By Ajit Kirpekar
One of the many things that drives me crazy about the media is this incessant dogmatic philosophy that all credit and blame should be apportioned entirely to the quarterback. I thought this might abate after the patriots and eagles were knocked out, but it hasn’t. This postseason, 3 out of the 4 teams were all led by defensive oriented ball clubs and it could even be argued that the packers are borderline as well. Yet, after the conclusion of the superbowl, the media will have crowned either Rodgers or Ben as the new gold standard.
What’s even more ironic about all of this is that in the championship game, all four quarterbacks played subpar games. I don’t mean to knock any of the four, they were after all playing against elite defenses, but to further illustrate the point of how erroneous and misleading it is to suggest that team A won because team A’s qb got it done. It’s incredibly lazy but hey, it’s the sort of quick and easy answer that football laymen wrap their heads around. I prefer, instead, to try and look at a team in a complete manner. I think the qb plays the most important position, but there are indeed 21 more players that have something to say about teams win and loss record. Remember, perspective and context.
With that said, I told myself I would wait till the conclusion of the super bowl before I passed any judgments about the 2010 season. I really wanted to, but I decided, now was as good a time as any. The first thing I want to say is that while 2010 was certainly a disappointment by traditional colts’ standards, it must be mentioned just how devastating the injury bug seemed to hit this team. The sheer volume of injuries was staggering, but it goes further than that. All teams deal with injuries, but a few things can help a team weather them. For example, this season New England lost Leigh Bodden and Ty Warren for the year in training camp and Kevin Faulk very early on. These injuries were unfortunate, but since they happened early in the year and were definitively season enders, the patriots could plan ahead and augment their strategies and groom viable backups.
The Colts? No such luck. They were ravaged by injuries throughout the year and they piled up at very specific spots that even the deepest of teams would’ve been hard pressed to recover. On defense alone, both strong safeties were lost very early on and the corner position was beset by season ending injuries late into the year. Linebacker was also hit which meant the colts rarely had a cohesive set of linebackers that were comfortable playing together. Then of course there were the disastrous injuries to the receiving core and backfield, which saw Gonzalez, Clark, Collie, Garcon, Hart, and Addia all sidelined at different points. As Manning himself alluded to after the Tennessee game on Thursday night, the injuries limited the colts playing calling severely. Or to quote him directly, “we really had to scale things back.” Going forward, the colts are perennially an injury laden team, but odds and regression suggest that they are going to be a lot healthier in 2011 and if not, at least they will be easier to adjust to.
That’s the good part, but I am after all a pessimist at heart and I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the other prevailing issues with this team. One of the few NFL tenets that I actually somewhat believe in is the super bowl loser’s curse. Over the last decade, by my count, the super bowl losing team has failed to make the playoffs 9 out of 10 times(not counting the colts) . The lone team to buck the trend? The 2006 Seahawks who were buoyed into the playoffs thanks to playing the inept NFC West ( I guess some things don’t change). I believe this colts’ team was destined to follow their predecessors had it not been for Peyton Manning.
Without using any superlatives, I felt Manning basically dragged this team to the postseason. I know the media pundits and a large volume of NFL fans regarded this season by Manning as his worst in years, but truthfully, I found myself amazed at what he was able to do. It’s hard to believe, watching Manning as I have, he could still find a way to amaze me, but he did. Sure, the interception stretch during the middle of the season was painful to watch, but so much of this was attributable to chaos surrounding him. I know I said above how shameful it is to blame or credit everything on the quarterback’s shoulders, but in this instance, I truly believe nearly every last drop of credit belongs to him. He was at best of times left with two healthy receivers and at the worst left with just Wayne and nine other bodies. It’s why I believe, despite some gaudy performances by other heralded qbs around the league, that Manning is still the best player in the NFL. And I’m sure 10 years from now, a great number of us will pine for the days he was at the helm, but hey, maybe he will still be playing even then.
However, there is a flip side to this praise and by implication, as much as I admire Manning’s greatness, it does tend to obscure just how much he compensates for holes up and down the roster. Even when we factor in the injuries, there are several tremendous weaknesses that I see. Let’s start with the most obvious, offensive line play. I’m of two minds about offensive lines. Don’t get me wrong, offensive lines play an important role, but I live in the bay area and so I get to see the 49ers a lot, and as such, I realize that even with the best intentions, one weak link on the offensive line and the entire unit is affected. Or to be more precise, if you gave a team 4 good offensive lineman and one atrocious tackle or center or even guard, the entire performance is undermined.
To borrow the 49ers as an example, their left tackle, guards, and center all had a mediocre grade but because Anthony Davis, their rookie first round tackle, was so poor, the whole unit looked terrible. Thus, is it really valuable to spend a prized first round pick trying to get an elite offensive lineman when the rest of your line is fairly mediocre to poor? In my opinion, when you have a QB that is able to compensate for the offensive line as much as Manning is, it’s probably better to find later round picks to bolster the unit to improve it from woeful to average. I am probably in the minority on this as it seems most people are in favor of drafting a either Defensive tackle or Offensive tackle, but I disagree. And for all you stat geeks like me, I actually got a hold of some pressure and hurry statistics for NFL teams over the last three years. I was able to formulate a stat that I called Avoidance Rate, which basically measures how often hurries and hits become sacks. Better qbs are able to avoid letting hurries become sacks. So who was the best? Do any of you need more than 1 guess to figure it out? Too easy, well how about this. The average qb has about 21% of their hurries and hits become sacks. Manning’s was an absurd 7% percent and the next best was Brees at 11%. This is a big reason why I believe that while tackle is a need, its hole is mitigated by Manning. Instead, I think the colts should go after wide receiver.
On the surface, this may seem unreasonable; especially considering how much injuries decimated this group. On the other hand, one has to wonder how good these players really are and how much they are a product of the scheme and Peyton Manning. Glancing over at footballoutsiders offensive dvoa page, you’ll notice that the colts have had a slow but steady decline in offensive dvoa from 2003 till now. Even last year’s offensive dvoa was nowhere near those dominant years from 2003 to 2007. Why? It’s obviously more complex than one issue, but the biggest reason lies in the fact that Marvin Harrison left and Reggie Wayne is probably starting to feel the effects of age. There was some thought at the end of last year that Pierre Garcon would fill the void but this season proved he’s probably more likely to end up an average to solid started than a pro bowler.
And therein lies the issue. The erosion of the receiving core has had cascading effects on the entire team and big part of why the colts’ sudden and continued failure to run the ball has became an ongoing issue. It also helps explain why the colts’ offensive line is getting a ton of negative press. I believe its also the reason why the colts pass defense, which was quite good pre 2008, started to nosedive. FO mentioned this in their book and its worth repeating- the 2009 colts were good when they were asked to defend either the pass or the run. But, when they were asked to do both, they were abysmal and got toasted. When the colts don’t have the lead or are nursing a lead, teams are able to attack them in a number of ways. The colts are built as a speed team and are naturally poor at stopping the run and thus have to over commit to prevent constant gashes, which then places a heavy burden on the corners and safeties. The truth is, the nature of scheme and the players they have are unable to play an opposing offense honestly. It instead relies on its offense to control the ball and put them into favorable circumstances where it can play to its strengths. It’s also why when the colts’ offense struggles, the team invariably loses.
Of course, the answer isn’t as simple as get better on offense, but given everything, I firmly believe that upgrading the receivers will have the most impact on all parts of the team.
I do want to mention that while my review has been harsh, I do see a silver lining for the colts. Regression is a powerful phenomenon in the NFL, almost like a Yo Yo. Teams that were on the top regress to the middle or to slightly above average. In the case of the colts, if 2009 was the top and 2010 was the down, then 2011 should be up again right? Actually, I’m inclined to think that 2008 was a down, 2009 was a slight up( they really did win a lot of close games) and 2010 was an extreme down. The colts have yet to have a true banner year where things fall into place. What I mean by that is, they have been saddled with terrible health, a cover your eyes bad running game, a spotty defense, and worst of all, a shockingly poor special teams.
While I don’t expect everything to regress from the bottom to the top in one season, it’s not unreasonable to expect that these areas should at least regress to average which means, assuming Peyton’s skills stay right where they are, the 2011 colts should be a very good team(funny, I did say I was a pessimist right?). I just think a few things are needed here and there to make this outlook more feasible. I think they could use an upgrade at guard or tackle via free agency or lower rounds, perhaps another home run free agent pickup at corner or defensive tackle like Tryon was, and finally, a change in defensive scheme from the standard cover 2 to more aggressive blitz and man coverage concepts that Larry coyer liked to run in Denver. Watching the colts, I feel like Powers is definitely better in man coverage and the linebackers have gotten significantly better at rushing the passer. It will probably take some effort to transition, but its entirely possible. And so, I look forward to 2011 as the year the colts officially break out. They may not win as many games as 2009, but I believe they will be an infinitely better team.