Tom Gower of the Football Outsiders, Total Titans, and friend of 18to88, did a piece on the AFC South last week that deserves discussion.
He went through the area of each team in the AFC South that still needs to be addressed. For the Colts, Gower chose 'offensive playmaker'.
It is difficult to begrudge the Colts for working to improve the weakest part of their offense, but Manning's incredible career has been aided greatly by playing with an impressive collection of skill-position talent around him. With Reggie Wayne declining, the Colts need another standout to step up the way Wayne did when Marvin Harrison aged. Joseph Addai hasn't been as productive as Edgerrin James, but he has been a valuable back for what the Colts offense requires. Bill Polian tried to address this need by selecting wideout Anthony Gonzalez and running back Donald Brown in the first round in 2007 and 2009 respectively, but each has been a disappointment. The Colts must hope the offensive line is improved enough to cover these skill position deficiencies.
I've been vocal about the fact that I see the safety position as the biggest need. I'm not going to rehash all those arguments here, but invite you to read back through past articles. I believe the Indy defense could be in for a rough season, but suspect the offense will be in the top 3 in the league.
I'm not arguing the Colts' line is good. It hasn't been. I see health as the biggest defensive question. If they are healthy, it's good enough.
I replied that the Colts main problems with playmakers last year were injuries to Clark, Collie, and Gonzalez. Tom replied:
If you think health is a skill or partially innate to players, expecting Collie/Gonzo to be healthy isn't realistic.
Offense tends to be more consistent, so I see issues as more important there. The defense can be just healthy enough for the playoffs.
Tom went on to mention the post-1996 Buffalo Bills and what happened to that team as their skill position players aged.
Before investigating Tom's claims, it's important to note that he's an excellent analyst and does a good job keeping his finger on the pulse of the division. His claim about health 'being a skill' is something that has largely proven true, and I'm not going to dispute it in general.
Do the Colts lack 'offensive playmakers'? It's a fair question. They certainly did at the end of last season. Reggie Wayne had a wonderful season in terms of volume stats, but did not produce many big plays. He had only four individual games where he surpassed 14 yards a catch. At the same time, he was under 10 yards a catch five different times (not including his one catch for one yard in the playoffs against the Jets). Before he got hurt, Dallas Clark was on pace for his lowest yards per reception mark in his career (though he was catching a lot of passes).
The two Colts I most associate with 'play making' are also two of the most inconsistent players on the roster. Pierre Garcon's penchant for big plays has to be balanced with his penchant for dropping passes. Like Wayne, Garcon had some spectacular games, posting a yards per reception over 14 five times (including the playoffs), twice topping 22 yards a catch in games. He also posted five games where he was virtually invisible, however.
Don Brown, the oft-injured running back, showed what he's capable of in the biggest game of 2010, as he demolished the Jaguars with a series of big plays.
The Colts have found themselves in no-man's land in 2011. They have a bevy of talented players, but almost every one is burdened with concerns of age or injury. Wayne will likely be productive, but probably isn't the explosive player he once was. Clark is coming off a major injury and has hit the age in which tight ends can expect to see their production fall. Collie was fabulous, but mostly suited to being a slot receiver, and his concussion issues are a concern.
Don Brown and Gonzalez could be phenomenal players, but Gower is correct. We simply cannot assume their health going forward.
That leaves Pierre Garcon as the man squarely on the spot. Garcon unquestionably has the talent to become one of the best wideouts in the game. He's explosive, he's quick, and he's big. The Colts have taken steps to shore up the offensive line, meaning that Garcon ought to have more opportunity to work deep in 2011.
Garcon battled an injury in the early part of the year, and played hurt. Garcon's production jumped radically over the second half of last year:
Games 1-9 (8 games): 28 catches, 344 yards, 12.3 YPR, 1 TD
Games 10-playoffs (8 games): 44 catches, 552 yards, 12.5 YPR, 6 TDs.
Garcon has the talent to be an 80 catch, 1000 yard, 10 touchdown player.
If Garcon in year four becomes a Pro Bowl caliber receiver, the Colts won't have any questions at playmaker. The question is: will he?
I do believe that in 2011, the Colts have enough pieces that a 'lack of playmakers' won't be a concern. It is a worry for 2012 and the future, however. In the long run, Gower is correct. Wayne's time as an ultra-elite receiver is ending. So is Dallas Clark's. Indy needs some combination of Brown, Gonzalez, Collie, and Garcon to make 'the leap' in 2011, or picking a new playmaker will be on the top of the draft list in 2012.
I don't expect all of those players to battle injuries at the same time next season, however. Therefore, I like Indy's odds of fielding a strong offensive team.
Finally, I want to take some time to assess Gower's claim that the post 1996 Bills are a cautionary tale for what happens when playmakers age.
What happened in 1996 was not that the Bills playmakers got old, but rather that Jim Kelly retired. The 1997 Bills struggled with Todd Collins under center, but returned to the playoffs in both 1998 and 1999. The Bills rank by points in the 90s looked like this:
After replacing Todd Collins with Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson, the Bills' offense again began to click. In fact, if anything defines the late-90s Bills, it's not so much a lack of playmakers as much as it was Wade Phillips insistence on playing Rob Johnson over Flutie at every possible opportunity. I recognize the Bills are an attractive analog for the Colts because of the influence of Polian on both teams, but in fairness, Polian was long gone from Buffalo before the decline of Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas. Moreover, the Bills were still a competitive club with a respectable offense through most of the end of the decade. Their offensive decline from the peak in the early 90s probably tells us more about Jim Kelly than it does a lack of skill players.
One final note: be sure to read the comments section on Gower's article. There's some great discussion of the Indy O-line.