Impact of Colts’ Jim Caldwell under the radar

He is one victory from advancing to a Super Bowl in his rookie year as a head coach, but you might never hear that from Jim Caldwell himself.

The Indianapolis Colts coach, who won more games during the regular season than any of his peers, is not the toot-my-own-horn type. So, heading into Sunday’s AFC title game, there have been no bold proclamations about plans to present President Barack Obama with a Colts jersey during a White House ceremony.

Nothing about victory parades. No mention that the Colts deserve to be 6-5 favorites to win Super Bowl XLIV. No threats. No monologue material.

Actually, Caldwell has been rather boring in some regards, as he plods along.

He is the anti-Rex.

That suits the immensely secure Caldwell, who turned 55 last weekend, rather well.

Yet he understands why people will want to compare, with the Colts prepping for Sexy Rex’s Jets. Rex Ryan is a hoot, whose football smarts are wrapped in clever one-liners and the type of bravado reminiscent of his brash daddy, Buddy.

Caldwell’s football smarts are wrapped with demeanor of a college professor.

Listen closely, and you’ll likely learn something.

“You might try to draw parallels between Rex and I, or our two teams, in how they handle different situations,” said Caldwell, who succeeded the similarly understated Tony Dungy. “The great thing about this game is that it requires an immense amount of authenticity. So, you have to be who you are. These seasons are too long to pretend, the emotion involved in this game will strip away all that veneer and you are who you are.”

Strip away the veneer? Now that’s authentic.

And if you want to say the cool, low-keyed and surgically-precise Colts reflect their head coach, then so be it. It has won enough to get them to this point.

Still, it seems a bit odd that Caldwell, with his NFL-best 14-2 record, finished in fourth place when the ballots were tallied for NFL Coach of the Year honors. Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, whose team was bounced in the first round of the playoffs, won the award voted on by 50 media members nationwide.

Lewis deserved the award. In addition to re-fashioning a team that won perhaps the NFL’s toughest division, the AFC North, and working without the same type of supporting cast (like a deep scouting staff) that other coaches have, Lewis dealt with the tremendous adversity of death. First it was Vikki Zimmer, wife of D-coordinator Mike Zimmer. Then it was Chris Henry, who apparently was making progress with his second chance.

Yet Caldwell, who also finished behind Sean Payton and Norv Turner in the balloting, might have also received less consideration for a couple other reasons.

The “organizational decision” to pull starters from the Colts’ final two regular-season games, after the No. 1 seed was secured, is a smart football move when considering injury risk. Think Bill Belichick wishes he had the NFL’s leading receiver, Wes Welker, for that playoff-opening loss to Baltimore?

Welker tore up his knee in a meaningless Week 17 regular-season finale at Houston.

Still, with the Colts, who started 14-0, the decision not to play all-out and chase an historic perfect season seemingly contradicted the integrity of the league’s playoff race. While that wasn’t the definitive reason Caldwell didn’t rank higher in the voting, at least one voter indicated that it was in the back the mind. And had the Colts gone 16-0, Caldwell might have been a shoo-in for such recognition.

Remember, Belichick won the award in 2007 despite the Spygate fiasco. Why?

He went 16-0.

Caldwell, though, doesn’t sound like a man who lost any sleep over the ballot box. He’s seeking a bigger prize.

“Really, we’ve tried to focus on the things that were in the best interest of our team and really stayed with it and took a look at who we were going up against next and right on through, to get us in the position that we are in now,” Caldwell patiently explained of his thinking — again — the other day. “That was the ultimate goal. That’s the thing about this particular business. Not everybody is going to agree with you. That’s why it’s so popular.”

Perhaps another reason Caldwell might fly a bit under the radar: Peyton Manning.

That’s certainly not a knock on Manning, who just won his record fourth MVP award and has long showered credit on Caldwell, once his position coach. It’s just that Manning, around whom the team is built, is the consummate, coach-on-the-field team leader with a tremendous presence that can overshadow others.

Add other key components, such as the continuity provided by Tom Moore — the only offensive coordinator that Manning has had with the Colts — and talented, high-character playmakers such as Dwight Freeney, Gary Brackett, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Robert Mathis, and perhaps there’s an assumption that the head coach’s job is easy.

While Dungy told me after he stepped down that out of fairness to Caldwell, he wanted to leave before the cupboard was empty, going 14-2 and advancing to the AFC title game is hardly automatic. Even with Manning in tow.

“The idea that with Peyton Manning on the team that anybody can coach the team and have success is just ignorant,” Colts president Bill Polian told me this week.

Polian struck a deal to make Caldwell the coach-in-waiting after the 2007 season, while Caldwell was on the interview circuit as a candidate for the vacant jobs with the Ravens and Falcons. Polian and team owner Jim Irsay got a glimpse of how Caldwell would handle the team amid adversity in 2005, when he took over during Dungy’s leave of absence following the suicide of his son, James.

“We knew that Tony would be year-to-year, and with that knowledge we felt that Jim was well-suited, so we wanted to make sure we kept him,” Polian said of the coach-in-waiting proposition. “We wanted Jim Caldwell to be our coach. There was no other choice.”

Now, Polian added, there is no shortage of reasons why Caldwell has made a difference. First off, he picked Larry Coyer to run the defense, replacing Ron Meeks, and the new scheme is more aggressive. The Colts play less Cover 2, more man-to-man, and blitz more. There have been key injuries to overcome, the hit list including all-pro safety Bob Sanders, slot receiver Anthony Gonzalez, corner/safety Marlin Jackson, linebacker Tyjuan Hagler and backup quarterback Jim Sorgi.

And Polian points to the way Caldwell has put his stamp on the team by pushing the right buttons in managing the team’s preparation. As expected, he slacked for a short week before a Week 14 game at Jacksonville. Unexpectedly, during the bye week before the playoff-opening smashing of Baltimore, Caldwell put the team in pads and pitted the first-team offense against the first-team defense, to help regain edge.

“He does a good job communicating effectively with us,” added Brackett, a seventh-year pro. “And what he’s been as far as keeping our bodies fresh, what he does in practice the latter part of the season and his time management, has been excellent. He’s a very smart man who knows what he is doing as far as taking care of his football team.”

There is also Caldwell’s game-management instincts to consider. On a pivotal drive near the end of the first half last Saturday night, with the game tied 3-3, he went for it on fourth-and-4. Five plays later, touchdown.

That was followed by a decision to give Manning one more play near the goal line, with seven ticks on the clock, rather than try a chip-shot field goal. Touchdown.

John Wooten, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a group that promotes and monitors minority hiring in the NFL, gives Caldwell high marks for his teaching ability. That certainly fits his profile. Before serving as head coach for eight years at Wake Forest, beginning in 1993, Caldwell was a Joe Paterno assistant at Penn State.

Other college stops, pre-Penn State, included his alma mater, Iowa, Southern Illinois, Northwestern, Colorado and Louisville. Dungy hired Caldwell as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterbacks coach in 2001, and the next year he moved to the Colts with Dungy.

“If you’ve listed to Peyton over the years,” Wooten said, “he’s always given him a lot of credit for helping him develop.”

What if?

Wooten says that Caldwell impressed Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti enough that it appeared he would have a second interview.

“That’s when Polian stepped up, and Jim pulled out of it to take the coach-in-waiting position,” Wooten said. “And man, it’s paying dividends.”

And now, perfect season or not, they are waiting for a chance to make history.

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