INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -Forgive Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden for not knowing Kenton Keith until Sunday night. The truth is, neither did anyone else outside the Indianapolis Colts' braintrust.
Over the past decade, it's the virtually unknown players, like Keith, working in concert with stars like Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison, who have kept the Colts among the NFL's most successful franchises.
To those closest to the game, it's an impressive trademark for the organization under team president Bill Polian.
``This Bill Polian guy, he deserves a tremendous amount of credit because I don't know a lot of the players they find and they work with,'' Gruden said after Sunday's 33-14 loss. ``They do a great job of breeding their own players and these guys are all Colts.''
Yes, for every Manning, Harrison or Reggie Wayne - first-round draft choices who have exceeded the lofty expectations for top picks - the Colts (5-0) have always been able to fill in with little-known contributors who simply never got a chance someplace else.
The Colts have been proficient at plucking players out of the Canadian Football League, off the waiver wire, from anonymous schools and even off the street. Usually, they come at a bargain-basement price, a critical element in the salary cap era.
A quick glance at the Colts' roster shows these guys in the starting lineup:
- Two-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday, an undrafted free agent who spent a year out of football after Baltimore cut him before the start of training camp in 1998.
- Middle linebacker Gary Brackett, an undrafted free agent considered too small coming out of Rutgers to play in the NFL, but is this year's top tackler (52).
- Defensive tackle Raheem Brock, Philadelphia's seventh-round pick in 2002 who the Eagles never signed. He has started 69 straight games and is the Colts' most versatile lineman.
- Right guard Ryan Lilja, waived by Kansas City during the final cutdown his rookie year (2004), who has started 32 games for the Colts and has become a mainstay on the offensive line.
- Rookie defensive tackle Ed Johnson, who signed with the only team that gave him an offer after three suspensions at Penn State knocked him out of the draft. Johnson won the starting job in training camp.
So having Keith, who played for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Canadian league, run for 121 yards and two touchdowns in his first career NFL start Sunday is not a new phenomenon.
Before him there was running back Dominic Rhodes, the record-setting undrafted rookie who could have won the Super Bowl MVP award in February, and cornerback Kelvin Hayden, a converted wide receiver whose interception return for a touchdown sealed the Super Bowl win over Chicago.
Why have the Colts been so successful in their pursuits?
``I think, first, they scout talent and don't really look at the raw numbers or the big names,'' Brackett said. ``You might have a guy who is a perennial All-American and who got a lot of exposure in college. It's easy to say he can play in the league. I was a guy who didn't get a lot of exposure, and Kenton was the same way.''
Polian and coach Tony Dungy have insisted for years that everybody gets their chance to line up, whether it's a draft pick, an undrafted free agent or a player looking for a second or third chance in the league.
``It's the NFL and there's a whole lot of talent in this league,'' Brock said. ``Sometimes you just find good talent. But you've got to work your way in if you're not drafted. They give you a chance and I think we've had a lot of guys who have done a good job taking advantage.''
Another factor is the Colts' system.
Often times they'll take defensive players considered too small by most league standards - defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, both starters, come to mind - and rely on the one factor most important in this defense, speed.
``We have a good personnel department who bring in guys that are hungry, and I think it's the coaching staff, too,'' Dungy said Wednesday. ``One of the things we don't do is say, 'Hey, we've got to have an experienced backup.' Our coaches don't panic. They get them ready to play and when they go in, they usually do some good things.''
As Keith or Saturday or Brackett or Johnson can attest, it's all about getting a chance and making contributions on a team that is one of only four in league history with three straight 5-0 starts.
``They give you a shot,'' Brackett said. ``There I am my first year scrambling around, not knowing if I'm going to get on the field or if I'm going to be on special teams or what, and the second preseason game I'm starting. Coach Dungy says all the time, it doesn't matter what number you are on the roster, you've got to be ready to play.''
And most of the time, as Gruden and the Bucs found out, the Colts' unknowns produce.

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