Dungy, Polian not straying from philosophy

Indianapolis is banking on youngsters Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden to fill the void created by the offseason departures of its two starting cornerbacks, Len Pasquarelli writes.

Updated: May 21, 2007, 11:53 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Between them, Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden have two regular-season starts at cornerback and a pair of interceptions in their four combined NFL campaigns.

Jackson has more starts at safety in a career spent bouncing around the secondary. Hayden, a one-time wide receiver, didn't move to defense until his senior year in college. But when the Colts convened here Friday afternoon for the initial practice of a mandatory weekend minicamp, the somewhat unlikely pair lined up at cornerback with the No. 1 defense.

The Colts opted not to make a big move to acquire a veteran cornerback through free agency or invest a high-round choice on the position in the draft. That's because Indianpolis is confident it has successfully filled twin voids created by the offseason departures of two starters.

And who could blame them?

The Colts did, after all, capture the Super Bowl XLI title with one starting cornerback, Nick Harper, who had signed as an undrafted free agent. The other starter, Jason David, was a fourth-round pick. Jackson and Hayden, on the other hand, were Indianapolis' first- and second-round selections in the 2005 draft. When it comes to replacing critical defensive components, the Colts have a been-there-done-that history filling key spots with younger players.

"The thing about this team is that they bring you here, coach you well and expect that, when it's your time to play, you're going to be ready," said Jackson, who started six games at free safety in 2006 and two at strong safety but none at cornerback until the postseason. "There is always going to be a foundation that they (provide) for you. But they expect you to grow up fast around here ... More than anything, they just kind of believe in you."

And the Colts believe in their drafts, trusting that they have brought their kind of players into the program, nurtured them the right way, and prepared them to assume bigger roles after only a season or two.

That philosophy is deep-rooted in coach Tony Dungy and president/general manager Bill Polian, the architects of the Super Bowl XLI title and an impressive stretch in which the franchise has won four consecutive AFC South championships.

Dungy learned the draft-'em-coach-'em-play-'em system working as a player and then an assistant coach for Chuck Noll, the Steelers' Hall of Fame coach. For Polian, the philosophy came from having worked with another Hall of Famer, Marv Levy, in Buffalo. The approach, which essentially means trusting your drafts and your instincts, is unusual in a league in which the quick-fix has become more popular. But for the Colts, the systematic nurturing of young talent is a must, particularly given the team's salary cap structure.

Tony Dungy
Tony Dungy has never been afraid to trust young players.
"First off, we have to do it that way, because of our financial model," said Polian, referring to the reality that, with high-profile players such as quarterback Peyton Manning, wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, offensive tackle Tarik Glenn and defensive end Dwight Freeney, the Colts have some of the game's highest-paid veterans at their positions.

Added Polian: "We really don't have much choice but to play younger guys at some positions. But the other thing is, yeah, we do believe in trying to build with our own guys, people we bring here originally and coach our way."

Dungy believes in thorough teaching and isn't afraid to play young players early in their careers. The system has worked well for the Colts at linebacker, where the team has lost four good starters to free agency over the past five years.

And now it will be put to the test at cornerback, with Harper having defected to Tennessee as an unrestricted free agent, and David having bolted to New Orleans on a restricted free-agent offer sheet.

The talent drain leaves Jackson, Hayden and second-year pro Tim Jennings (No. 2 in 2006) as the top cornerbacks on the depth chart. The lone newcomer of note is rookie Daymeion Hughes, a third-round choice from California in last month's draft.

One factor that aids the Colts is that, in the Tampa-2 defensive scheme preferred by Dungy and coordinator Ron Meeks, the Indianapolis cornerbacks don't have as many pure coverage responsibilities as they might in other systems. There is almost as much emphasis, in fact, on supporting against the run -- "If you can't play the run and tackle people, then you can't play here," Jennings allowed -- as there is on playing the pass. But the fact remains the Colts are going into the 2007 season with a callow corps of cornerbacks.

And don't seem the least bit concerned by that daunting reality.

"It's just the way we do it," Dungy said. "But we've got confidence in those guys. And I think them knowing that gives them some confidence, too."

Indeed, despite suddenly being the senior member of the cornerback depth chart with just one regular-season start at the position, Jackson does not appear unnerved. Nor does Hayden, who led Illinois in receptions as a junior wideout, then switched to cornerback for his senior college season. It may just have been perception, but Jackson, the biggest of the corners (6-feet, 196 pounds) and a player who really does look as much like a safety as a perimeter defender, seemed to actually carry himself a little taller in the locker room over the weekend.

"I really like the responsibility and the fact they aren't afraid around here to basically say to us, 'OK, it's on you guys,' " Jackson said. "I don't see it as pressure. If anything, I might be a little calmer about it, because I know that I'm just a cornerback now. In the past, I came to camp as a corner, but things would happen, an injury to somebody, and I'd end up playing some safety just to help out. This year, they've said all along that I'm a corner, a starter, and that's it. "

Hayden, according to Polian, was the team's most improved player in training camp last summer. Coaches strongly considered moving him into the starting lineup before deciding to stick with David on the first unit. He and Jennings, who played sparingly as a rookie because of an ankle injury, will play the outside spots in nickel situations, and Jackson will move to the middle of the field.

"I just think," Jennings said, "they expect big things from all of us."

With some justification, because Jackson and Hayden authored two of the bigger plays in the Colts' Super Bowl run.

Jackson sealed a remarkable comeback win over New England in the AFC Championship Game with a last-minute interception of Tom Brady. Hayden clinched the Super Bowl win over Chicago with an acrobatic interception and 56-yard return for a touchdown.

For Jackson, the memory of his steal off Brady remains a positive reinforcement. Standing by his locker stall Friday, Jackson revisited the moment, recalling the exact formation in which the Pats aligned (triple receivers to his side of the field), the intended receiver (tight end Benjamin Watson), the route he ran (a short hook inside the seams) and the jump he himself got on the ball (blistering).

"I'm hoping there are more where that one came from," said Jackson of the interception that catapulted the Colts into the Super Bowl. "I'm pretty confident there will be."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.