If the Colts begin to see large numbers of fans wearing the gear of opposing teams at training camp, you know who to blame.
It was Tom Zbikowski, you see, who pointed out the fan in the Steelers jersey during Monday’s practice at Anderson University, leading head coach Chuck Pagano to deliver an Andrew Luck No. 12 as a replacement with the message: suit up or step out.
The fan wisely suited up.
Before you plan to pull out the old Bengals or Bears jersey to wear to camp in hopes of scoring some free Colts gear, consider Zbikowski’s words of warning.
“After that happened, I figure if I was in that situation I’d start showing up in other teams’ uniforms, too,” Zbikowski said Tuesday. “But I say we just start kicking ‘em out instead of giving ‘em free jerseys.
“I don’t get why when you go to someone’s training camp you can’t wear normal clothes, but that’s just me.”
As the Colts themselves donned more normal practice attire — full pads — for the afternoon practice, Zbikowski and the rest of his mates on the thoroughly revamped defense began to manifest the comprehensive changes in scheme, personnel and personality.
With Coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky switching from the conservative 4-3 cover-two that marked the Tony Dungy-Jim Caldwell era to a much more aggressive 3-4, the presence of players like Zbikowski will take on intense importance.
Zbikowski’s four seasons in Baltimore coincided with Pagano’s tenure with the Ravens — three as the defensive backs coach before spending last season as the defensive coordinator. He signed with the Colts as a free agent in large part because of Pagano’s presence and has stepped right in as the starting strong safety.
He knows what Pagano wants, from the meeting room to the practice field and beyond.
And he knows, as much as players want to unleash themselves with the first opportunity at full contact, discretion will remain valorous.
“Everybody looks good in shorts and shells. Everyone looks fast, everyone looks good,” Zbikowski said. “Now when you put on pads and have that threat of being hit, it’s how you handle it and still stick to what our defense is about. It’s team defense. It’s not just running into somebody in front of you. It’s how you play. We definitely want to see how we tackle, how we go after the ball and just how we approach things.
“There will just be a little more thumping. No one’s going to be going to the ground. I think that’s one of the biggest things. Just because you’ve got shoulder pads on doesn’t mean it’s live. We still want intelligent football plays. … If you can’t play this game being able to be on your feet there’s no point being in the NFL because you’re not athletic enough to play.”
In addition to the experience of 53 games with the Ravens, including 14 starts, Zbikowski brings a refreshing personality to the locker room. The former Notre Dame standout is something of a free spirit. A skilled boxer, he has a 4-0 record, including three victories during the lockout last spring.
Faced with the prospect of navigating the Anderson University campus on foot during camp, he decided to take up skateboarding and has used that as his primary mode of transportation.
“I just started a week or two ago,” he said. I figured I was going to be back on campus. At Notre Dame we weren’t allowed motorized vehicles so I don’t own a moped or any of those. I’m not doing tricks, though. Only a week into it. Maybe in a month I will be. I just cruise around. It’s my only sense of freedom during training camp.”
His personality has been a welcome change in the locker room. In the Bill Polian era, conformity was the rule, and free spirits weren’t exactly welcome. Under Ryan Grigson and Pagano, the atmosphere is much more inclusive.
“We embrace it, we enjoy it, we need that,” said free safety Antoine Bethea. “Everybody has different personalities and that’s what we need sometimes in the meeting rooms, just laughing, joking, always upbeat. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. He’s always smiling, always laughing, always joking and that’s something we definitely need in the locker room.”
You get the impression Zbikowski simply could not exist in an environment that did not allow him to be, well, him.
“I know I may come across wrong sometimes but this is all I want to do, try and bring energy, try and keep things loose as much as I can,” he said. “We’re intense. Every day is just as intense as the day before if not more and we keep working and enjoy working instead of complaining or being disgruntled or doing what football players usually do — complain.
“I just try to keep heading forward and keep having fun with it.”
One thing, though. If Zbikowski is going to be hard-line about fans’ attire to practices, he might want to tell his personal webmaster to update tomzibikowski28.com. It still is decked out in Ravens colors.