INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The door at the Indianapolis Colts’ West 56th Street complex closed behind Howard Mudd after the Super Bowl XLIV loss to the New Orleans Saints. After the 2009 season. After his 12th year with the Indianapolis Colts.
He never thought it would reopen.
“Me coming back? No chance,’’ Mudd said Tuesday afternoon. “For what? I would come back if Mr. Irsay said something or Chris Ballard or Pete Ward, something like that.
“But nothing like this. This really has got me pretty stoked up. This old man.’’
This old man – Mudd turned 77 Feb. 10 – is back in the building as Frank Reich’s senior offensive assistant. Never mind the vague title. Mudd will work in tandem with recently-hired offensive line coach Chris Strausser – Mudd’s close friend from their time at the University of Washington in Seattle, Mudd’s hometown – as the Colts attempt to duplicate, or exceed, the successes they achieved during his first stint with the franchise.
Mudd was the feature act Tuesday as Reich’s newest assistants interacted with the media, and with good reason. He was the Colts’ offensive line coach from 1998-2009, a stretch of excellence that produced an NFL record for most wins in a decade (115), two trips to the Super Bowl and one world championship.
Despite the presence of so much high-level talent, the team’s success primarily could be traced to two areas: Peyton Manning and an offensive line that was arguably the NFL’s best for a decade.
There’s work to be done, but Mudd believes three pillars are in place for similar success:
- The elite quarterback. That would be Andrew Luck, who succeeded Manning.
- The elite offensive line. That would be the group that allowed a league-low 18 sacks last season and paved the way for Marlon Mack to average 75.7 yards per game and 4.7 yards per attempt.
- The proper atmosphere in the locker room and among the coaching staff.
“I’m very encouraged and really happy,’’ Mudd said of being part of the Colts’ return to relevancy under Chris Ballard and Frank Reich.
In terms of personnel, the reason for his upbeat disposition starts with Luck.
“That’s a big deal,’’ Mudd said.
His reaction after watching Luck lead the Colts to a 10-6 record, a wild-card playoff berth and win Comeback Player of the Year honors after missing the 2017 with his right shoulder issues?
“Wow,’’ Mudd replied.
Whenever he had the opportunity to watch Luck perform in Reich’s scheme, Mudd saw a much better fit than in previous systems. As was the case when Manning worked in Tom Moore’s offense, the protection allowed Luck to function in the pocket and audible out of bad plays and into something more conducive to succeeding.
“I know that wasn’t there before,’’ Mudd said, “and it was troublesome to be watching him. Very few bad plays. His decision process and his decision-making was spot-on.
“He always had a deadly-accurate arm.’’
As the season unfolded and Luck regained his pre-injury form, Mudd saw Luck’s confidence grow.
“I always knew he was a phenom,’’ he said. “I just felt like he was the real deal. It reminded me of the past.’’
Luck reminded Mudd of Manning, and the possibilities when a team followed the lead of that type of quarterback.
“Performance and lifting the team, yes,’’ he said. “And if Peyton was standing here I’d say, ‘(Luck is) a better athlete.’ Peyton’s not going to disagree with that.’’
During the four seasons Luck hasn’t been bothered with his right shoulder issues, he’s led the Colts to 11-5, 11-5, 11-5 and 10-6 records, four playoff appearances and at least one postseason win three times.
As much as Mudd looks forward to further enhancing Luck’s career, he’s eager to collaborate with Strausser and take the Colts’ offensive line to a higher level.
“What I see on video is the potential to be – hoo, boy – I think they can be pretty good. Really. I’m serious,’’ he said. “Just the physical part.’’
During the 2000s, Manning routinely operated behind one of the NFL’s premier offensive lines. There was Tarik Glenn, Adam Meadows, Jeff Saturday, Ryan Diem, Jake Scott, Ryan Lilja, Steve McKinney, Rick DeMulling and others.
On Mudd’s 12-year watch, the Colts allowed just 227 sacks on 6,973 pass attempts. They ranked in the top-5 of fewest sacks allowed 10 times and were No. 1 six times.
And these guys can be better? Mudd wasn’t talking about the mental makeup, because the O-lines of the 2000s were a special bunch.
The current collection, he insisted, is “bigger and stronger. That’s what I’m seeing. I’m not trying to bash anyone because I can’t take away the amount of wins and things like that and they were part of something special.’’
In 1998, Mudd inherited an offensive line that featured three cornerstones: left tackle Glenn (1997 first-round pick), right tackle Meadows (1997 second-round pick) and left guard McKinney (1998 fourth-round pick).
On his second tour, the line includes three first-rounders (left tackle Anthony Castonzo, left guard Quenton Nelson and center Ryan Kelly) and one second-rounder (right tackle Braden Smith).
It’s clear Nelson has made a strong first impression.
“Quenton Nelson has got some special qualities about him,’’ Mudd said. “That’s understating it. He’s physically very imposing. What he really has more than anything is a heart, and he plays with it.’’
Ballard recently sent Mudd a video clip of Nelson, and Nelson was mic’d up. As one of his teammates was exchanging pleasantries with a defensive lineman in a pile of humanity, Nelson aggressively pulled him away.
“You see him grab a blue shirt and he said, ‘Don’t you ever talk to those blank-blanks again,’’’ Mudd said, cleaning up the comment. “That’s infectious. He was pulling his own teammate because he was saying something good to the opponent.’’
Considering everything – Andrew Luck, the offensive line, Chris Strausser, Frank Reich, Chris Ballard, etc. – Mudd didn’t hesitate when Reich offered the opportunity to return.
“I said, ‘Yes. I’d like that. In fact, I’ll walk from Seattle but it’ll take me a while,’’’ he shared.
“It just kind of was meant to be, all of us coming together.’’