Grigson gives Colts winning hand in 1st year as GM

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Grigson gives Colts winning hand in 1st year as GM

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Colts general manager Ryan Grigson is more comfortable watching practice in sweat pants and sunglasses than he'll ever be standing behind a podium in a stuffy suit.

It's the perfect style fit for the former offensive lineman who is debunking the NFL's conventional wisdom.

He's winning games with a rookie quarterback and one of the league's youngest teams. He's winning when nobody else thought he could, and he's doing it his way - by instilling a gritty, down-to-earth attitude in a team that has no illusions about where it's been or where it's going.

``Obviously, I'm elated, I'm not going to sit here and lie about it,'' Grigson told The Associated Press as he watched practice Wednesday. ``But we're still only at the mid-point of the season. We know six wins doesn't get you anywhere in the postseason, but we feel the organization is going in the right direction.''

Indeed, it is.

Nine games into the season and barely 10 months into his first gig as an NFL general manager, the 6-foot-6 giant has already achieved things longtime GMs only fantasize about.

Grigson has survived the most publicized parting of the offseason, cutting four-time league MVP Peyton Manning, and the shocking release of a handful of other big-name favorites. He stayed calm when other key players left in free agency and ignored the ongoing debate about which quarterback should be taken first overall pick in April's draft - Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III.

When anxious fans pleaded for the Colts to make a bold move in free agency, the 6-foot-6 giant stood pat, locking himself inside an office to study game tapes, budgets and ponder the possibilities of what will likely be remembered as the biggest decision of his career: Cutting Manning.

``First of all, how do you replace him?'' Grigson said as he thanked team owner Jim Irsay for taking responsibility for the controversial move. ``You look at him (Manning) and he's a great player, and he's still a great player. But I knew from a fiscal standpoint and an age standpoint, I knew that we had to have a change if we were going to have success in the future.''

Somehow, it all worked out.

Manning is thriving in Denver. Luck is on pace for a historic rookie season. Receiver Reggie Wayne, one of the few veterans Grigson decided to keep around, is having the best season of his career. Two of the three ex-Baltimore Ravens he signed, Cory Redding and Tom Zbikowski, have played key roles on an improving defense, and most of Grigson's draftees have been key contributors, too.

The magnitude of Indy's turnaround has been nothing short of amazing.

A year ago when the Colts headed to New England, they were 0-11 and were surrounded by talk of a winless season. Eleven months later, as they prepare for a return to Foxborough, Mass., they are 6-3 and hold a two-game lead on their nearest competitor for a wild-card spot. They've won despite a rash of injuries, the usual rookie mistakes and even losing their head coach, Chuck Pagano, indefinitely as he battles a form of leukemia.

They've won with a first-time head coach, a first-time interim coach and a first-time GM, who looks nothing like the stodgy front-office folks of years past.

And yet they've done it, in large part, because of Grigson's masterful strokes.

``I think he has to be the executive of the year so far,'' punter Pat McAfee said. ``You look at the wow factor the day of the cuts. Basically, he rebuilt this team in four or five months. We had a great core group of guys here, and the way he picked up the pieces is just amazing.''

How did Grigson do it?

The opinions vary.

McAfee credits the GM for bringing in solid cornerstones to construct the foundation. Redding believes the competitiveness Grigson demonstrates on a daily basis has rubbed off on those inside the locker room. Luck thinks it's all about Grigson's homework and his commitment to making the right calls.

``The first thing that stood out to me is, `Man, this is a big guy','' Luck said, drawing laughter as he explained his experience through the draft process. ``Second, was that you could tell how hard he worked. He was like a tireless worker. He had a great sort of enthusiasm and love for football. Those were the first three things I really noticed.''

Doubters point out that Indy has only beaten one legitimate playoff team (Green Bay) this season as they head to New England (6-3) this weekend.

They contend Grigson has essentially rebuilt the Colts with smoke-and-mirrors in a weak division and against a depleted AFC.

A deeper look reveals something else - Grigson has rebuilt on the Colts with players who were considered top talents when they came into the league.

Luck, of course, provides Indy with the most valuable commodity in football, a franchise quarterback. He's protected on one side by Anthony Castonzo, Indy's first-round draft pick in 2011, and can hand the ball off to Donald Brown, the Colts' first-round draft pick in 2009.

That's not all.

Indy signed the oft-injured Donnie Avery, the first receiver taken in the 2008 draft and used its second and third round draft picks this year on the top two tight ends (Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen). Grigson also traded up to get speedy receiver T.Y. Hilton in the third round and made trades for right tackle Winston Justice, Philadelphia's second-round pick in 2006, and cornerback Vontae Davis, Miami's first-rounder in 2009. He even signed free agent Darius Butler, this week's AFC defensive player of the week, New England's second-round choice in 2009.

Some of those players say Grigson's belief has provided motivation to perform.

``I think it means a lot when you have someone that believes in you that much,'' Justice said. ``It makes you want to play harder.''

The question, of course, is whether the Colts can keep it going.

Players insist they can, and Grigson will have tens of millions of dollars to spend in free agency during the offseason.

But Grigson won't just spend that money on some big-name guy. No, he wants somebody who is willing to fit in with the rest of these gritty guys, who are willing to work sweat it out on blustery November days.

``I'm always thinking about the future and how we can get better,'' Grigson said with a smile as he stared into practice through the sunglasses. ``The players know that, I know that and we want to be the best. As I mature in this role, because I am still a newby GM, I still have a lot to learn. But if we can get better, we will. I'm also sensitive to the chemistry we're building. I don't want to make a splashy signing, I want to make a decision based on what's good for the team.''

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Stock watch: Sanford impresses in preseason debut

Stock watch: Sanford impresses in preseason debut

The Caps lost their second preseason game on Tuesday night to the Montreal Canadiens, but it's the preseason. The score doesn't matter. What does matter is how the players played. Here's who looked good and who needs to up their game.

3 players who impressed:

Madison Bowey: When Bowey is distributing the puck, it looks like his teammates have magnets on their tape. Every pass from him was crisp and on target. Defensively, he finished the game with a minus-2, but he was hardly the only player to struggle on the defensive end of the ice on Tuesday. He will continue to develop his defensive skills in Hershey, but for now Bowey looks every bit the puck-moving, offensive defenseman the Caps hoped they were getting when they drafted him. In today's NHL, having that type of defenseman on your team is a major plus.

Zach Sanford: The Caps want to keep a 14th forward on the roster this season and in his NHL (preseason) debut, Sanford did everything he could to lay claim to that spot. It took a few minutes for him to settle into the game, but he didn't look out of place at all. He simply looked like a rookie trying to adjust to his first NHL experience. As the game went along, he looked more and more comfortable. What is really impressive about Sanford is his positioning and what he does away from the puck. He always seems to be exactly where he is supposed to be. That positioning ultimately set up his goal late in the third period. Sanford fought off a few hits to maintain his position in front of the net, setting up a perfect screen on Montreal goalie Zachary Fucale. Because of his positioning, he was able to deflect a shot from Connor Hobbs into the net past the helpless netminder. It was not a perfect game for Sanford by any means. Late in the second, he gave up the puck on a bad turnover and compounded the mistake by tripping Michael McCarron, but those kinds of mistakes are to be expected from someone who went straight from college to the NHL preseason. Overall, it was a very impressive performance.

Nathan Walker: When Andrew Shaw boarded Connor Hobbs in the second period, the first player to go after the gritty veteran was Nathan Walker. It didn't matter that Shaw has played in four NHL seasons or has 13 NHL fights on his resume, it didn't matter that he was going to get his butt kicked — he was going to stand up for his teammate. The biggest strike against Walker is his size. He is very generously listed as 5-foot-8. I've seen him in the locker room and let me tell you, there is no way he is that tall. But any fear the team may have had about Walker's ability to handle the size of the NHL has been erased in just two preseason games. Clearly he is not going to let himself be pushed around. At this point, I would be surprised if he does not get his first NHL game at some point this season.

RELATED: PENALTIES DOOM CAPS IN 5-2 LOSS TO MONTREAL

3 players who need to show improvement:

Brett Connolly: Connolly's signing was a surprise move by the Caps in the offseason. He is a former first-round draft pick still trying to live up to his potential. He is going to make the roster, but as a new player, the Caps are still trying to determine just where he fits into the lineup. That means he has more at stake in this preseason than most of his NHL teammates. Connolly registered six hits, but zero shots on net and was completely unable to take advantage of the weaker preseason roster Montreal played. Connolly is a sniper trying to establish his skill and he looked like a fourth-line grinder. If this is how he will play, there's no reason to play him over someone like Stanislav Galiev.

Liam O'Brien: In 2014, Liam O'Brien made the Caps' roster after a strong camp and stuck around for 13 games before getting sent down to the AHL. Two years later, he doesn't look close to that level. O'Brien took an early interference penalty as he slid into goalie Al Montoya. He added a second penalty in the third period as he was upset with a no-call on Nathan Beaulieu and kept trying to draw a fight with him until the referee ultimately sent him to the box. The days when teams could carry enforcers on the fourth line who did little else but fight and take penalties are over. O'Brien has to establish that he has more to offer the Caps and he failed to do so.

Darren Dietz: For the most part, Darren Dietz actually played a decent game on Tuesday. He had six hits and skated well against his former team. There was one major mistake, however, that really stuck out. In the second period, the Caps were about to go on the power play as Jeremy Grégoire slashed Zach Sill in the wrist. At the end of the play, Grégoire really tried to press his luck by giving Sill a little push into the boards. Grégoire is a 21-year-old player trying to make an impression by taking on one of the toughest guys on the ice. Sill is a 28-year-old, 6-foot-1, 202-pound veteran with 32 fights in the last five years in the NHL and AHL. He can take care of himself. Dietz, however, skated in and landed a vicious cross-check to the back of Grégoire and was called for roughing, thus negating the Caps' power play. There was no reason for Dietz to get involved in that scrum. Sill doesn't need him to fight off Grégoire, he could have easily brushed him aside. The referees had already established that they are calling a very tight game so it was no surprise to see Dietz sent to the box. He needs to know better than to lay that kind of hit on the back of an opposing player and risk a penalty in order to protect someone who didn't really need it.

MORE CAPITALS: MARCUS JOHANSSON SCORES FROM STRAIGHT ON VS. CANADIENS

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Lobaton, others step up in Nats' 1st game without Wilson Ramos

Lobaton, others step up in Nats' 1st game without Wilson Ramos

If guys like Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon play to their capabilities, the Nationals could make do without Wilson Ramos this postseason, at least on offense.

But even those guys can't do it all by themselves. The much more likely scenario involves a collective effort, one in which contributions from all-around lift the Nationals as a team and help compensate for the loss of one of their best and most consistent players. Collective efforts like Tuesday night when both of Ramos' replacements - Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino - chipped in on offense, Rendon provided the big swing and other bench players like Stephen Drew and Wilmer Difo made pivotal plays in their 4-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Lobaton called a strong game behind the dish, helping starter Max Scherzer adjust after allowing two runs in his first three innings to toss three scoreless after that. He then broke up Diamondbacks' starter Matt Koch's no-hitter in the sixth with a leadoff single. That ignited a four-run rally for the Nats, who took the lead and never relinquished it.

"I don't want to get a no-hitter," Lobaton said. "I got a good result and it was good for the team. We got a rally and we won."

"With [Ramos] going down for the year, that’s just heartbreaking," Scherzer said. "But Loby’s a guy that we need to step up and he’s the one who started off that inning."

Lobaton was replaced on the basepaths by Severino, who is faster than Lobaton, who happens to be dealing with a sore right ankle. Severino would later score after moving to third on walks drawn by Trea Turner and Difo. Severino came home on a sacrifice fly hit to left by Drew.

Lobaton and Severino will be a tag team partnership moving forward this season with Ramos out. They will need to spell each other and work together to try and recreate the production Ramos provided as a standout both at the plate and behind it.

On Tuesday, they pulled through.

"That's what they're going to have to do," manager Dusty Baker said. "That's what they're going to have to do to contribute."

Their night also involved a lot of communication once Severino replaced Lobaton. A veteran with more experience catching the Nationals' pitching staff, Lobaton advised Severino throughout the game about how to call it. That's something Ramos often does for Lobaton.

"That is good for a guy that is not playing every time. It's the same with me, I always talk to Wily about the pitchers and what they are doing," Lobaton said. "I try to communicate more, like what he's been doing and what he's working on. So, I try to do the same with Sevi. This is working in the game, this is not. It can be more easy for him when he goes out."

Severino scored the first run and later in the frame Rendon drove in three more on a homer to left field off Randall Delgado. Rendon was pleased to see the foundation laid ahead of him that inning.

"That’s a great example, first day, stepping up,” he said. "Definitely frustration [with Ramos' injury]. You never like to see a teammate get hurt… obviously he’s going to be missed. He’s a big part of this lineup. But we have a lot of good guys who can fill in. It’s going to be awesome to watch.”

The Nationals have five more games before the regular season is over. To capture a World Seires, they will need to win 11 more after that. It won't always be as smooth asTuesday night, but the Nationals demonstrated well to themselves what it will take to get by without their star catcher.

[RELATED: Dodgers set rotation for playoff series against Nationals]

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