INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It was easy to be blinded by the offensive brilliance as the Indianapolis Colts stormed through the 2000s.
Peyton Manning. Marvin Harrison. Reggie Wayne. Edgerrin James. Dallas Clark. Brandon Stokley. Joseph Addai.
Jeff Saturday always appreciated being a part of one of the NFL’s most lethal offenses, but the long-time center and Ring of Honor member takes it a step further.
The key to the Colts’ success – then, now and in the future – is rooted in the offensive and defensive lines.
“I don’t care how good other positions are, if your o-line and d-line don’t set the standard and set the tempo, you’re not going to be successful,’’ Saturday said last week before emceeing the team’s Town Hall at the Farm Bureau Football Center. “Ultimately you’re going to have bad days (on offense): timing, they’re going to have a good group over there.
“When that o-line and d-line can take care of business, you’re going to win a whole lot of games.’’
Saturday’s is the voice of experience.
During the decade of the 2000s, the Colts won 115 regular-season games – the most in NFL history during any decade – and were an irresistible offensive force: 1st in yards per game (367.8) and 1st in scoring (26.7).
Manning laid the foundation for what will be a Hall of Fame career. Harrison was adding to a resume that resulted in his bronze bust added to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. James and Wayne were building careers that might – should? – enable them to join Harrison and Manning in Canton, Ohio.
Don’t forget the offensive line, insisted Saturday. He was part of a unit that allowed the fewest sacks during that 10-year stretch – 191 on 5,815 drop-back attempts – and paved the way for James to become the team’s career rushing leader, and Addai and Dominic Rhodes to crack the 1,000-yard barrier as well.
Saturday was selected to five Pro Bowls and left tackle Tarik Glenn to three. Right tackle Ryan Diem was a constant and the wave of guards ranged from Steve McKinney to Rick DeMulling to Ryan Lilja to Jake Scott.
So much started up front.
Then and now. That’s the case even though so many link the Colts’ current offensive potency to the presence of Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle, a foursome that shares 10 Pro Bowl appearances.
For the first time since 2006, the Colts’ offensive line returns intact.
Then: Glenn, Lilja, Saturday, Scott, Diem.
Now: left tackle Anthony Castonzo, left guard Quenton Nelson, center Ryan Kelly, right guard Mark Glowinski, right tackle Braden Smith. The Colts allowed a league-low 18 sacks last season and paved the way for Marlon Mack to eclipse the 100-yard mark four times during the regular season – the most since Addai in 2007 – and set a franchise postseason record with 148 yards in a first-round win at Houston.
“I would think it was good that we were able to work together, work as a collective group last year and build and get better and better,’’ Glowinski said. “If you see progress like that each week and getting better, I would hope that what’s going on right now equals what we got.’’
The Colts clearly liked what they saw from Glowinski. They acquired him off waivers from Seattle in December 2017. He began last season as Matt Slausen’s backup, but assumed the starter’s role in week 6 when Slauson sustained what proved to be a career-ending back injury.
In January, the Colts signed Glowinski to a three-year, $18 million extension.
“I am not working for that particular goal, but I am just working to be the best that I can be,’’ he said. “I feel like that’s what everybody’s goal should be, like our motto is to get 1 percent better.’’
Saturday watched as the new wave came together as the 2018 season unfolded, as a former Colt and in his role as ESPN analyst. It’s clear to him they have something special.
“First of all, they’re incredibly talented,’’ he said. “Physically, they’re imposing guys. They’re big.’’
Saturday was on hand last November when Wayne was inducted into the Ring of Honor, a designation Saturday earned in 2015. Prior to the game, former Colts mingled with current Colts.
At one point, Saturday noticed Kelly.
“I remember looking at Ryan and thinking, ‘You play center? Man, I’m glad you weren’t around when I was playing,’’’ he said.
Saturday was 6-2, 295 pounds. Kelly is listed at 6-4, 309.
The impact of the offensive line, though, transcends size.
“Just their attitude, to me, is what really separates this group,’’ Saturday said. “They work extremely hard. On Sundays when you break film down, they finish plays, they run beyond, the playing to the echo of the whistle, all of those things.’’
Nelson, the 6th overall pick in the 2018 draft, started all 18 games, including the postseason, and didn’t miss an offensive snap. He was named first-time All-Pro and helped cultivate a nasty edge in the group.
The Colts seemingly have emerged from the darkness of missing the playoffs for three consecutive seasons. Last season, they won nine of their last 10 games, earned a wild-card playoff spot and whipped the Texans 21-7 in Houston in a first-round game.
Now comes the harder part. No longer are the Colts an afterthought. Their return to relevance last season has resulted in them being cast as one of the favorites to reach Super Bowl LIV in South Florida.
“They’re slated for the climb,’’ Saturday said. “Right now you’re playing a different echelon of teams. It is different. You play more prime-time games, schedule changes.
“It’s how these players adapt to that part. In my opinion this team is set up for success, but it’s a matter of can they continue that process of moving forward with all the distractions that come along with being successful.’’