BY TOM JAMES
Preseason in the National Football League, for the most part, is viewed as an excellent opportunity for a team’s lesser-known players to get extended work in a real-time game situation.
With the exception of the two teams who play each summer in the NFL’s Hall of Fame Game, each league team will have play four exhibition games. Very little game-planning occurs for three of the four games. Offensive and defensive starters see limited work in three of the four games.
Winning, however, is not the primary goal. Do teams want to win in the pre-season? Yes. And if they do, that’s great. But getting an opportunity to watch little-used backups and younger players — who usually don’t get a chance to get on the field in crunch time — is the goal.
And that’s the conundrum. The short-term goal of winning a meaningless game versus the bigger job of protecting the starters from injury along with roster development.
Is what happens in a preseason game really that important?
From 2005 to 2011, the Indianapolis Colts registered a preseason record of 5-26. The 2005 and 2010 teams failed to win a game. Those same teams were 77-35 during the regular season with two having 14-win seasons, one with 13 wins and two with 12.
Indianapolis earned five AFC South titles, two AFC title appearances, two trips to the Super Bowl and one Super Bowl crown.
So is what happens during the preseason really a peek into what happens during the regular season?
That question has been asked in a lot of places where Colts fans congregate over the last few days. Indianapolis did not play well in a 44-20 preseason loss to the Buffalo Bills last Sunday. The starters did okay but were only in the game for a couple of series. Their replacements didn’t play well.
The Bills — with a new head coach and coaching staff along with a rookie starting quarterback and a recent history of on-field struggles — wanted to set a tone early. Indianapolis, with its coaching staff returning for a second year, took a different tact.
In the aftermath, though, nobody from Colts Nation came away happy. Particularly team owner Jim Irsay, who let loose with a tweet a day later in which he apologized to the team’s fans and inferred that he had spoken to his ‘commanders.’ Irsay was thought to be referencing general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano.
Heading into this week’s preseason road game with the New York Giants, is the pressure on Grigson and Pagano to use the starters more? Or will they stay the course and continue to limit playing time to the team’s key players, hoping for better performances from the backups?
“We always place high expectations on ourselves. Our guys hold each other to a high standard. And we always expect to go out and play. We always expect to go out and win. Sometimes it never works out that way. It’s never going to be perfect. We’re always chasing perfection,” the Colts head coach voiced Thursday.
“Doesn’t matter what it is. Preseason, certainly regular season, post-season. That’s our goal, to go out and win each and every ball game. Sometimes it obviously doesn’t go that way. But that’s why we’re here. That’s why we practice. That’s why we continue to meet and to do everything that we need to individually, on both sides of the ball, special teams and as a team. To get better.”
To be sure, Pagano and his coaching staff weren’t pleased with the results from the Buffalo game. And it had nothing to do with the final score.
“We were all disappointed in the outcome of the game. We certainly never projected that. But again its the National Football League and if you turn the ball over, you give up big plays, you don’t convert big plays, all the things that we saw. If you don’t play well in situational football, every facet of that game. You give Buffalo credit. Credit’s due. They did a nice job on third down. We weren’t good,” he stressed.
“They were better than we were in the red zone. We had some red zone stuff defensively. They converted. Converted a two-minute drive at the end of the first half, which hurt. They had another sustained drive [in the third quarter] and went up 14 on us. Give up a 107-yard kickoff return [for a touchdown]. All those things lead to disaster. And that’s what happened. Disappointed? Yes. Discouraged? No.”
Pagano’s primary objective in the Buffalo game was to find out just how far the Colts had progressed through the first two weeks of training camp.
“We wanted to go into that game and find out exactly where we are on both sides of the ball and special teams. I think we found that out,” he said. “A lot of good stuff. There was some things we need to fix. We spent this week, the emphasis was on those things, trying to fix those issues.”
One thing is certain. Indianapolis’ starters will see more playing time in New York than they did against the Bills. A lot more? That’s still to be decided.
“We’re going to play more. [Quarterback Andrew Luck has] got to play more. We’ll see how the first half goes. You’ll see extended amount of drives, how the drives go. If it turns out to be a half, that’d be great. But if we have two or three drives starting out that are seven, eight, nine-play drives, which you hope for and we get 25-30 snaps, then he might not play,” Pagano said.
“If it works out to where the play count, the pitch count, isn’t such and we can keep him out there and you end up maybe getting in a situation where you can have a two-minute drill much like Buffalo finished the first half in our first preseason game to give that first line. Give your first offense, give Andrew a two-minute drive at the end of the first half. A lot of that depends on how the game goes.”
Tight end Coby Fleener fully practiced Wednesday and Thursday after being cleared by team medical personnel.
Fleener suffered a concussion in the first half of the Buffalo game. He has not been cleared to play at New York this week. Not yet anway.
“They’ll check him one more time I believe part of the protocol dealing with concussions. Hopefully he’ll be cleared to play. Looks like he’s going to be set and ready to go,” the Colts coach said.
While inside linebacker Pat Angerer and running back Admad Bradshaw have both been activated from the team’s physically unable to perform list, neither are expected to play against the Giants on Sunday.
“Pat, obviously we won’t put in there even though we took him off PUP. We’re bringing him back slow. Ahmad, same thing. He won’t play,” the Colts coach said.
Safety Joe Lefeged, who had been sidelined with a strained right calf for the past week, apparently tweaked the injury during Thursday afternoon’s practice.
Lefeged did not return.
Rookie offensive guard Hugh Thornton, rookie center Khaled Holmes, rookie fullback Dan Moore,
tight end Dwayne Allen, offensive guard Daneous Estenor, Angerer, Bradshaw and Landry were among the Colts not practicing Thursday.
Wide receiver Griff Whalen continues to battle a strained groin. Whalen saw limited work on Thursday.
LAST DAY OF TRAINING CAMP
The final training camp practice at Anderson University is scheduled for a 10:30 a.m. start and is slated to last approximately two hours.
Fans interested in attending are urged to get there early. The workout may end early. Thursday afternoon’s practice wrapped up about 15 minutes ahead of schedule.