Five to be Thankful For

TE Dallas Clark (Andy Lyons/Getty)

It's a good time to be a Colts fan, with the team sitting at 10-0 and headed for a high playoff seed. Brad Keller takes a look at who to be thankful for on this holiday weekend.

1. Jim Caldwell: Throughout most of the season, NFL experts were hesitant to give Caldwell any credit for experiencing so much success so early because he was simply coaching Tony Dungy's team.  It's not Caldwell's fault that he has one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the league playing for him.  If anything, he had more pressure on him than the other first year coaches because expectations were higher, criticisms would be quicker, and compliments would always have the Dungy caveat attached to them.

It's true that there wasn't a great deal of turnover on the roster or turnover among the coaches, but it's also true that the Colts finished 12-4 last season and were a coin toss away from going to the Divisional Round of the playoffs.  If they had finished 1-15, then a purging of the roster and the staff would be expected — or required — but a 12-4 finish means that if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Caldwell has still put his stamp on the team, though.  He fired longtime defensive coordinator Ron Meeks and inserted Larry Coyer, which has worked out very well for the run defense so far.  He changed special teams coordinators and brought on Frank Reich to work with Peyton Manning, since he was no longer the quarterbacks coach.  He could have continued to work with Manning and no one would have batted an eye, but he has shown that one of his strengths is his ability to delegate.

He also pulled Tony Ugoh and Mike Pollak, who were high round draft choices from the previous regime and replaced them with two players that would be able to meet his expectations.  He made the bold move of starting two rookies at cornerback instead of plugging in Tim Jennings.

This has been a tumultuous season for the Colts, with injuries, an ineffective running game, and an impotent return unit on special teams, but Caldwell has guided his charges through it and Indianapolis stands at 10-0 with an excellent chance at securing the number one seed in the AFC playoffs.

2. Melvin BullittAny time a former Pro Bowler and Defensive Player of the Year is lost for the season, a dropoff is expected.  Bob Sanders has had his fair share of injuries the past two seasons, which has given Bullitt a chance to get comfortable with the defense, but the team also changed defensive coordinators in the offseason and Bullitt essentially needed to start over.

He's not going to go to the Pro Bowl and he's not going to win Defensive Player of the Year, but he doesn't have to.  He simply needs to cover his assignments in the defense, be where he is supposed to be, and make a play when he needs to make a play.

That's what he's been able to do thus far this season and it could be argued that Sanders freelanced too much, which hurt the defense.  It could be that the defense is stronger with Bullitt than it is with Sanders.  If nothing else, it is more consistent, simply because he is on the field.

3. Peyton Manning:  Just because it's obvious doesn't mean it isn't true.  Manning has always been one of the top quarterbacks in the league and is probably one of the top ten quarterbacks of all time.  If he finishes the 2009 season how he has started it, he moves into the top five conversation.

He has improved in the two-minute offense and against the 3-4 defense this season, which were two points of consternation for him earlier in his career.

He has won five of the last six against Tom Brady and the Patriots.  He will probably get his shot at redemption against either the Chargers or Steelers in the playoffs this season.  With Manning under center, Indianapolis has an excellent chance at winning and they are never out of a game.  How many other teams in the league can say that?  That's a good reason to be thankful.

4a. Daniel Muir and b. Antonio JohnsonAfter years of trying and failing, the Colts appear to have found the answers at defensive tackle.  Johnson and Muir have stepped up and become the 1-2 punch up the middle that Indianapolis has been lacking since about 2005, maybe longer than that.

They do not have the pass rushing ability of Eric Foster and Raheem Brock, or Ed Johnson, but they also don't have the baggage that Johnson carries with him and Brock and Foster did not have a sack at defensive tackle in all of 2008, so it's not as though they're sacrificing a lot of sack production in order to improve the run defense.

Larry Coyer has been another big reason for the turnaround of the run defense, transforming it into an attacking, aggressive unit as opposed to the passive, "tackle the running back on the way to the quarterback" unit that it was under Ron Meeks, but the players are still the ones that make the plays.

After a rough start to the season, Muir and Antonio Johnson appear to have settled in at their respective positions and are giving the Colts the kind of stability and production they have not had at the position for quite some time.

5. Dallas ClarkColts fans have always been thankful for Clark and his contributions to the team.  This season, they can be thankful that Clark will finally make the Pro Bowl.

Clark leads all tight ends — not all AFC tight ends, all tight ends in both conferences — in receptions and yards and no active player in his conference has more touchdown catches.  With Antonio Gates having an off year, Owen Daniels on injured reserve, and Kellen Winslow and Tony Gonzalez in the NFC, Clark should be the starter for the AFC in this year's Pro Bowl. 

Looking at that list and the respective bodies of work of those players thus far this season, a strong case could be made for Clark to be named to the All-Pro team as the best tight end in the NFL.  And that's with a one-reception, three-yard game in Week 11.


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