NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A new coach beginning a building project wanted to give it a name so that his players could latch on to a slogan. So, Chuck Pagano had T-shirts printed up.
“Build the Monster,” he told his team in a message he knew would echo throughout the season.
Reggie Wayne still wears the shirt once a week.
The monster needed a road win and talked about the happy plane ride home that comes with such a development. In a tense game against a division rival, the Colts drove 80 yards for a late touchdown to tie the game in regulation. Then they went 80 more with the opening possession of overtime to beat the Titans, 19-13, at LP Field.
That was one happy monster in the locker room after the Colts moved into second place in the AFC South, owners of an improbable 4-3 record.
On the game-winning play, rookie quarterback Andrew Luck faked a toss left to rookie running back Vick Ballard, then rolled right from his 16-yard line and looked at options to the right and middle before he turned and threw all the way back to Ballard.
Ballard raced for the left corner of the end zone and dove for the pylon, corkscrewing as he did it. He was facing skyward when he arrived, not quite sure it he scored. But officials on the field and in the review booth said he did, and the Colts exploded into a celebration they surely continued at 30,000 feet.
"Fake Toss 39 Taxi Naked Right Screen Left" is something offensive coordinator and interim coach Bruce Arians saw in a college game three years ago. He put it in the game plan on Tuesday and saw it work multiple times at practice.
“That was definitely something different,” Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner said. “Fake toss, roll back and then throw back to the toss guy. I’ve never seen that play before, ever. That was the first time I’ve ever seen anything like that. It definitely worked.”
As Luck threw the ball back across the field to Ballard, he saw Titans defensive end Kamerion Wimbley come into view.
“I threw it and I saw a Titans uniform flash and said, ‘Oh, God, this may be the end of the game in the wrong way,’” Luck said. “I saw Vick catch it, I saw I don’t know who it was driving a guy, and what a wonderful individual effort by Vick Ballard to get in there.”
“It was just out of my reach,” said Wimbley, who couldn’t put it in inches or feet.
But that’s how close these two teams were on this day.
When the Colts lost at home to the Jaguars on a late touchdown back on Sept. 23, I wrote that Jacksonville had to be ahead of Indianapolis at that stage since the Jaguars' rebuilding work had been under way longer.
The same is true for the Titans, but at Week 8 it no longer seems to matter.
“We have scratched all the youngness off of us,” Arians said.
It’s hard not to feel good for them all. Start with general manager Ryan Grigson, who’s pieced together a likeable group of fighters, some of whom are overmatched and won’t be around for the long term but have plugged in as functional pieces of a team with an emphasis on being a family.
Here's an example: A preseason knee injury knocked left guard Joe Reitz out of the starting lineup. Sunday, when Coby Fleener was knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury, Reitz stepped in as the team’s second tight end. No, he hasn’t been working there in practice, he said. He just stays familiar with the basic plays for just such an emergency situation.
Of course there is Pagano, a fiery coach everyone is rooting for in a fight against leukemia that’s taken him away from his team.
It’s very difficult not to like Luck, the team's centerpiece. He pairs a bit of an "aw shucks" personality with a cerebral approach that leads us to occasionally undervalue his athleticism.
Luke made plays repeatedly in this game from a collapsing pocket, with salivating pass-rushers either hanging on him or on the verge of delivering a shot. Frequently, he wasn’t able to set his feet or step into throws. But he got them where they needed to be anyway.
It made me think of another other-worldly quarterback, one Arians spent a lot of time coaching in Pittsburgh: Ben Roethlisberger.
“I don’t think there is any doubt,” Arians said. “He is a big, strong young man and he can throw the football from any position accurately. He did a good job of avoiding rushes and making completions, especially on third down.”
Said Wimbley: “There were some times that he made some throws that were a little surprising to me, with us being in his face and him still being able to deliver off of his back foot and the receivers coming up with the catch. It was impressive.”
The Colts made plays, but they got breaks, too. The biggest was with 18 seconds left when tight end Dwayne Allen caught a 7-yard pass and got stopped by Colin McCarthy and Akeem Ayers, with Ayers pulling the ball out.
But officials immediately ruled that Allen’s forward progress had been stopped and the play had been whistled dead. It was not reviewable, but I thought it was a mistake. We rarely see plays so quickly whistled finished. Why the hurry there? Verner recovered, and the Titans were poised to ask Rob Bironas to kick a 38- or 39-yard field goal to win it after the takeaway.
“That’s just a bad call,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said. “You can’t challenge. [The official] said he thought the play was over. … We win the game right there.”
It would have gotten the Titans to 4-4 after a 1-4 start. Instead they’re left to ponder giving up those two long drives at the end and needing to dig more to get from 3-5 to .500.
But now Indianapolis is the talk of the division on a day the leaders, the Texans, enjoyed a bye.
“Chuck texted me: ‘This team’s got the heart of a lion,’ and I think it does,” an emotional Grigson said. “We’re playing for so much. We’re playing for respectability. We’re playing for our head coach. We’re playing to win.”
I expected the Colts to make some steady progress this year. With a nice mix of key veterans and big rookies on their roster, I felt a season where they were better in December than in September would amount to a success. With lots of money to spend in free agency and another draft class filling out the roster, they’d be on their way to fighting into the playoff field in 2013.
A win over these Titans doesn't mean that won't end up being the case for the first version of the Grigson-Pagano-Arians-Luck Colts.
Self-examination doesn’t have them thinking they’re ahead of schedule, though.
“No, I think we’re behind schedule,” Arians said. “We gave one game away [to Jacksonville] that we should have in our pocket. We are just starting to scratch the surface of how good we can become if we all believe it. I think we’ll show up at practice Wednesday with a lot of enthusiasm.”
Wednesday just happens to be Halloween. An especially good day for monster-building.