I don't know if the Colts' offense is the best in the history of the NFL. But, it's at least in the ballpark.
You could go back to the 49ers with Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Roger Craig. There's certainly sentiment around Maryland that argues that the Johnny Unitas Colts, which featured Hall of Famers Lenny Moore, John Mackey, Raymond Berry and Jim Parker on the offense, are the best. Up in Green Bay they would pledge allegiance to the Bart Starr-led-offense that also featured a Hall of Fame backfield (Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor, along with the Canton enshrined Forrest Gregg at tackle.)
Yes, the Steelers with Terry Bradshaw need to be included in this discussion. Terry threw to a pair of Hall of Fame receivers: Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. They had a Hall of Fame running back with Franco Harris, along with another enshrinee, center Mike Webster. The early Browns with Otto Graham at quarterback had 4 other Hall of Famers on offense: RB/FB Marion Motley, WR Dante Lavelli, tackle/kicker Lou Groza and guard Bill Willis.
Is the Colts' offense as good as those just mentioned? Maybe. I think you could argue that. In fact, because of the continuity, Indianapolis' offense could be the most sophisticated ever. Peyton Manning, already a 9-time Pro Bowl player, was the 1st pick in the 1998 Draft. He has had the same offensive coordinator (Tom Moore), offensive line coach (Howard Mudd) and running backs coach (Gene Huey) during his entire career. His head coach, Jim Caldwell, had been his quarterback coach since 2002.
The Colts have run basically the same offensive system since the first day Peyton reported as a pro. I remember Brian Billick saying he'd love to have the same quarterback 3 years in a row. "Imagine," Billick would say, "how we could add and tweak our base packages." Well, the Colts have run the same offense for 12 straight seasons, and it is triggered by one of a handful of quarterbacks who can be in every discussion as "best ever."
The good news when playing Peyton is that you can study everything effective a defense has done against him…and then try to duplicate that.
The bad news is that Peyton has seen everything and found a way to beat it. The obvious key is that you can't let him know what defense you are playing against him. Getting him to hesitate is a real key. Can we do that? While the Colts have scored 35 points against the Patriots (last Sunday), 42 against the Rams and 34 versus Seattle, they have been held to 20 by the Texans, 14 by the Jaguars and 18 by the 49ers – and all 3 of those games were played in Indianapolis.
Can we slow Manning and beat the Colts? As ESPN's Chris Berman loves to say: "That's why they play the games." And as John Harbaugh told me yesterday when I asked him: "We'll be there for kickoff at 1 o'clock on Sunday, and we'll find out. I like the way we've prepared, and I think we have good game plans. They're good. But, so are we."
Who Has the Tougher Assignment? Ravens Defense or Offensive Line?
We all know the difficult task our defense has in trying to contain the Colts' offense this Sunday…Peyton, Reggie Wayne, Joseph Addai, Dallas Clark and Jeff Saturday. Tough task, no doubt.
But, the Indy defense sometimes gets lost in all of the attention paid to the Colts' offense and Manning. The Colts' defense is fast and, to its credit, plays like the Ravens – the unit hustles all the time. They draft and sign players like the ones Ozzie Newsome and his staff acquire for the Ravens. That is players who like the game and all that goes with it: the physicality, the offseason training, the game prep and the excitement and drama of game day.
While we'll all be focused on the current play from scrimmage when we have the ball, take a few plays and watch the battle between our talented, young tackles – Jared Gaither and Michael Oher – and the Pro Bowl defensive ends of the Colts. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis have already combined for 18 sacks this season, Freeney with 9.5 and Mathis with 8.5.
Our defense has significant challenges on Sunday, but a real key for the Ravens will be controlling this exciting pair of defensive ends. Gaither and Oher are ready. Each is athletic enough to cope with the speed and quickness of both defenders. Each is powerful enough to allow us to run against any team.
Offensive Line is An Interesting Group
And writing about Gaither and Oher, I think about the eclectic set who make up the starters on our O-line. Start with the leader, 6-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk, a Harvard graduate who has donated his brain to science (once he stops breathing). To Birk's left is Ben Grubbs, who is approaching Pro Bowl status. Grubbs is the father of a 4-year old son and owns a degree from Auburn. On the right side of Birk is Chris Chester, the former tight end from Oklahoma, where he earned his degree. Chester is the father of two, and he and his wife (Kirbie) believe in living "green" and work on programs to help the environment.
Both tackles love basketball. Gaither originally accepted a basketball scholarship to South Carolina before deciding to attend Maryland and play football for the Terps. Gaither loves to cook and plans to be a chef once he finishes with football. Oher's story is well known. In fact, the movie of his life, "The Blind Side," is in theaters this weekend. Oher was a standout high school b-baller, who loves to go to our indoor half court and compete in shooting contests. I recently saw Oher in an NBA-length, 3-point shooting contest . After missing his 1st 2 shots, he made 7 of 8. That was impressive.
I shouldn't leave out the pig farmer, Marshal Yanda, who is out there with the 1st group often. Yanda, who, like Oher, has a college degree, battles every play like it's his last opportunity to enjoy the game. He loves football. His family used to be into cattle farming, but changed to a pig farm. Why? "There's more money in pigs right now," Yanda explained. Who knew?
It will be strange to have Matt Stover kicking against us, but we do hope he has a couple of opportunities. That means Manning isn't scoring touchdowns with the Indy offense. Sure, we'd like to have Matt kicking for us, but there's nothing we can do about that now. It didn't work out the way we or Matt wanted.
The history of some of the best kickers in the game is odd. Many of the elite bounced from team to team before settling into a consistent groove. Steve Hauschka missed 4 kicks for us in 9 games. We thought he'd do better, and he may down the line. Stover missed 6 kicks his rookie season when he was 16 of 22 on a not-very-good Cleveland team. (Actually, that was Matt's 2nd team. He was on injured reserve for the Giants the year before.)
It's common for rookie kickers to struggle some. The Bills' Rian Lindell missed 12 FGs as a rookie in Seattle. The 49ers Joe Nedney, who has been with 7 NFL teams, missed 11 in his 1st season; the Raiders Sebastian Janikowski, a 1st-round pick, missed 11 as a rookie. Even the great clutch kicker Adam Vinatieri missed 8 in his 1st season.
Who knows, maybe our new kicker Billy Cundiff will be the next kicker to bounce around for awhile before hitting his stride, and he'll be a long-time answer for us. That has happened for a good number of Pro Bowl kickers in the past.
Maybe Billy will get a big-time opportunity against the Colts. And, no doubt, this is a big-time opportunity for the Ravens. The Colts are undefeated and winners of 18 consecutive regular season games. Can we stop their streak? Yeah, I think we can. Can't wait for Sunday. Let's beat Indy.
Talk with you next week.
Kevin Byrne is in his 31st NFL season and is the Ravens' senior vice president of public and community relations. He has worked in the NFL since 1977, when he was the then-youngest public relations director in the league (for the then-St. Louis Cardinals), except for the two years he was the Director of Public Affairs for TWA (Trans World Airlines). He has been with the Ravens since they began, and before that was a vice president with the Cleveland Browns. He has won a Super Bowl ring with the 2000 Ravens and an NCAA basketball championship with Al McGuire's Marquette team in '77. He was on the losing end of historic games known for the "Drive" and the "Fumble." He has worked closely and is friends with some of the best in the game: Ozzie Newsome, Brian Billick, Ray Lewis , Bill Cowher, Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Marty Schottenheimer and Shannon Sharpe to name a few.