Doyel: This Colts victory was for everyone who doubted Jeff Saturday

Gregg Doyel
Indianapolis Star

It’s just the Las Vegas Raiders. That’s what people will try to tell you about the first game of the Jeff Saturday era, this 25-20 Colts victory at Allegiant Stadium. That’s what people do. Don’t let them.

What were people telling us a few days ago? Something about Jeff Saturday being undeserving, even unfit, to coach an NFL team. No experience. Too much ESPN. Boo, and also, hoo.

People talk too much. They need to feel more, and let’s start with you and me, and discuss how we feel about the Colts (4-5-1) beating the Raiders (2-7) on Sunday in Paradise, Nev., in a domed stadium 3 miles from the Las Vegas Strip. You feel great? Hey, me too. I mean, this is fun.

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Will Saturday end up coaching this team for the long term? Can’t say. All we know is what we saw Sunday, when the Colts looked ready to play for the first time all season. Normally down 10 points before the national anthem is finished, the Colts scored first, then second. They led 10-0. Call that what you want. I’m calling it the Jeff Saturday effect.

The Colts’ offensive line, with new starters at left tackle and right guard, had its best performance of the season. So did their quarterback – surprise – Matt Ryan. Jonathan Taylor finally uncorked the kind of long run he hadn’t had since last season, one of those sprints where he’s Usain Bolt and everyone else isn’t and he’s not stopping until he has to stop, because otherwise he’ll run into a wall behind the end zone.

The defense did what it usually does. Played great.

Who says Jeff Saturday doesn’t deserve this job? Who cares that the opponent was the Raiders? Hell, I’m feeling so good, I’ll even let slide this opportunity to mock the Raiders’ coach, Josh McSomething. Because this is a day to say (forget) everyone else and celebrate what we have here:

A football team with a pulse. A coach with a fire. A season with a chance.

Nov 13, 2022; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Indianapolis Colts head coach Jeff Saturday reacts with offensive tackle Braden Smith (72) running back Jonathan Taylor (28) and running back Jordan Wilkins (29) following the touchdown scored by quarterback Matt Ryan (2) against the Las Vegas Raiders during the first half at Allegiant Stadium.

Shut up, Bill Cowher

When it was over – well, 47 seconds before it was over, technically – Colts interim coach Jeff Saturday was looking for the guy who could’ve felt a certain way about not getting this job. Saturday went looking for Gus Bradley, the Colts’ defensive coordinator, hugging him around the neck and getting a smile and hug in return after consecutive pass breakups in the end zone, by linebacker Bobby Okereke and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, denied the Raiders in the final minute.

Bradley was the most logical guy on staff to replace Frank Reich on an interim basis, had Colts owner Jim Irsay not gotten involved and done what he does. Which is to say, the outlandish. Bradley’s unit has carried the team this season, and he’d been a head coach before, in Jacksonville from 2013-16. Irsay went with Saturday. Everyone else went nuts.

The naysaying hit an ugly, inappropriate crescendo Sunday, a few hours before this game kicked off on CBS, when former Steelers coach Bill Cowher sat there in the CBS studio and decided to play the Neanderthal meathead card. Cowher snarled and spittled for 45 seconds, looking physically ill and furious as he prattled on about the hiring of Jeff Saturday, an ESPN analyst with no coaching experience beyond high school. You’d think Saturday had been hired to perform surgery on one of Cowher’s kids, not coach a friggin’ football team.

“It’s a disgrace,” Cowher said, looking around with that jaw of his, daring someone to hit it. “And regardless of how this thing plays out, what happened in Indianapolis is a travesty.”

Regardless of how this thing plays out? Is that where we’re setting the bar now? EVEN IF THIS WORKS … it’s not right!

Enough. Jeff Saturday spent 14 years as an NFL center, a position similar to catcher in baseball, and David Ross went from 14-year MLB catcher to ESPN to Cubs manager. Nobody minded Ross getting that gig, because people know: A catcher is a coach on the field. Same with an NFL center. And if that’s not enough, Saturday was getting his Ph.D in football from Colts QB Peyton Manning.

Enough nonsense. Give Irsay that victory lap he took with reporters outside the Colts locker room after this game, gloating, I mean enjoying this win that so many said shouldn’t, and couldn’t, happen. And not one word about the Raiders being the Raiders. You can play only the team on the schedule, and the Colts have lost to (or tied) some pretty lousy teams on the schedule this season. There are no layups in the NFL.

Not even for the team facing Jeff Saturday in his coaching debut.

MVP's: Parks Frazier, Matt Ryan, Jonathan Taylor, OL

Almost the first thing Saturday did was promote 30-year-old Parks Frazier to play caller.

All most of us knew about Frazier, before that, was that he’d once been the special assistant to Reich, that he has since married former Colts.com reporter Caroline Cann, and that in 2019 his home on the westside was shot up – 77 bullets in all – in an apparent case of mistaken identity. Police believe criminals targeted the wrong house. Fortunately, the home was empty.

Anyway, that was Parks Frazier before Sunday. Parks Frazier, now? Rising star. One of the MVP’s of this game. He called a brilliant game by not being brilliant at all. Frazier didn’t try to show anyone how smart he was, which Reich tended to do by lining up in an obvious running formation and throwing it, or spreading the field in an obvious pass formation and running it.

Not Frazier. When he sent Danny Pinter onto the field as an extra offensive lineman, he was calling a running play. When he called a pass, it was designed to get the ball quickly into the hands of Michael Pittman Jr. or Parris Campbell, who led the team with nine targets and seven catches apiece. Campbell had the most productive game of his career, with a career-high 76 receiving yards capped by the game-winning 35-yard touchdown.

On that play, Frazier called for a short pass designed to get the ball to Campbell in space. Campbell, the fastest person on the field not named “Jonathan Taylor,” caught it near the Las Vegas 20, ran away from one defensive back and split two others – both of whom had an angle to make the tackle, had they been chasing someone with human speed – on his way to the end zone.

With Frazier calling plays, Matt Ryan had his best game of the season: 21-for-28 for 222 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, no fumbles. Ryan even turned in the longest run of his career, a 39-yard gallop – think of a giraffe, galloping – two plays before the TD pass to Campbell.

With Frazier calling plays, Taylor had his most efficient day of the season: 22 carries for 147 yards (6.7 yards per carry), including a touchdown late in the third quarter when the line opened a huge hole to the right, Taylor saw it and cut that way, and then did what he does until he was in the end zone, 66 yards away.

The line had rookie Bernhard Raimann at left tackle and Will Fries at right guard. Also, the line had six-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday as head coach. You saying it didn’t help? It helped, as did Saturday’s refusal to yield to The Great God of Analytics and go for it on fourth down.

Saturday also managed the clock like a champ late in the first half as the Colts called timeouts when Las Vegas was driving for a touchdown, saving enough time – and one final timeout, to stop the clock – for Chase McLaughlin’s 48-yard field to end the half.

The Colts won by five points, but it’s entirely possible that field goal before halftime was the difference between the Raiders throwing wildly into the end zone in the final minute of the game … or just kicking a gimme field goal to win it.

After that 66-yard touchdown by Taylor, by the way, Saturday went looking for the embattled offensive line coach he’d been supporting this season from afar, Chris Strausser. Before becoming interim coach, Saturday had been advising Irsay, Reich and Strausser by phone. On Sunday, up close and personal, Saturday was sharing a high-five with Strausser as he stalked up the sideline after the Taylor TD, holding up two fingers. Meaning, let’s go for two.

Would’ve been better had he held up one finger, and I’m not talking about kicking the PAT. I’m talking, a single finger. The index? Sure. Saturday is 1-0 as an NFL coach.

Doyel: Even people who like the Colts, and who like Jeff Saturday, hate this hire

The middle finger, to all those people who talk too much and feel too little? That would’ve worked, too. Jeff Saturday, Jim Irsay and the Indianapolis Colts stuck it last week to the football establishment, doing what everyone said shouldn’t be done. They stuck it to those people again Sunday, doing what everyone said couldn’t be done.

Jeff Saturday, poor little inexperienced and overmatched Jeff Saturday, just won his first football game. Hey, everybody, get a look at this finger. For this week anyway, the Colts are No. 1.

Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at  www.facebook.com/greggdoyelstar.

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