How Colts used roster depth to overcome COVID on Christmas, defeat Cardinals


NFL 2021, in Omicronland:

Last Friday, a robotic NFL Films camera in the Indianapolis Colts quarterback room caught the unvarnished real of this NFL season. NFL Films for the first time is doing an in-season “Hard Knocks” show on HBO every Wednesday night, and this debut series is with the Colts. Last Friday, a few hours before the team’s charter left for the Saturday game at Arizona, offensive coordinator Marcus Brady got some unsettling news about one of the most important players on the team and relayed the information to head coach Frank Reich.

Brady: “It is a Covid thing, Frank.”
Reich: “Excuse me?”
Brady: “It is Covid.”
Reich: “Is it? What is it?”
Brady: “Q.”
Reich: “Who?”
Brady: “Q.”
Reich: “Who?!”
Brady: “Q. Quenton.” [All-pro guard Quenton Nelson.]
Reich: (Long pause) “Okay. (Pause.) We’re good.”
Minutes later…
Reich: “Moments like this … I’m not happy about Q testing positive, but I love overcoming those things.”

Full video here, exclusively:

The Colts, in a dogfight for the playoffs, flew to Phoenix around 4 p.m. Friday, busing to the team hotel, the posh Phoenician resort, for an odd football Christmas Eve.

On Christmas morning, three players tested positive for Covid-19. One was the best defensive player on the team, linebacker Darius Leonard, and the other two were starters: safety Khari Willis and receiver Zach Pascal. Leonard, Willis and Pascal were isolated from the team when the results were known by mid-day. They were dispatched back to Indianapolis on owner Jim Irsay’s private plane before the game. Merry Christmas. You’ve got to play the 10-4 Cardinals with most of your boldface names in quarantine or hurt … and that was only about half the drama.

This wasn’t the most dramatic NFL weekend, but it had its moments. The Colts turned out to be a fortuitous pick by NFL Films and HBO for lots of the action in Week 16.

Imagine the angst inside the Colts when told three starters were out before an important game with major playoff implications. Even more, by midway through the second quarter against Arizona on Saturday night, four of Indy’s five starting offensive linemen and excellent blocking tight end Jack Doyle were all out with injuries, Covid or personal reasons. And the Colts still outscored the Cardinals 15-10 over the last 35 minutes in a game that, on the surface, the Colts had no business winning. Against a desperate Arizona team that had lost two in a row, Indy triumphed 22-16.

Leonard was replaced by E.J. Speed, making his first career start. Speed led the Colts in tackles with nine.

Willis was replaced by Jahleel Addae, while Andrew Sendejo, out with a concussion, was replaced by George Odum, starting his eighth game in four years. In the fourth quarter, with the Colts nursing a 15-13 lead, Odum tipped a deep ball from the grasp of Cards receiver Christian Kirk, saving a big gain. Odum was second on the Colts with eight tackles.

Pascal was replaced by several players. One of them, T.Y. Hilton, scored the first touchdown of the game for the Colts. Another, Dezmon Patmon, scored the eventual game-winning TD, the first scoring pass of his NFL career, on a great throw from quarterback Carson Wentz.

Talking to his team in the locker room post-game, coach Frank Reich said, “We got a roster full of winning football players.” Depth won Saturday night for the Colts. Depth will determine a lot as this suddenly strange season lurches toward a conclusion. That’s a big reason why Coach Reich gave a game ball Saturday night to GM Chris Ballard. “When you have a day like this, and you need everyone on the roster, you thank the man who put it together,” Reich said.

The postscript: “Hard Knocks” (Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET on HBO, or streaming on HBO Max) got either very lucky or very smart. Maybe it was a bit of both. Ballard and Reich don’t mind opening their world to the outside. Ballard has done it consistently with an excellent video department, figuring it’s not going to give away trade secrets, and figuring he wants the Indy fans to see for themselves the kinds of people the franchise has and the way the franchise works. He’s not scared of holding up a mirror (albeit a mirror that has some editing control) to the way the Colts work and operate. We’re the beneficiaries. In a week like this, we see how an NFL team handled and overcame the Omicron variant that’s sweeping the country.

I don’t look for rose-colored lessons. I look for how people like Reich, who I’d call an honest and optimistic realist, handle the things that chop some people down. And in this show, I like what I see.

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column