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Should the Colts Continue to Start Jonotthan Harrison at Center?

The Colts benched A.Q. Shipley for Jonotthan Harrison at center on Sunday against the Ravens. Now the question is: should they continue to start Harrison? Stampede Blue's Josh Wilson examines the question.

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Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

We all know by now about the Colts benching center A.Q. Shipley for undrafted rookie Jonotthan Harrison on Sunday, and we all know about Chuck Pagano strangely continued to dodge the question both in the week leading up to the game and then after the game about whether a change would be made and why.

On Monday he was again noncommittal about who will start this Thursday night against the Texans.  "You love continuity and you're always looking for that," Pagano said.  "We're going to evaluate every position, not only that position, but every position on the football team. It all comes down to being productive and doing your job and playing at a high level. The good thing for us is we've got a lot of good football players on this football team. We've got a lot of depth, so we're in a good spot that way."  Basically, he didn't tell us anything, because if he truly valued continuity that much he never would have benched Shipley in the first place.

So he was asked again later in his press conference about who he will start at center this Thursday and whether they will change things up again.  "I don't know," Pagano said.  "I don't anticipate anything, but don't be shocked if there was something. I don't anticipate anything."  Again - not much there to go off of.

On Sunday, Harrison made his first career NFL start.  I've loved his potential and was thrilled when Ryan Grigson signed him as an undrafted free agent.  I think he's a guy who can develop into a legitimate starter in the NFL.   But while I initially thought he might make the roster, I didn't think he was a guy ready to play right away and someone who should sit a year or two working on some things.

All offseason, the Colts were set on Khaled Holmes as the starter.  But he was injured on the first drive of preseason, and for the remainder of the preseason Harrison was the starting center.  A week before the regular season started, the Colts claimed A.Q. Shipley off of waivers, and Shipley proceeded to start the first four games of the season.  He played very well in the first four weeks, and his play along with the continuity he brought made it seem like an easy choice to continue starting him.

I guess not for Chuck Pagano.

Instead, Pagano benched Shipley (who, according to Pro Football Focus, was the third highest rated center in the league so far this year), and started Jonotthan Harrison on Sunday.  It went about as expected.  Harrison struggled in some areas and looked good in others.  He did a good job in pass protection, and PFF notes that he didn't allow a single pressure in 55 passing snaps.  Only two players at the position have taken more passing snaps than Harrison and still given up zero pressures.  So let's be clear that there were some positives, but overall it wasn't great.  Harrison's run-blocking was bad, and even then on a lot of the passing snaps the Colts gave Harrison help.  Most notably, Harrison had a couple of bad snaps and some times when he didn't remember the snap count.  There was the bad snap that Luck just had to grab and try to sneak for a first down unsuccessfully - that bad snap ended the drive.  Another bad snap was high and Luck just had to grab it and go to the ground - Luck bailed Harrison out by continuing the drive with some impressive plays after that, however.  And then there was the time when everyone else on the offense remembered the snap count but Harrison.

Those who have defended Harrison's performance do so by saying, "those were only three snaps out of many!"  And they're right.  But what about when Coby Fleener drops one or two passes a game?  Fans get upset because he's not supposed to do that, even though he runs several routes a game.  Or what about when Andrew Luck throws two picks against the Ravens - the reaction is that he had a rough game, even though he threw 49 times (only 4% of his throws).  It's a small percentage, but people notice.  Or when Ahmad Bradshaw fumbles there by the goal line on Sunday.  People bash him for it, but he's fumbled once in 67 touches this year (1.5%).  I'm not trying to compare our reactions to different positions, but what I'm saying is this: you already understand that only a few plays can have a huge impact and can shift the perception of a performance in a drastic way.  Why is it different for Harrison?  I'm not out to bash him, and I already noted that I really like him.  But on Sunday, he wasn't great.

It's not like these snap issues are new, either.  Remember the first preseason game?  He struggled with the same thing, and we said that it was just because it was his first NFL game.  Well, he's had four preseason games, training camp, and practice to work on the most basic thing a center does - snap the football.  Sorry if I'm not overlooking it.

And maybe it'd be different if he actually played lights out blocking.  He didn't, and I saw nothing on Sunday to suggest he was a better blocker than A.Q. Shipley has been.  At best, he did as well as Shipley blocking but had some bad snaps too (which Shipley hasn't had).  Harrison was nothing special as a blocker.  And his performance on Sunday wasn't great.

I'm absolutely not going to blame Harrison for it, however.  Sure, he needs to snap the ball to Andrew Luck better and block better, but what exactly was Chuck Pagano expecting?  For an undrafted rookie to replace a guy who had been playing well this season for a game against the Baltimore Ravens?  Honestly, Harrison played about as I expected.  It's Pagano that should get criticism for the move.

Maybe it'd be different if we at least we knew what he was thinking in making the move.  But he's been silent.  He won't say.  But I think it's pretty clear that playing Jonotthan Harrison on Sunday was the wrong move by Chuck Pagano.

So that brings us to the question of who should start at center this Thursday night against the Houston Texans for the Colts?  I know this might shock some of you and in fact it's kind of surprising me that I'm saying it, but I think the Colts should start Jonotthan Harrison on Thursday night.

Here's my reasoning: I believe starting him on Sunday was the wrong move.  Like I said, I don't think he's a guy who should be starting right away and I really didn't think a move should be made considering how well A.Q. Shipley was playing.  But the move has been made.  Shipley has been benched.  Sure, you could always go back to him, but things won't be the same - he has already been benched.  I think everyone knows that A.Q. Shipley is not the "center of the future" for the Colts.  But there's a real chance that Jonotthan Harrison could be (and yes, I think the team likes Harrison more than Khaled Holmes and I do too).  Obviously, Pagano thought starting Harrison was worth it, and he realistically couldn't have expected him to play great on Sunday.  By giving him another start, Pagano would first of all avoid a circus and continual rotation at center, but he would also give Harrison a chance to build on the good things he did last week and work on the things he needs to improve on - such as the snaps.  After this game, there's a ten-day break to evaluate and work on things.  I see Harrison as a guy who could become a legitimate center in the NFL.  I would have waited to play him, but the Colts have already started him.  If they too think that he can become a real starter for them longterm, then I don't think the right thing to do is keep putting him in and out of the lineup.  Keep him in there for the second straight game and see how he does.

Saying this in no way diminishes the fact that I think it was a bad move to start Harrison in the first place.  But now that it has already been done, I think it might actually be the best option to give him another start Thursday night.  You won't find me upset if the Colts start A.Q. Shipley against the Texans.  But unlike last week, you also won't find me upset if the Colts start Jonotthan Harrison instead.