The 1997 Colts were the worst team in football.
They lost the first 10 games of the year.
The 1999 Colts were one of the best teams in football, winning 11 games in a row.
What changed between 1997 and 1999? How did the Colts manage to turn over the whole roster to go from also-ran to contender in just two seasons? Surely, there must have been a major influx of talent that made the difference.
The 1999 Colts are perhaps the best example of the fact that rebuilding in the NFL is a simple as finding a quarterback. I say it often, but the NFL is NOT the NBA. It is not Major League Baseball. In those sports, rebuilding takes time. 4-5 years is not an unusual duration to repair a failed franchise. In the NFL, no rebuild should ever take more than two seasons.
By looking at the rosters of the 1997 and 1999 Colts, you can plainly see that the return path to greatness for Indianapolis is simple: find a real quarterback.
PPGTurnoversSacksDVOAPass DVOARush DVOA199725.125364.2%7.9%0.4%199920.823414.3%11.5%-4.7%
The 1999 Colts allowed just over four points a game fewer, but in all other respects were nearly identical to the 1997 Colts, which were a bottom five defense. Their DVOA was slightly worse. They forced a couple extra sacks, and played a little better against the run, but that's to be expected when a team goes from playing from behind to playing with the lead all year. Essentially, the Colts rebounded by 10 wins from 1997 to 1999 with virtually no improvement at all from the defense.
The Colts added six major free agents in this span. Chad Bratske, Chad Cota, Jeff Burris, Tyrone Poole, Cornelius Bennett and Shawn King. Bratske was a major force, giving the Colts 10.5 sacks in 1999. Cota, Burris, and Poole were all mediocre at best. King was a complete bust, going down as one of the worst free agent signings in Indianapolis history. Bennett was a major stabilizing force the defense, but only played with the Colts for the 1999 season.
Indy did add Mike Peterson in the second round of the draft, and he had a strong rookie year.
As for existing players, tackle Ellis Johnson matured and posted 7.5 sacks and Jason Belser continued his run of fine play at safety.
The Colts added 10 wins without significantly upgrading the talent or the performance on defense. The drafted two defensive players in 1998 and 4 in 1999, but other than Peterson, they totaled just 15 games played for the Colts in 1999, with no statistical impact.
The 1997 Colts had terrible special teams, ranking 25th in the NFL with a DVOA of -3.1%. The 1999 Colts ranked 21st at -0.6%. That's a modest improvement, and can be directly traced to the addition of Mike Vanderjagt. He had a huge year in 1999, going 34/38 on field goals. The 1999 Colts had the second worst punt coverage team in the NFL. There was no major improvement to special teams.
PPGTurnoversSacksDVOAPass DVOARun DVOA199719.62862-12.4%-4.1%-10.1%199926.428148.8%29.9%-4.2%
The 1999 Colts were a touchdown a game better than the 1997 Colts, and the improvement was almost entirely in the passing game. Yes, they did run the ball more effectively in 1999, but overall were still well below league average. They didn't even manage to cut the turnovers. Essentially, they took 48 fewer sacks and saw the passing game flourish.
In other words, the turnaround was all Peyton Manning.
It's amazing that anyone questions that Peyton Manning is a 10 win player. We've already seen him do it before! The fact is that the NFL is a passing league. The right quarterback really does solve the vast majority of the problems with a team. Peyton wasn't even Peyton yet. His passer rating for the season was just over 90. He did two things that were special. He avoided taking sacks, and he led 6 comeback wins in the fourth quarter. If he had the same year next year that he did in 1999, everyone would wonder what was wrong with him. Peyton Manning wasn't superman in 1999. He was just a very good young quarterback who got rid of the ball quickly.
The 1999 Colts added one major weapon on offense: Edgerrin James. However, you have to bear in mind that he was replacing Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk. The actual net gain to the Colts offense wasn't as great as you might expect. The other offensive additions from the 1998 and 1999 draft had negligible impact. The Colts let Shawn Dawkins and his 68 catches walk, and the number two wideout in 1999 was Terrance Wilkins (Yeah. Seriously.). The only other addition of note was lineman Steve McKinney.
The Colts did see two young players blossom that were on the 1997 roster. One was left tackle Tarik Glenn who won the starting job and manned it beautifully. The other was Marvin Harrison, who fulfilled all the promise he had shown in his first three years in the league.
But at the end of the day, the only significant difference between the 1997 and the 1999 Colts was Peyton Manning.
The biggest mistake people make when it comes to the NFL is giving the quarterback too much credit and blame for single games and too little for whole seasons. The fact is that winning in the NFL is about passing the football. Bad quarterback play is death. Good quarterback play means wins. It doesn't fit the narratives the media conjures up, but it's true.
The 1999 Colts were not any more stockpiled with offensive talent than the 2011 Colts are. Granted, there's no Marvin or Edge on this team, but the other parts and pieces are all better than their late 90s counterparts. Those who act like the Colts need a multi-year rebuild simply don't understand football. The 2011 Colts are a mess in part because the emotional center of the team was ripped away. This is a team getting the worst quarterback play in the league. Indy doesn't need a huge flood of talented players to be competitive.
The need a quarterback.
If Peyton Manning returns and is healthy, the 2012 Colts will be a playoff team and will likely rebound by 10 wins. He's that good.
If Manning doesn't return (because he is not healthy), the Colts will have another rough year in 2012, but will have drafted the best player possible produce good results in 2013.
Andrew Luck doesn't have to be 2004 Peyton Manning to help the Colts turn things around quickly. He simply has to not take sacks and play good football. Even if the Colts improve in no other areas of their team, they'll be drastically improved.
Winning consistently in the NFL is about one thing: passing the football.
Getting a quarterback doesn't solve every problem.
It does solve most of them.