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Polian: Colts' problems aren't all related to missing Manning

In his robust Inside The NFL notebook below, NFL Network's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics including (click on the link to take you directly there):

" Four things he's looking forward to in Week 10
" Why Bucs GM Mark Dominik rolled the dice on Albert Haynesworth
" How Bears tailback Matt Forte is helping keep Jay Cutler upright
" Which game of tag will be most interesting to watch this offseason
" And more, beginning with why Bill Polian thinks the popular beliefs about the Colts are dead wrong ...

Bill Polian (left) has no issues with the Colts' reliance on Peyton Manning.
Bill Polian (left) has no issues with the Colts' reliance on Peyton Manning. (Michael Conroy/Associated Press)

This fall, the country's been given a window into what the Colts look like without Peyton Manning. And the view isn't good.

Indianapolis is 0-9. The only race the Colts still are alive in is for the first pick in the draft (more on that later), and the only conclusion that seems plausible is this one -- the team had become too reliant on No. 18.

Team Vice Chairman Bill Polian takes exception with that notion, and a whole lot of other popular beliefs out there now that the bottom has fallen out on Indianapolis' incredible, previously uninterrupted run of success. He'll concede the Colts relied on Manning. Then, he'll point to the fact that, well, it worked.

"That's like saying New England is too reliant on Tom Brady," Polian said. "You rely on your stars. There's no credence to that theory."

And the one that a defense built to play with big leads is incapable without them? "Completely false. Peyton led more fourth-quarter comebacks than anyone. There are so many conundrums out there, not based on fact. If we're built to play with a lead, how come we had so many fourth-quarter comebacks?"

OK. So here's what we know -- Manning's injury is part of why the Colts are winless. They've already gone through two quarterbacks, and the coaches have whispered they were unable to groom a viable developmental backup because of Manning's insistence on taking every rep in practice. Both the offense and defense rank 31st in the NFL, and the hits have been compounded by a once fertile pipeline of young talent drying up.

As such, this season has become a referendum on the job Polian's done of late. His explanation for the problems isn't complicated.

"I think it's 70 percent that we're just not playing well, and we need to figure out why and get that fixed," he said. "And then, it's 30 percent talent at certain positions. At defensive tackle, it's injuries. At cornerback, perhaps it's talent, and it's definitely needing better depth. Beyond that, we just need to play better. … (But) I agree with (Bill) Parcells, when he says you are what your record says you are."

Two months from now, the Colts promise to be one of the more compelling stories in the league, for very different reasons than they used to be, and one that could become downright fascinating if they keep losing at this rate.

The thought of Andrew Luck succeeding Manning is, of course, a pretty amazing one for a fan base that's gotten a good idea of what elite quarterbacking looks like the past 14 years. But that thought, for players currently on the team, is more of an annoyance than anything else.

I asked Austin Collie on Wednesday if the talk of tanking for Luck tees him off, and responded swiftly, "Yeah. It does. We're talking about a kid who is a good player, but he's not in the NFL yet." Four-time All-Pro and 10-year Colt Dwight Freeney added, "They bring it up once in a while, and to me, it's like, 'Do you know how quarterbacks have come out in the first five or 10 picks and done nothing?' I mean, a college player? I don't care. You let me know when gets here."

But the reality is that, no matter what happens, the Colts will hit a crossroads this offseason.

Cornerstones Jeff Saturday, Robert Mathis and Reggie Wayne will be free agents. From the outside looking in, getting the No. 1 pick looks like an optimal situation -- either keep this quarterback-driven system rolling with Luck, or deal his draft rights for a bounty, re-sign your vets, and try to tweak the system to replicate what John Elway had in his Golden Years in Denver.

Complicating matters is that Manning is due a $28 million option bonus early next year, and there's a good chance the Colts won't have answers on his health yet when that bill comes.

Polian's plan, for now, seems to be leaving his options open. He told me he's ready to take a quarterback at the very top of the draft -- "I don't think that's necessarily a revelation. Peyton will be 36. … If it's the right guy, absolutely (we will). If it's the right guy, it's appropriate now to choose the right guy. But it has to be the right guy."

That said, he also doesn't see any reason to tear down what he's built and start anew, even if Manning's heir apparent does land on the roster.

"We have a very strong core," Polian said. "We need help at certain positions. We have age at other positions, which is a byproduct of the excellence we've had. I don't see us as a rebuilding team."

It seems obvious, though, that tough decisions are coming.

Polian said he would "use neither 'surprised' nor 'shocked' -- I think 'vexed' is a better term" to describe how this season has played out. As he explained it, given Manning's injury and the fact that six of his top seven linemen were out at one point, the offense's struggles should've been expected. It's the defense's problems, even with the injuries to Gary Brackett and Melvin Bullitt, that have caught him off guard.

But even with those factors accounted for, he doesn't expect wholesale roster changes and, for now at least, he's sticking by coach Jim Caldwell, too.

"I think he's done a better job than he did in the Super Bowl year," Polian said. "He didn't have the adversity that year that he had last year and this year. Last year's team wasn't a playoff team, and he not only got it there, but came close to advancing. He's done a magnificent job dealing with all the problems. When you recognize you lose your quarterback on the eve of the season, and compound that with the loss of the whole line, with the exception of Jeff Saturday, he's done a great job of keeping everyone focused, keeping coaches focused, and doing what it takes to keep moving forward."

"I think he's done a better job than he did in the Super Bowl year."

-- Colts GM Bill Polian, on head coach Jim Caldwell.

In case you're wondering, Polian will be at Cal-Stanford a week from Saturday. And yup, that means he'll get his second live look of the season at Luck. But his son Brian is the Cardinal's special teams coordinator, and he told me he's more excited to see his grandson than anyone, no matter who's playing quarterback.

Back in Indianapolis, however, an uncertain future remains. Over the past six years, only Pittsburgh has won more conference titles or Super Bowls than Indianapolis, and the Colts' five division titles ties them with the Patriots for most in that span. Their run of seven consecutive 12-win seasons from 2003-09 was unprecedented. There's a good chance more Hall of Famers will come from this team than any of its era.

And while Polian's job for so long had been to maintain that standard, it's now time to restore it.

"To get this right, we're gonna have to sit down and figure out where it went wrong," Polian said. "We'll have no excuses, we'll have clear eyes, and we'll get back to the business of doing it right in all three phases, we'll maximize our talent in all three phases. Each season is its own story, so I have no prediction for next year, except to say we'll go through a clear-eyed process this offseason."

The Colts have told an ugly tale in 2011. And based on what we know now, where this thing goes next is anyone's guess.

'Shorter leash' for Haynesworth

Mark Dominik's dice roll on Albert Haynesworth was a risk. But the Buccaneers GM didn't make it blindly, and he certainly had his reasons. Or reason, singular.

"This is predicated on losing Gerald McCoy. If that doesn't happen, this doesn't happen, we don't claim Haynesworth," Dominik told me Wednesday night, referencing McCoy's season-ending biceps injury. "The reality, we lost Gerald for the season, we're 4-4 and still in the thick of it, we've lost our last two and we're one game off the wild card. We don't think we're out of it."

Dominik spent time Tuesday night going through all 134 of Haynesworth's snaps as a Patriot. He did it again Wednesday morning.

Haynesworth: I just bought a boat
Where is Albert Haynesworth's focus after being claimed by the Bucs? On the waters of Tampa Bay, naturally. More ...

"I saw disruption," he continued. "I saw strength, a finisher, a guy with the ability to put a lot of pressure on an offense. He's still able to be a penetrating force. He can hit it and go. I didn't see as much dogging it, but I did see the last play, where he played a 1-gap technique, and I can see why it got them frustrated. He opened up the run lane, and (Brandon) Jacobs walked in the end zone. That said, I didn't see a guy that didn't care. He battled and competed. I think he's worthy of an opportunity."

So Dominik put in the claim, making the Bucs the only team to do so, and was awarded Haynesworth while assuming the $706,000 left in base salary. The incentive clauses, too, will apply going forward. Haynesworth played 25.2 percent of the Patriots' 531 defensive snaps. He has a $1 million incentive if he plays 20 percent of the snaps, and $590,000 markers at 45, 50, 55, 60 and 65 percent. The first one is very attainable. He'd have to play a lot to hit any of the other five.

But with McCoy out, and just Brian Price and Roy Miller left with experience, Dominik expects Haynesworth to be given every opportunity. The way the GM explained it to me, the Bucs had six defensive tackles come in Tuesday to work out, and he determined Haynesworth "the best defensive tackle to come in and help us win."

As for the questions of effort or any off-field antics, Dominik made it clear the leash is short.

"Sure it is," the GM said. "He does have history, of course. But at the end of the day, you talk to anyone in the NFL, week to week, and you know you can be the hero one week, and be the villain the next. It's tough for any player under that scrutiny. But that's the nature of our business. He's gonna have a shorter leash, but if he's prepared and ready to play, he'll play."

Haynesworth has grown quite a reputation for saying one thing but doing another, so his words should be taken with a grain of salt. But Dominik said: "The only thing he was adamant about was how happy he was coming to Tampa, and that this is a system he wants to play in. ... He said he wanted to make me proud I claimed him."

It's hard to count on anything with Haynesworth after the past few years. But Dominik feels good about handing him over to Raheem Morris, who has handled personalities/problems like Kellen Winslow and Aqib Talib in the past without incident, and without disrupting a locker-room culture in which both coach and GM take a lot of pride.

This, of course, will be one heck of a test.

How tailbacks help offensive lines

Both the Eagles and Bears came into the season with first-round draft picks on the offensive line, and serious problems to address with those position groups. Compounding the problem in those places -- Danny Watkins took longer to grab a starting job than expected in Philadelphia, and Gabe Carimi got hurt in Chicago.

And yet, last Monday night, Michael Vick and Jay Cutler were sacked a grand total of one time.

Maybe the lines have come along. But more than anything, it shows the value of multifaceted backs like Matt Forte and LeSean McCoy, who rank 1-2 in the NFC in scrimmage yards.

"A great tailback helps you with everything," Bears coach Lovie Smith told me. "Every team would like to have the same offensive line group each game. Almost always, injuries are going to work to knock you off a little, so it helps where you have a running back that doesn't have to have it blocked right every time, where you don't have to hold your blocks quite as long. Matt makes those things go away.

"If you're an O-lineman, and you can say, 'I get my guy to the second level and good things are gonna happen for the Bears,' that's a pretty good thing."

The fact that Forte and McCoy bring a threat on the ground and out of the backfield works to back down defenses. So, for example, Julius Peppers and Jason Babin couldn't come quite as hard on Monday.

And just as Smith said Forte helps linemen, these kinds of backs also give quarterbacks the underneath option to burn an overly aggressive rush.

"This is the best Matt's played since he came in the league, he's at the highest level he's been," Smith continued. "He gives you so many options. You get him at receiver, get him the ball out of the backfield, run him inside or outside, and once you get him in the open field, he makes one guy miss and he's gone.

"We could talk about him the rest of the day. There's not a better guy in the locker room, and he's the same guy in the weight room, on the practice field, wherever. And he's been the best running back on the field every time out this year."

Both these guys are looking for contracts. My guess is there are a couple of high-priced quarterbacks who would advocate for them in that fight.

Freddie keeps fighting

Before the Bills hosted the Jets on Sunday -- not a good outing for Buffalo -- I'd settled on Fred Jackson as my midseason Offensive Player of the Year, though Forte was right there. Both are vital to their team's success, they're almost identical statistically (Forte has 1,241 scrimmage yards, Jackson has 1,194; both average 6.6 yards a touch), and each is as versatile as can be.

The difference to me was Buffalo is a team driven by its offense.

And so I figured I'd let Jackson know I'd picked him, and that a lot of other folks were doing the same, and see what he thought, based on his circuitous road to such stardom.

He smiled, and told me, "That's what you work for. You want to win as a team first, but you want to be considered one of the best. I mean, every time you show up on the field on Sunday, you wanna be one of the best players out there. That's a huge accomplishment, to be mentioned in consideration for an award like that."

The definition of his value? Jim Leonhard explained it well. Prepping for Bills-Jets, I asked the Jets safety about the hallmarks of the Bills offense and he went straight to Jackson, saying, "He's playing as well as anyone in the league." Buffalo, Leonhard went on, is unique offensively in that they maintain a similar run/pass split out of every formation, whether it's four-wide or double tights.

Jackson's ability to excel out of every one of those, as both a runner and receiver, makes that work.

Pretty remarkable, too, considering the Bills star's well-documented path, that started at Div. III Coe College, continued in something called the United Indoor Football League in 2004 and '05, then NFL Europe in 2006 before fellow Coe alum Marv Levy gave him his big shot in Buffalo in the summer of 2006. What's really interesting is that Jackson felt he was good enough to do what he's doing now all along, but also thought he'd never make it.

"I never thought I'd be a starting running back in the league," Jackson said. "I never thought I'd be given that opportunity. I figured I'd be able to come in and contribute, and be a third-down back or something like that. … But coming in, being from Div. III, I never thought I'd get the opportunity to even compete to be the feature back for a contending team."

The Bills have used two top 10 picks on backs -- Marshawn Lynch in 2007, and C.J. Spiller in 2010 -- in Jackson's time in Buffalo. He's the one left standing, and he can leave other kids from the small-school ranks with a lesson as a result.

"Just keep fighting," Jackson said. "Even though you're not getting that opportunity, things happen, so keep fighting and keep believing in yourself. Never let anyone tell you that you can't because if you feel you have the talent, and you're gifted enough, that opportunity will come and you have to be ready to take advantage of it."

Four things I'll be looking for this weekend

1. The Dolphins against a reeling Redskins team. There are those in the Dolphins organization who look back at Week 9's roaring win over Kansas City and lament in saying the team should be at or around .500 (given close losses to the Giants, Browns and Broncos) from a talent standpoint. The spilled-milk element of that one aside, the Redskins have lost all four of their games since their Week 5 bye, and the game is in Miami. And though the Dolphins organization certainly is in a state of tumult, the players haven't quit on Tony Sparano. It'll be interesting to see if his guys respond.

2. Jay Cutler's comfort level. There were times inside a rocking Ford Field on that Monday night in October that the Bears quarterback was seeing ghosts. That's the level to which the Lions front had manhandled Cutler's protection -- he was seeing rushers even when they weren't there. And as we said above, one reason the Bears have made strides up front is because of Matt Forte's presence, keeping rushers from pinning their ears back. In fact, the Bears are 5-0 this year when Cutler has 32 or fewer pass attempts. Because of their issues up front, Chicago has to be able to keep the opponent off-balance.

3. How the Bills bounce back. Through seven games, Buffalo had two losses, each on the road and each by three points. Last week's defeat was different. It was by 16 points, and if not for a garbage-time touchdown, the Bills' prolific offense would've been held out of the end zone. It was at home. It was a division game. It was a sound and thorough beating. I've asked Bills players a bunch of times to compare this team to the 2008 team, which started 5-1 and finished 7-9.They all say the difference is "confidence." Fred Jackson told me, "To be down 21-3 and 21-0" -- as Buffalo was in wins over Oakland and New England -- "and still feel we have a chance to win the game, you gotta be confident to come back in big moments like that." Sunday provided the biggest challenge to that confidence. The Bills now have three road games in a row (Dallas, Miami, Jets). Should be interesting to see how they deal with it.

4. The Ravens following up an enormous win. The Ravens have twice come off big wins this season by losing to teams that, to be fair, were playing well at the time, but were hardly their equal. Baltimore's first Steelers win was followed by a loss to Tennessee, and a thorough beating of a very good Houston team preceded a Monday night upset loss in Jacksonville. This time around, after finishing the franchise's second sweep of the Steelers since it moved from Cleveland, John Harbaugh and Co. have to go to Seattle. On the other side of this one is a big division game against Cincinnati, and the Thanksgiving Harbaugh Bowl that comes four days after that. Classic donut game against a Seahawks team Baltimore should manhandle. Pulling that off would show that the group is growing.

Three conclusions

1. The Steelers should ask for the same meeting with the commissioner that the Lions got. I think most teams that think they've been targeted for this or that are off-base. But the $40,000 fine assessed to Ryan Clark -- and yes, I know part of it was that he was being cited for the second week in a row -- was excessive, to say the least. And Pittsburgh's a team that already thinks the powers-that-be at 345 Park Avenue are picking on them. So just as Ndamukong Suh and the Lions did, the Steelers should seek a meeting about the litany of fines their defense has incurred. I'm all for player safety, and normally, I agree with the fines. But this one made no sense to me, and I know it made less sense to Clark. He aimed for Ed Dickson's chest, didn't leave his feet, and delivered the blow as the ball arrived. Perfect timing, and with the form a Pee-Wee coach would teach. No matter how you see that, the Steelers need to figure out what's OK and what's not.

2. Rex Ryan is one of the best defensive coaches of this era. His legacy as a head coach is far from written. But what I saw at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday was as impressive a defensive performance as I've seen from the Ryan-coached Jets, against a very good Bills offense. And if you look across the field, you see a lot of guys from his 2009 group are gone (Kris Jenkins, Shaun Ellis, Kerry Rhodes), and others have aged. Darrelle Revis is on-another-planet good, and the rest of the corners aren't bad either. But you can argue Ryan has less talent to work with, and certainly more rookies to depend on, than in any of his three years. And yet, after working through some early struggles, he's got the unit to where it can carry important Sundays. A lot of the attention he's gotten through three years has been about bluster and bravado. But more important has been this: The man knows how to get the most out of a defensive group.

3. Eli Manning is coming of age. He's had his big moments, and a number of really big ones in the NFC playoffs in 2007, but my feeling is Sunday in Foxborough was more important for him. And not just because he pulled of a big win on the road against a bad defense. Manning's rep has been that, for all the positives he brings, one mistake could lead to another, and another, and that he'd play his team out of ballgames. The opposite happened against New England. Near the end of the third quarter, with his team up 10-3 and having driven from its own 12, Eli had third-and-goal from the Patriot 5. Any score would make it a two-possession game. Yet Manning floated one off his back foot, missing Mario Manningham badly and giving Kyle Arrington a chance to make a play on the ball, which he did. Start of a meltdown? Not quite. After falling behind 13-10 and then 20-17, Manning led consecutive drives of 85 and 80 yards to win the game. Pretty impressive show of mental toughness by Manning, who has an outrageous fourth-quarter QB rating of 121.7 through eight games.

Two pieces of business

1. The Jermichael Finley circumstance could open a Pandora's Box. ProFootballTalk.com reported this week that Finley could argue, if the club uses the franchise tag on him, that he's more wideout than tight end and thus entitled to the higher tender, a la Terrell Suggs claiming he was a defensive end in 2008 (his tender wound up splitting the difference between the linebacker and end figures). And Finley's got a heck of a point, since he spends so much time detached from the formation. What's really interesting, though, is how this could be trouble with other such players going forward. Both Antonio Gates and Dallas Clark have scored rich deals in the recent past, so they're likely off the board. But younger players like Dustin Keller and Aaron Hernandez spend a lot of their time detached from the formation, like Finley, and more will come from the college ranks with the proliferation of the spread at that level. So the case of this rising young Packer will be one a lot of others keep an eye on.

2. Peyton Hillis' pending free agency will be fascinating to follow. It's no secret in NFL circles that Hillis' departure from Denver was hardly an amicable one, which explains why the Broncos were willing to deal him off for a bag of pylons. So while all the focus has been on his travails in Cleveland, this is actually Strike 2 for him. Or, at least, that's the way a lot of folks who make these sorts of decisions see it. Hillis has 211 yards rushing with two touchdowns in four games. He'd need nearly 1,000 over the last half of the season to match last year's production. If he gets that, I'm sure there'd be a market for him in March. As it stands? Hard to see a team going out on a limb to pay him anything near what he wants, though there could be some teams intrigued (i.e. Jets) in his style of play, which is lacking in most spread-bred backs today.

One prediction

For all the hype surrounding the Andrew Luck-vs.-Matt Barkley showdown two weekends ago, and accompanying draft speculation, it will be Oklahoma's Landry Jones (if he declares) who is first off the board after the Stanford star in April.

I've had one scout assigned to that area tell me that Jones is former Sooner teammate Sam Bradford's equal as a prospect, and others tell me he has a stronger arm than Luck (though I don't think that's the most important thing in a quarterback). He also has a stronger arm and is bigger than Barkley.

That doesn't mean Barkley won't go high, though I do see a little too much Jimmy Clausen (a player I thought would be a really good pro and seem to have been wrong on) in his style of play. It's just to say Jones is a better fit for what NFL people look for in a QB.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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