The big Tony Ugoh v. Charlie Johnson debate

The one positive thing to come out of the benching of Tony Ugoh is that all the negative energy readers once directed at Joseph Addai is now firmly fixed on Ugoh, and by extension Charlie Johnson. You all know the story: Tony Ugoh has benched for Charlie Johnson one week into training camp after Johnson returned from the PUP after pectoral surgery. Many of us ranted and raved over the benching for the obvious reason that Johnson is not as good a player as Ugoh. Indeed, as pre-season has progressed, Ugoh has continued to look better, at least in my opinion.

Is he lighting the world on fire and making all of us go "OMG! He's a changed man!" No.

Is he playing better, overall, than Charlie Johnson? Yes.

It's for this reason that I've called Jim Caldwell's judgment into question. Please understand, I personally feel Caldwell has done a masterful job transitioning from QB Coach-Associate Head Coach to Head Coach, replacing the legend that is Tony Dungy. He is intelligent, thoughtful, and (most importantly) respected by the players. He is a little more vocal than Dungy, holds players and coaches more accountable than Dungy, and appears less stubborn than Dungy. Dungy was a unique coach with a brilliant method at focusing on details in order to win football games. He didn't out-scheme, out-wit, or out-plan his opponents. His teams played harder, tackled better, and executed better than his opponents. That's Dungy Ball. Caldwell seems to be using a similar method, and for that he deserves a ton of props. It's not easy taking over for a coaching god, and Caldwell is making it look so. That's impressive, indeed.

My questioning of Caldwell's decision stems from a personal belief that the guys who should be playing are better players than the guys sitting on the bench. If a 6th round pick (Antoine Bethea) practices and plays better than a 2nd round pick (Mike Doss), than the 6th rounder should play. And like the Bethea v. Doss camp battle of 2006, which helped mold both players into better safeties, my criticism of Caldwell stems from him naming the starter (Johnson) when Johnson clearly had not earned the job.

Before I elaborate, here are what John Oehser and 18to88 are saying about the Ugoh v. Johnson debate.

John Oehser:

Here's one to BigBlueShoe's thoughts on the game on Stampede Blue. As usual, the "Shoe" does a great job of breaking down the game and raising some intriguing questions. I will say this: while I love BigBlueShoe -- and while mentioning him so high in this post shows how highly I consider his views --Stampede Blue has done a lot of questioning of Caldwell's handling of the Tony Ugoh-Charlie Johnson situation at left tackle. I find the handling interesting, too, but while BigBlueShoe is questioning Caldwell's competence and saying he looks inept and ridiculous, I'm not quite ready to paint it like that. Johnson didn't look great against Houston Texans DE Jason Babin Thursday, but Ugoh really didn't, either. Typically around the Colts a major decision such as changing left offensive tackles isn't going to be made whimsically by one person in the organization. There are long discussions, meetings and evaluations each offseason, and from what Caldwell has said about the timing of the decision to start Johnson -- it was made well before OTAs starting in May -- the Ugoh-Johnson decision was made sometime around those meetings. The long and short of this entry is pretty simple and that's that clearly the decision to start Johnson is a hot-button issue, but if Johnson is still starting in early September, it doesn't mean Caldwell's incompetent.

18to88:

Charlie Johnson was an abject disaster. He gave up a big hit on Peyton on the first TD drive. Manning avoided a sack with his lightening release on a sweet pass to Addai. Then CJ followed it up on the next Colts possession by getting whipped again, leading to a sack fumble. In fairness, Pollack got beat on the play as well (not that this makes me feel any better).

Unfortunately, Ugoh didn't play well either. He picked up a couple of penalties (although the second was not a good call), blew some run blocks, and looked generally lost. Johnson left the door wide open (as we knew he would), but Ugoh didn't walk through it. Instead, he laid down on the welcome mat and took a little nap.

I'll respond to John's solid point by saying that the decision to bench Ugoh certainly was not done on a whim. If I conveyed that thought that in my earlier writings, that's my bad. However, the decision on who starts and who sits rests solely with Caldwell. If it doesn't, then we have a BIG problem. Since I'm certain the team I love is the Indianapolis Colts, and not the disaster in Oakland known as the Raiders, I'll state confidently that all decisions on who starts and who sits reside with Caldwell.

This means he is directly and solely responsible for benching Ugoh for Johnson.

Caldwell is big on accountability. It is something he has stressed since he first took the podium last January as head coach. And since Caldwell wants to hold players and assistants accountable for their actions and decisions, Caldwell himself must be held to the same standard. Thus, if benching Ugoh results in worse play at the left tackle position, Caldwell is responsible, and least partially. That's all I'm saying.

Regarding 18to88's take, I'm not as harsh of Ugoh's play last night as they are, but I can see their point. Charlie Johnson was awful last night. When a scrub like Jason Babin makes you look like a chump, you stink as a starting LT. I shudder to think what Mario Williams will do to Charlie. And yes, I realize Charlie is returning from injury, as John Oehser correctly reminds us.

So what?

If you are healthy to start and play, my assumption is you should be able to handle the Jason Babins of this league. If you are too injured, or too rusty, to do that, then what the hell are you doing out there in the first place? If the injury excuse was never good enough for Ugoh, Charlie shouldn't get the pass either.

This brings me to my biggest beef in this whole, stupid mess: The way Caldwell has handled it. I always seem to come back to one key question whenever I read blogs or comments from readers about this debate: Why was Charlie Johnson named the starter?

Certainly, Charlie did not "earn" the job. He's been injured all off-season, recovering from surgery. Why didn't Caldwell state that there is an open competition for the job, and may the best man win? Let Charlie, Tony, Daniel Federkeil, and Tom Pestock all compete for the starting LT job. Then, at the end of (perhaps) the third pre-season game, you name your starter. This way, it looks as if the guy who won the job actually earned it.

That is not how the situation currently looks.

Even factoring in last night's game, which was not a "light's out performance" by Ugoh, he is still clearly outplaying Johnson. He's better in pass protection, run blocking, and has more physical overall ability. Ugoh's also looked better in practice, handling Dwight Freeney much better than he did in the past. By all measures that we evaluate "camp competition," or competition in general, Ugoh is beating Johnson. Last night's game continued to reinforce that.

So, why is Johnson still the "named" starter? It's an unanswered question.

If there is one constant in all this, it is there is tremendous uneasiness about the LT spot. The coaching staff are visibly frustrated by the lack of consistency at both tackle spots, and we fans are scared as all hell at the fact that in two pre-season games, Peyton Manning has been sacked four times in about a quarter and a half's worth of work.

Barf.

It is very unlikely a left tackle will fall from the sky (a.k.a., a team will cut someone to get down to 53), which means the Colts are stuck with Charlie and Tony. In my not-so-humble opinion, this whole thing could have been handled better. The perception among some fans is Charlie simply has not earned the starting LT spot, and if things were this dicey going into camp, why didn't the Colts try and make a trade? Or, draft another left tackle?

What also makes this Ugoh v. Johnson issue stand out is it is the only truly negative thing we've experienced this pre-season (knock on wood). Injuries have occurred, but are not devastating like previous years (more wood knocking). Last night, both the offense, defense, and special teams overall looked damn impressive. I mean, if you think the Colts have issues at this point, kindly take a step back and look at the team Indy just played, Philadelphia Eagles. They had only one starter on their o-line last night. Everyone else is hurt, including Jason Peter, the LT they trade for from the Buffalo Bills. Their #1 pick, Jeremy Maclin, played terrible. Their defense, currently, is a shell of its former self. Stewart Bradley is gone for the year. Brian Dawkins is with the Broncos. Trent Cole is hurt. Jim Johnson has passed, and a new coordinator (Sean McDermott) is soldiering on with this unit. For a truthful perspective on the Eagles, look no further than Bob_Q at Bleeding Green Nation:

In one of the most disappointing performances the Eagles' faithful have seen in a while, the Birds fell tonight to the Indianapolis Colts 23-15. While excuses can can be made that many of our starters were sitting out with nagging injuries, the fact remains that both our offense and defense failed to fire on all cylinders.

Like all things, I hold out hope that the LT situation will shake itself out. This is a very good Colts team that is highly motivated to kick the snot out of people. Like most of you, I love the subtle "tweaks" and changes I am seeing. I love watching Antonio Johnson and Ed Johnson stuffing the run on third and short. I love Dwight Freeney spinning like Fred Astaire on crack. I love Peyton Manning looking like he is ready to eat your young.

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I mean seriously, folks. This is our man before a PRE-SEASON game. Imagine him before games that actually count. I swear, lasers or something shoot out of his eyes.

I hope this LT shakes out. But, if it doesn't, then Jim Caldwell bares much of the responsibility. This is especially true if Charlie Johnson continues to struggle while Tony Ugoh continues to look better by comparison.

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