Manning demands better running game

ANDERSON, Ind. – Criticizing the Indianapolis Colts because of their questionable running game is sort of like saying that actress Anne Hathaway isn’t that attractive because she uses bad nail polish.

“In truth, I think this is a non-issue. It’s a nice story to fill time, but we went to the Super Bowl and we’ve had a great run,” Colts president Bill Polian said Wednesday after politely answering a few questions about the state of the running game. “Would we like to be better at it? Yes, absolutely, and there are specific areas where we can get better.

“Is it a problem? No.”

So much for creative tension in story-building.

There is no team in the NFL that is a safer bet to win 11 games and make the playoffs than the Colts, as long as quarterback Peyton Manning(notes) is healthy. Even the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints would get you a better return on your money.

The Colts are a machine of epic production. They have won at least 10 games in each of the past eight seasons and 12 in each of the past seven. Those are, respectively, the second-longest and longest such streaks in NFL history. Indy twice went 14-2 in that stretch, both times toying with the idea of going undefeated.

You don’t get that consistency without doing an amazing number of things right, particularly at a time when the NFL is built to push parity. Still, there are easy traps to fall into when teams don’t check themselves. In particular, teams that lean heavily on throwing have a way of letting the run game sag into disrepair. Miami with Dan Marino, New England with Drew Bledsoe and, to an extent, the Patriots last year with Tom Brady(notes), all got so far away from the running game that switching back proved difficult.

There were times last season when the Colts went into shotgun formation on short-yardage situations. Essentially, the Colts told defenses it didn’t have to worry about the run. In the Super Bowl against New Orleans, the problem came home to roost. The Saints’ defensive game plan essentially ignored the Colts running game. It was designed to take away much of the passing game and hopefully come up with one big play. That’s exactly what happened as Manning completed 31 of 45 passes for 333 yards, one touchdown and one critical interception.

Manning understands the situation and wants it fixed. The Colts averaged only 3.5 yards per carry last season, tied for second-fewest in the AFC. Worse, they had only 366 carries for the season, lowest in the AFC. That’s the lowest total since he joined the team in 1998 and the first time since he took over that the team has gone back-to-back seasons with fewer than 400 carries.

“There were times that the looks were there and everything I’ve been taught in running this system was to run it,” said Manning, who has the final say in the play-calling when the Colts get to the line of scrimmage. “But I’d call the run and we’d get one yard, be in second-and-9. After awhile, you do that and it’s hard to keep coming back to it.”

But Manning wants to come back to it.

“I think they know where my heart lies,” Manning said, referring to the rest of the offensive players and, in particular, the linemen. “I want to be balanced. I don’t want to go out there and throw it 50 times. We will if that’s what we have to do to win … we’ll do it and adjust, but I like that 28/28 (run/pass) balance. It gets everybody into it, keeps the backs into it, the line likes it, keeps the defense off balance.

“If we’re throwing it every single play, it’s playing to [the defense’s] advantage a little bit and they know it … we’re at our best when [the offensive linemen are] saying, ‘Put it on us.’ We just got to get back to that.”

Joseph Addai(notes) was the Colts' leading rusher the past four seasons. He's failed to hit the 1,000-yard mark in the past two. He knows the pressure is on the backfield to produce.

"It gives us a whole lot of motivation because all we can do is go up," Addai said. "We just need to start slow and work our way up. I am always motivated and am trying to build up for the Super Bowl. That is my goal, to keep on and be consistent."

To Polian and coach Jim Caldwell, the answer lies in improved play by the line. Polian said the running backs (primarily Addai and Donald Brown(notes)) got the yards that were there last season.

There just wasn’t a lot there.

“I will say this, the running backs did a pretty damn good job last year,” Polian said. “There were a limited number of plays where you would say they didn’t hit the right hole or make the right read. It was really about our ability to get some movement on the line of scrimmage.

In addition, the Colts haven’t been able to run a consistent stretch play, one of their bread-and-butter plays, for almost two years. In an attempt to fix that, both guard spots will change this season. Former left tackle Tony Ugoh(notes) was moved to left guard in the offseason and the right guard is currently a competition among Kyle DeVan(notes), Jamey Richard(notes) and Mike Pollak(notes).

The Colts have also switched offensive line coaches with the retirement of the legendary Howard Mudd. Pete Metzelaars takes over after studying under Mudd.

“We have a good nucleus to improve. We have made some adjustments in personnel and on the schematic side,” Caldwell said. “We think the combination of those things will get us where we want to go … There’s an old coaching adage, ‘You achieve what you emphasize.’ So there is some emphasis going on right now in terms of our running game.”

Caldwell smiled as he said that. He is, by nature, an optimist.

Then again, it’s not as if the running game was really a problem. It’s a problem most teams would gladly take, all things considered.