By Todd Golden
INDIANAPOLIS — For his maiden voyage in charge in the National Football League, Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell wasn’t shy about making play calls that could have turned him from a first-time NFL winner to loser and drawn immediate heat to himself.
As it was, Caldwell was all smiles after the Colts defeated Jacksonville 14-12 on Sunday. But the football gods made Caldwell work for it.
In the first half, Caldwell decided to let Adam Vinatieri try a 52-yard field goal on a call where a punt would have been an equally wise choice. Vinatieri missed it wide left.
Caldwell elected to go for it on 4th-and-1 before the end of the first half. The Colts couldn’t convert.
Most crucially, Caldwell elected to go for it on 4th-and-1 from the Jacksonville 35 with 2:06 left and the Colts ahead by two. Once again, the Colts didn’t convert.
Every single one of Caldwell’s big calls failed for the Colts. Long past the time you read this, Caldwell’s decisions will be fodder for criticism on the radio talk shows and message boards of the world.
It’s true that any one of Caldwell’s calls could have turned the game the Jacksonville’s way. On the 4th-and-1 before halftime, rocket-legged Jaguars’ kicker Josh Scobee tried a 63-yard field goal that didn’t fall short by much.
The failed fourth-quarter 4th-and-1 put the Jaguars in two-minute drill mode; if not for an impressive stand by the Colts defense, fans could have been filing out of Lucas Oil Stadium in frustration. Jacksonville only needed to gain about 30 yards to get into Scobee’s range.
Some might question Caldwell’s calls, but I like the fact that Caldwell put the Colts’ fate in their own hands. I like it when a coach puts the responsibility on his players. I like it when a coach imparts confidence in them by making a call that essentially says, “It’s 4th-and-1, a play you can and should convert. Do it.”
Sometimes playing safe is interpreted by players as not having faith in them. When a coach demonstrates that he trusts his players, to the point of making a call that might be deemed questionable, they usually repay him with their loyalty in the long run.
The Colts’ players liked Caldwell’s thinking too, which made them all the more disappointed they didn’t cash in on any of the calls he made.
“Offensively, we always want to go for it. The series before we didn’t go for it [the Colts had 4th-and-2 on the Jaguars 44 with 7:08 left], we were mad, but [punter Pat] McAfee punted to the goal line, so it was a great decision,” Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said.
“Whatever the head coach decides to do, it’s my job to support him. I don’t second-guess. But it’s disappointing [to not convert] when he gives you that green light, ‘we’re going to go for it.’ What he says is that he’s counting on you and come through for him. You don’t want to let him down, you don’t want to disappoint him. We felt like offensively, we kind of let him down.”
If Caldwell’s choice to go for it on 4th-and-1 ostensibly shows faith in the Colts’ offense, it also demonstrated belief in the Colts’ defense.
“He was just as calm on that 4th-and-1 at the end as he was at the beginning of the game. It’s good to see your leader calm and collected in the crucial moments,” said Manning, who compared Caldwell’s calmness to former coach Tony Dungy.
Caldwell’s been with the Colts for seven years, so it’s not as if he had to win a new team over. But it was his first game in charge. And while his decisions didn’t work out, his lack of hesitation to make them will mean a lot to the Colts as they move forward into the Caldwell era.
“He’s a humble guy who wants all the little details done the right way,” said Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne, who had 10 catches for 162 yards and a touchdown. “We want to show him we believe in the system and want to get the job done.”
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.