Colts' Saturday can relate to Eagles' 2 rookie line starters

Eagles center Jason Kelce and right guard Danny Watkins will play in their first NFL games on Sunday. (Yong Kim/Staff file photo)
Eagles center Jason Kelce and right guard Danny Watkins will play in their first NFL games on Sunday. (Yong Kim/Staff file photo)
Posted: September 07, 2011

JEFF SATURDAY still remembers how he got the news that he would be making his first NFL start. It was November 1999, and he was somewhere over Ohio on the Indianapolis Colts' team plane, en route to Philadelphia for a game with Andy Reid's Eagles.

An undersized offensive lineman who had been cut by the Baltimore Ravens the year before and had been managing an electrical-supply store in North Carolina when the Colts signed him, Saturday was the team's backup guard and center.

But the starting left guard, Steve McKinney, needed an emergency appendectomy and didn't make the trip to Philly. Colts offensive line coach Howard Mudd, who was sitting across the aisle from Saturday, tapped him on the arm and said, "Hey, you're starting tomorrow."

End of conversation.

"He never said another word," Saturday said in a phone interview late last week. "He didn't act like there was any difference between me [and McKinney]. I remember I was scared to death. Here I am, a rookie, about to start my first game.

"But Howard never expressed any doubt that I could get the job done. When he trusts you and has seen what you can do in practice and you show up and do it for him, he'll put more trust in you than you put in yourself. That's a big confidence booster for a young player trying to make his way in this game."

On Sunday, another pair of Mudd-tutored rookies - Eagles center Jason Kelce and right guard Danny Watkins - will make their first NFL starts against the Rams in the noisy Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. They can only hope their debuts go half as well as Saturday's. The Colts ended up pummeling the Eagles and first-year coach Reid that day, 44-17.

"When Howard believes in you, he's going to give you the opportunity to go out and justify his faith in you," Saturday said. "I don't know much about [Kelce and Watkins]. But if he believes in them, he's going to give them every opportunity to go out and show him, and prove to him, that they can do it.

"That said, the other thing about Howard is, if a guy's not getting it done, he's not scared to make a change, either. You know going in he's going to give you the benefit of the doubt. But you'd better prove him right and go out and play as hard as you can and prove to him that the confidence he has in you is justified."

Saturday justified Mudd's confidence in him. Won the Colts' starting center job the next year and has hung on to it for 12 seasons, earning five Pro Bowl invitations and making it to two Super Bowls along the way.

We'll find out soon enough about Kelce and Watkins. Because of the 4 1/2-month lockout, they haven't had the benefit of an offseason of prep time to master Mudd's pass-protection techniques. Unlike Saturday, they've both had to learn on the run. Keep that in mind Sunday if they make a few Week 1 missteps.

"One of the great things from a player's perspective about Howard is you know he's done it," Saturday said. "He was a fantastic player in this league [seven NFL seasons with San Francisco and Chicago, three Pro Bowl invitations]. He understands that there are going to be times when you're going to get beat and just get overmatched physically. Those aren't the things he beats you up about. He beats you up about making mental mistakes or putting yourself in a position where you know you can't succeed."

Mudd's pass-blocking techniques are considerably different than those of other NFL coaches, including last year's Eagles offensive-line coach, Juan Castillo. Mudd favors a more aggressive, take-the-action-to-the-defender style, similar to what offensive linemen do on three-step (quarterback) drops. Except he uses it all the time.

"It was completely different than anything I had ever done before," Saturday said. "He taught me to be very aggressive in pass sets as opposed to setting back. He changed the way I played.

"He had us doing drills that I had never done before. The thing about Howard is consistency. What you do on Day 1 of training camp, you'll do on the final day of the season. I've been in the Super Bowl with him on two different occasions, and it just doesn't change. He believes in doing the same thing over and over. He knows what he does has proven to work."

All you've got to do is look at the numbers to see that. During Mudd's 12 seasons as the Colts' offensive line coach, they finished first or tied for first in sacks allowed six times, and finished second twice.

It certainly helped that the quarterback his line was protecting was Peyton Manning. But Manning isn't the only NFL quarterback for whom Mudd has provided airtight security.

In the 36 seasons he's been an offensive line coach, his units have allowed 25 or fewer sacks 16 times. They've given up 40 or more just nine times, and 50 or more only three times.

Coaxed out of retirement by Reid in February, Mudd is in charge of a line that gave up a disturbing 49 sacks last season. But three of the players on the line, including Kelce and Watkins, are new, and a fourth - Todd Herremans - is playing a new position (right tackle).

"It's important not to have 49 sacks this year," Mudd said in late April after the Eagles made Watkins their first-round pick and immediately penciled him in as their starter at right guard.

"It's important that Mike [Vick] has a good pocket to throw the ball from. Now, if he wants to take off and run, that's up to him. But it's important that [the pocket] is solid a high percentage of the time when his back foot hits the ground."

If the offensive line struggles Sunday in St. Louis, it won't be because of a lack of preparation. In fact, Sunday will be a piece of cake for the linemen compared to today and tomorrow at the NovaCare Complex.

"From the day you start installing your game plan, there is going to be no mistaking what needs to be done with Howard," Saturday said. "He honestly believes in guys knowing intellectually what they've got to do first. Showing them on the board. Showing them on film. Then going out and replicating it on the [practice] field.

"He'll give you the same look over and over. He'll give you the hardest look because he wants the game to be easy when you go out there on Sunday. He wants the game to actually be slower than what you practiced against. That's challenging earlier in the week. But as you get accustomed to it and get that feeling of confidence, you're ready to go on Sunday."

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