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Theories on why Lilja was really cut

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It's in my nature never to take things at face value, especially when they don't seem to make any logical sense. Yesterday, the Colts cut their second best offensive lineman, Ryan Lilja. At first, the reasons were very puzzling. Then, Mike Chappell at the Indy Star got this quote from Lilja's agent:

"[The Colts] said they want to go bigger, and they let him go,’’ Domann said. "Ryan was disappointed, but I know he’ll land on his feet.’’

Bigger. OK, on the surface, this seems to suggest that new Offensive Line Coach Pete Metzelaars has a very different take on how this line should be constructed compared to his well-respected predecessor, Howard Mudd. Mudd preferred players who were smaller, quicker, and used superior technique to beat opponents. The premium was on pass blocking, protecting the franchise that is Peyton Manning. Guys like Ryan Lilja (6'2, 290 pounds) fit that mold and excelled greatly in the system Mudd used for 11 years in Indy.

However, with the recent signing of another former-Chiefs guard (Lilja was once cut by the Chiefs in 2003) Andy Alleman, I guess the writing was on the wall that the Colts were shifting their philosophy. Alleman is 6'4, 310 pounds. While it only makes sense for a new position coach to want to put his stamp on his coaching area, I am a firm believer that one does not cut off one's own nose in order to facilitate cosmetic change. I cite the Packers moronic decision to switch to a 3-4 defense in 2009, thus negating the effectiveness of their best pass rusher, Aaron Kampman. The Packers defense gave up 45 points and 531 yards of offense to the Cardinals in the playoffs, and lost in the first round. Now, Kampman has signed with the Jaguars and the Packers don't have anyone who can sack the QB.

While I totally understand the intent behind "going bigger" at the guard spots, cutting your best guard, when there is clearly no better alternative on the present roster, doesn't make a whole lot of friggin sense. There has to be something else at play here, and I have a few theories as to what.

One reason we can dismiss is money. Lilja would have made a base salary of $3.055 million in 2010, and the Colts actually paid him a $1.7 million roster bonus before terminating his contract. That's a very classy move on the Colts part, and it speaks volumes of how the feel about Lilja. $3.055 million is not breaking the bank for someone like Lilja, especially in an uncapped year. So, his contract wasn't the reason.

So, if it wasn't money, and it wasn't because they felt he was some kind of malcontent, what was it?

18to88 offers a few ideas:

  1. Indy is looking for a new left tackle and wants to move Charlie Johnson back inside.  This is a move you only make if you already have a bead on someone.  CJ plays at 305 lbs to Lilja's 290.  The Colts clearly think that $3 million is too much to pay for a back up guard.  It's hard to argue with that.  Lilja would have been one of the top 15 highest paid Colts, and you can't lay out that kind of money for a guy who isn't starting and doesn't play an impact position.
  2. The Colts inability to pick up short yardage in key situations the past two seasons is something that won't be tolerated again.  Clearly, the Colts think that Caldwell made the right call to run at the end of the first half, but the line failed.  Frankly, I think that's insane logic, but the club is clearly trying to upgrade the run blocking.  If the line had done their job, Caldwell would still have been wrong, but I wouldn't be able to complain about it as much.
  3. If Indy can survive a full season with CJ at left tackle, the pass pro will be fine no matter who plays up front.  We've noted recently that sacks have more to do with the quarterback than the line.  Therefore, the best measure of an offensive line is the run game.  Indy's sucks.  They might as well try to go bigger and move bodies off the line because Manning isn't going to get hit no matter who is out there.  That's an exaggeration, but there is something to it.

All interesting theories, though I think Deshawn Zombie is incorrect in his assessment of Caldwell's 3rd-and-one call. If the Colts convert that and go on to score a field goal before halftime, Caldwell's decision is most certainly not "still wrong." If anything, 3rd-and-one doesn't matter, no matter what the results of that play were. The Colts defense still likely struggles to stop the Saints in the second half due in part to Dwight Freeney's ankle injury, and they still lose to them 31-20, or something like that.

When plays are executed well, coaches are "correct." When they aren't executed well, people second-guess the coaching decision. If the Saints do not recover the second half onside kick, Sean Payton is likely the goat of the game and goes into the off-season with serious questions about his judgment. If Matt Stover nails that 51-yarder (as he was doing in pre-game warm-ups), Caldwell's decision was "correct" to have him attempt one in the fourth quarter when it was pretty clear that any kind of points at that time were paramount.

Welcome to life in the NFL. Results are everything.

Back to Lilja, another theory is he might not have gotten along with Metzelaars when Metzelaars was the assistant line coach. Now that Metzelaars is the big boss of the line, Lilja needed to go. Again, I have no sources to back that up, but it makes a helluva lot more sense than just cutting your best guard because he doesn't "fit" your new coaching philosophy.

The only other idea that I can come up with, and this follows point #1 that DZ made, is that something is up.

Getting rid of Lilja and not having some kind of plan would be incompetence on Polian's part. For obvious reasons, I don't think Bill Polian is incompetent when it comes to building great teams. By making this move, I'm inclined to think that the Colts have a player targeted that they will either draft, trade up for, or sign to a tender in free agency. The player EVERYONE here keeps talking about is Jared Gaither, the gi-normous left tackle for the Ravens. Gaither has a first round tender from the Ravens. The Colts could sign him to an offer sheet, surrender their #31 overall pick to the Ravens, and lock-up a 6'9, 340 pound tackle that most certainly fits the team's new philosophy of "getting bigger."

Hopefully, we will see something happen soon that makes us all go "Ohhhhhhhhhh, THAT'S why they cut Lilja," because right now I'm not seeing it. Currently, we have Jaimie Thomas, Kyle DeVan, Mike Pollak, Jamey Richard, and Alleman on the roster to play guard.

None are the caliber of Ryan Lilja.