Matt Hasselbeck helps save Luck-less Colts


Ryan Grigson became the Indianapolis Colts' general manager in large part because the previous regime had never given much thought to the backup quarterback. That's how the Colts wound up frantically turning to Kerry Collins and Curtis Painter when Peyton Manning missed all of the 2011 season, torpedoing a team that had gone to the playoffs the previous nine seasons. It cost Jim Caldwell and Bill Polian their jobs and Manning his lifetime appointment as the Colts' quarterback.

So when Grigson got the job and the golden draft ticket that would lead to Andrew Luck, he knew exactly what he wanted to get next: A backup who could serve as Luck's "corner man." A veteran whom the rookie could lean on, and also a veteran with a lot of games on his resume who could win games if Luck ever went down.

"If you don't have a backup quarterback that can do it, you basically just gave up your season," Grigson explained last season.

Many of Grigson's moves -- or lack of them -- invite scrutiny after one month of the 2015 season. The Colts' offensive line has struggled to protect Luck and open holes for the running game (guard Todd Herremans, the Colts' only notable offseason addition to a troubled offensive line, went from starter to backup to inactive in two weeks). The defense has struggled to hold off opposing offenses. But by 2013, Grigson had zeroed in on Matt Hasselbeck -- who had started a Super Bowl for Seattle, and backed up another superstar in Brett Favre -- to hold the position that Joe Gibbs once said was the second-most important on the team.

And on Sunday, it turned out to be a potential season-saver. The 40-year-old who hadn't started since 2012 in Tennessee staved off disaster with Luck sidelined with an injured shoulder, leading the Colts to a 16-13 overtime victory that was secured only after the Jacksonville Jaguars missed two game-winning field goal attempts -- one at the end of regulation, one during overtime. Hasselbeck was not brilliant -- he was 30-for-47 for 282 yards and a touchdown -- but he did not have a turnover and he was steady while the running game got little traction until a critical Frank Gore run set up the winning field goal. During Hasselbeck's post-game press conference, Chuck Pagano peeked in the room.

"Love you," Pagano said. "So glad you're a Colt."

Luck's inability to play came as a surprise because Pagano had expressed tremendous confidence he would be able to go against Jacksonville. And with the Colts playing Thursday against the reeling Houston Texans, it is unclear if Luck will be available on such a short week. But Hasselbeck did what Brandon Weeden, Michael Vick, Luke McCown and Josh McCown hadn't been able to do when they were called on to replace their respective franchise quarterbacks: win their first start.

This has been a brutal first month of the season for star quarterbacks. Already, 39 quarterbacks have started and some of the biggest names in the game -- Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Jay Cutler -- have missed starts. Now there is Luck, who missed a game for the first time in his NFL career, further imperiling what has already been a shaky start that has exposed all the Colts' weaknesses.

It has been a baffling year already for the Colts, with the relationship between Grigson and Pagano such that the expectation is that Pagano will be fired if the Colts do not go to the Super Bowl this year. It is a situation that mystifies even other people around the league -- why is Pagano the only one on thin ice after taking the Colts one step farther in the playoffs in each of his three seasons? Why does it seem as if owner Jim Irsay is reluctant to apportion any of the blame for the team's perceived failures to Grigson? But most of all, it has shone an especially harsh light on the Colts' early struggles. When Luck turned up with a bad shoulder after getting banged around for the first three weeks, the game against the still-rebuilding Jaguars was positioned to be a referendum on the rest of the roster Grigson had assembled.

Every game, all season

The rest of the roster didn't entirely pass the test either. Hasselbeck, playing behind that same porous offensive line, was sacked three times and the Colts rushed for just 60 yards while the Jaguars dominated the line of scrimmage on run plays. Gore had a brutal fumble at the 5-yard line in the fourth quarter. The Colts went three-and-out on three straight drives late in the fourth quarter and early in overtime. And the Colts gave up 431 yards of offense to the Jaguars. Had the Jaguars made either of two game-deciding field goal tries, the Colts would have lost. Instead, they escaped. Instead, they celebrated a win over a team they probably should have been able to beat much more easily with or without Luck.

That will not be the expectation in two weeks, when the New England Patriots bring their revenge tour to the team that started Deflategate. Given Tom Brady's extraordinary level of play and the Colts' already considerable flaws, it was fair to wonder how much of a game this would be even before Luck's injury. But if Luck is limited at all, one of the most highly-anticipated games of the season -- and a game that, during the summer, seemed to be a rehearsal for the AFC Championship game -- is likely to be a wipeout.

It looks like the entire season will be a struggle for the Colts. Still, they lead the AFC South, which is exactly where they were expected to be. They have Luck, but it's a different quarterback they can thank for salvaging the first quarter of their season.

Just before the season began, the best kicker in NFL history portended what was to come.

"We've always talked about making kicking and punting less important than it is," Adam Vinatieri said. "If anything, this makes us more important."

Even Vinatieri could not have envisioned the chaos that was to come after the NFL made the extra point kick a 33-yarder, apparently causing the wheels to come off kickers even on field goals.

Entering Week 4, kickers had already missed more extra points (13) than they did in all of 2014 (8). Over the last five seasons, kickers had made 99.4 percent of extra point kicks. Through the first three weeks, the rate has dropped to 94.6 percent – and the bad weather hasn't even started.

But kickers pulled, doinked and hooked like we've rarely seen this week. Josh Scobee missed two field goals for Pittsburgh Thursday night and was out of a job shortly thereafter. On Sunday, Jacksonville's Jason Myers missed two field goals -- a 53-yarder that would have won the game in regulation, and a 48-yarder that would have won it in overtime. Buffalo's Dan Carpenter missed a 30-yard field goal, and the Giants' Josh Brown missed an extra point. Tampa Bay's Kyle Brindza missed two field goals and the Eagles' Caleb Sturgis, in his debut for the team, missed an extra point and a field goal. In all, four teams missed extra points and nine field goals out of 37 attempts were missed in Sunday's early games. That's a success rate of 75.7 percent. The field goal percentage league-wide last year was 84 percent.

What has happened? It all goes back to the longer extra point, believes Jay Feely, who kicked for 14 seasons in the NFL.

"Extra points used to be in-game practice," Feely texted Sunday afternoon. "You didn't have to worry about the result (it was a given) which allowed you to focus on your form and get grooved in during the game. Somewhat of a confidence builder. Like throwing a couple screens early for a quarterback. Now, the pressure is bigger for extra points than even field goals because there is zero room for error (100 percent success is demanded). The pressure intensifies and it impacts field goal performance as well."

Of course, the notion that an extra point kick was so automatic that kickers didn't have to think about it underscores the reason the league wanted to change it. And league officials have certainly accomplished their goal of making the extra point a more competitive play, but the unintended consequences might alter games far more than the extra points do.

The most shockingly disappointing teams in the first quarter: the Texans (1-3 after a blowout loss to the Falcons), the Eagles (1-3) and the Dolphins (1-3). All had significant playoff aspirations, and the franchises now should be reconsidering critical off-season decisions. The Texans have a mess of a quarterback situation, after Bill O'Brien chose Brian Hoyer to start the season, benched him in the fourth quarter of the season opener for Ryan Mallett and then brought Hoyer in to replace Mallet in the third quarter Sunday. Hoyer did move the ball, although by that time the game was well out of reach. O'Brien hasn't given an indication of how he will manage the quarterbacks this week, but he doesn't have much time to mull it over. The Texans face the Colts on Thursday night. J.J. Watt chose to describe the Texans' overall play this way: "We played absolutely pitiful football today."

Chip Kelly's massive makeover of the Eagles has been a bust so far, with Sam Bradford looking skittish for long stretches before finally throwing downfield Sunday. And now the frustration is starting to leak out. DeMarco Murray, the running back Kelly hand selected after he sent LeSean McCoy packing, said after Sunday's loss to Washington that he is not touching the ball often enough, after carrying it just eight times for 36 yards.

"I don't think I am," Murray told Eagles reporters. "But it's the plays that are being called. I love this offense. I love playing with these guys. It's just how it is."

The Dolphins had the long flight home from London and then a bye week to contemplate the state of their franchise. But on Sunday, they looked both uninspired and unprepared against the New York Jets -- an indictment of both players and coaches. The focus immediately turned to whether owner Stephen Ross will make changes during the bye. Ross has stuck with Joe Philbin before -- after the bullying scandal, and after consecutive 8-8 seasons. And in-season coaching changes are rare in the NFL because there are so few games with which to turn around a season. It might be especially difficult for Ross to pull the plug on Philbin this early in the season. One big problem: there is no obvious interim on the staff, with the Dolphins performing poorly on both sides of the ball. Ross has indicated a penchant for big-name coaches before. He infamously flew off to try to woo Jim Harbaugh while he still employed Tony Sparano, but he has also created an odd management structure by installing top front office executives who did not have a hand in hiring Philbin and, at least in the case of Mike Tannenbaum, might be expected to stick around no matter what happens to Philbin. That could make luring a top coaching candidate more difficult. But with Ryan Tannehill and Ndamukong Suh both signed to lucrative contracts, the seemingly inevitable changes are much more likely to come on the sideline, not in the locker room.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.


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