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For the Colts players and coaches, it’s never “just practice”

The Colts put a major emphasis on practice as a team

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

We have all heard the famous Allen Iverson speech. We have quoted it for years and it has become the go-to punchline when talking about practice in professional sports. “Practice? We’re talking about practice, man.” In retrospect, Iverson was completely right. Who cares about practice? Records, statistics, and championships are won on game days, not during practice. Well, don’t tell that to the Indianapolis Colts.

For the Colts, practice is the lifeblood of their team and what they want to do on Sundays. It determines who plays, what plays are going to be run, and many other factors for those all-important games.

“It’s huge for us. It’s all built off of trust. You are not going to play if they don’t trust you.” Colts Running Back Nyheim Hines told me in an interview.

This has rung true for a lot of Colts players over the years, as we have seen promising youngsters or experienced veterans lose playing time for “unknown reasons” (at least unknown to the fans and media). It is also the reason why some players receive more playing time or get elevated to the roster from the practice squad before we expect them to.

Remember when Jonathan Williams was elevated to the Colts’ roster late in 2018, even though the team had three healthy running backs ahead of him? That was because of practice. Remember UDFA Ashton Dulin being elevated from the Practice Squad early last season? That was because of how he was practicing.

“Coach Eberflus talks about it all the time. You practice how you are going to play.” linebacker Anthony Walker told me.

The memo is the same from Frank Reich all the way down to coaching interns and support staff. Another element of practice, though, is the building of trust in the playbook. If a play doesn’t work in practice throughout the week, the Colts will not run that play on Sunday. That is how vital it is that these players execute and perform well in practices.

“We only have a certain amount of reps, I think we only have like 120 plays in a week, so if one play doesn’t work, we aren’t going to waste our time with it,” running back Nyheim Hines explained. “If we don’t get a look we like or we don’t run it well in practice, we are going to take it out. Our team is based around trust and that even applies to the play call. If we don’t trust the play call, we are going to take it out. That’s how our coaches are and I like it so far so I think our coaches have been great with the trust factor.”

It also applies to the defensive side of the ball as well as they cut plays down throughout the week if the play seems to be too complicated or just isn’t working in practice.

“We want to be as simple as possible. If anything in the playbook is too complicated or we aren’t practicing it well, it gets thrown out,” linebacker Anthony Walker described. “We want guys to go out there and fly around and execute and the best way to do that is with a limited menu. We make sure to go out there every Sunday with a limited menu and guys can go out there and execute.”

While the team does agree that this is a good strategy and it has helped them find success over the past few seasons, wide receiver Marcus Johnson did push back a little bit when we discussed the emphasis on practice when it comes to the playbook;

“I respect it, I definitely do. It was the same way in Philly. It’s almost to a fault though. They scrutinize practice so much that sometimes it can be a fault in my opinion because we have so many plays that we can choose from and, obviously, you have to limit it in a gameplan for Sunday but man if it doesn’t work in practice, it’s OUT. Unless they really like a play, you just might get three chances to run it in practice before it is scrapped. So next year, hopefully, we can get those big-time plays working in practice and get them in the gameplan.”

One thing that every player can agree on, though, is that this added emphasis on practice has made their practices extremely intense and important. With every play meaning something in terms of whether or not it will be used on Sunday, there is just that added pressure to get it perfect in team sessions during the week.

“We have one of the hardest practices in the league,” Anthony Walker described. “Just with our tempo and hustle in practice, the game feels slowed down come game time. We practice so fast and so hard that the games are pretty easy to us.”

This added pressure and emphasis on practice has an effect on the games and that is why each and every Sunday, we see so many Colts players playing at 100 miles per hour every single play.

“It makes that atmosphere in practice real intense because our practices mean something each week. Everybody is trying to compete and that bleeds over to the games. Everyone is being where they are supposed to be and competing so it just helps.” Wide Receiver Zach Pascal told me.

So practices, for the Colts, determine not only who is going to play each week but they also have a major effect on which plays are going to be called. This in turn motivates the players to be perfectionists in practice and get every bit of what they are trying to do in practice right so they can have more available come game time.

This is part of the culture that Frank Reich and his staff have instilled in these players. Every player that I talked to regarding this has said the same things. “Coach Eberflus talks about it all the time” or “Practice is BIG” are the quotes I have been getting from players week in and week out whenever I bring this topic up to them.

My main point with this piece is that practice means a lot for this team. It has a direct effect on gameplan, who plays, and intensity and is a big part of the culture of this team. So some teams or professional players may take the stance of “We’re talking about practice” like Iverson famously joked, but for the Colts, it’s never “just practice.”