehow gain 5 to 8 yards on the play. Joseph Addai could slip and slide with the best of them and made tacklers miss.
Donald Brown though? He was the culprit in many of those “4 minute and short yardage” scenarios. On numerous occasions he showed almost no vision of the field and would run where he thought a hole should be and not realize that Jeff Saturday had shifted to one side or the other creating a new hole. In those cases Brown often ran into the back of his blockers and never got anything going before he went to the ground. He was often incapable of fighting for more yards. While Hart, James, and Addai had 0.21, 0.21, and 0.25 TDs and FDs per rushing attempt, Brown had 0.18. He was stuffed over 25% of the time, and it took over half of his rushing attempts to net positive yardage.
Also consider that while Mike Pollak and Ryan Diem may have been atrocious at run blocking, allowing an aggregate 3.41 yards per carry on rushing attempts to the right side, there are offensive line performance has little impact on the play. With the addition of rookie Delone Carter, and criticism of effort certain rushers in short yardage situations, I think the Colts may be actively looking for a replacement for Brown — at least in situations where Brown has struggled.
It is true that trying to statistically analyze the running game is nearly impossible. Despite being an obviously bad runner for much of the season, Football Outsiders ranks Donald Brown as one of the best RBs in terms of success rate, which is laughable, though statistically correct. When utilizing only statistics to analyze a running back, or the running game in general, these kinds of misnomers to crop up regularly.
The next question stayed with run blocking, and what stuck out was Polian’s assertion that run blocking is easy to identify in a line prospect, but that pass blocking is very difficult. Polian said:
We can see whether a guy can run block right off the bat. I can look at five plays on a tape and tell you whether or not a guy can run block. It’s more difficult to ascertain whether he can pass block because you’re not looking at the same talent level playing against you.
The key argument Polian made is that NFL defensive linemen are more talented pass rushers than their college counterparts. This is true, but you don’t see many NFL games where a team rushes for 300 yards either. The run defenders are also more stout, but it the concept Polian is describing makes sense.
There aren’t as many tricks to run defending as there are to pass rushing. To generate a ground game from the offensive line it comes down to whether or not you can ‘out muscle or outsmart the guy in front of you?’ If that is the case, thre is reason to be more confident about Castonzo and Ijalana.
Ijalana is known for his run blocking, but if the Colts feel confident enough in Castonzo to already name him the starting left tackle and trust that he can sustain the high pace set by Charlie Johnson of 4.69 YPC around the left end last year, my earlier concerns about Castonzo may not be justified. I am still skeptical because Castonzo wasn’t an outstanding run blocker in college, but if the Colt scouts and management feel he can succeed as a NFL caliber run blocker, I will wait until he plays to reach an official conclusion.
The third question discussed the wide receivers on the Colts roster, specifically Reggie Wayne’s contract issues and Austin Collie’s health. While Polian said little on Wayne:
…there are no persons on our receiving core that have contract issues. Everyone has a contract for this coming year, so there are no issues.
He did have some very promising news on Collie:
…in Austin Collie’s case and I spoke with him over the weekend. He’s feeling 100%. He’s working out. He’s having no symptoms, no repercussions, nothing that would lead anyone to believe that there is any long term issue with him…
With all the speculation that Collie may choose to bow out of football early, it is positive that Polian essentially closed the book on any speculation that Collie was going to be anywhere but the football field next year with the Colts.
Another key quote regarding the receivers, Polian actually admitted to another mistake in 2010, this time with respect to Anthony Gonzalez:
Anthony Gonzalez is working out. He’s 100%. He could have come back for the playoffs, obviously we made a mistake in keeping him down, but you can’t be…you have to make those decisions on a week-to-week basis. You can’t be a soothsayer afterwards and say we made a mistake. Hindsight is 20/20. If we’d known he was going to be back obviously we would not have put him down. That was very much in doubt at the time that he was injured, but my point is there is no long term repercussions there.
This confirms rumors that surfaced around Week 16 suggesting that Anthony Gonzalez was fully healed and could have returned to practice and game participation. This also indicates that the Colts are confident in Gonzalez’s long term health, and his ability to contribute to the team — which may have been a big reason why the Colts did not take a wide receiver in the draft. Additionally, it is reasonable to deduce that if Gonzalez was healthy enough to return to the starting lineup by or before the playoffs, his knee was not hurt as badly as some may have feared. This should give fans hope that Gonzalez could still return and regain his momentum.
While Gonzalez may still be the odd man out of the starting rotation — especially with Collie turning into an amazing receiver — if Garcon continues to struggle to break 55% completions, Manning could insist that Gonzalez and his more reliable hands — 70%+ career completion percentage — get another shot.
Another key exchange occurred when Big Joe and Grady asked about rumors that the Colts were targeting a quarterback, and how seriously they were considering it. Polian answered:
We graded the quarterbacks that were in this draft. We thought there was one that had the capability of being a quality starter in the league that was not a developmental project and that opportunity to draft him did not come about and so we just moved on.
It is probably safe to say that it wasn’t Cam Newton, which leaves Jake Locker of the Tennessee Titans and Blaine Gabbert of the Jacksonville Jaguars. It should be slightly disconcerting to Colts fans that the Titans or Jaguars have added a quarterback that Bill Polian and the Colts scouting staff thought enough of to use a high draft pick — possibly even the first pick — to bring in as successor to Peyton Manning. Indianapolis already has to face Matt Schaub twice a year, if another marquee quarterback just entered the division, the road to the playoffs just got tougher.