Can the Colts Replace Clark’s Production?

“Have you named the baby yet?”

“I think we are going with Clark, but I want to see what happens in the game today”.

9 catches. 103 yards. A playoff win over the Chiefs.  My nephew’s name is Clark.  True story.

Obviously the loss of Dallas Clark is blow to the Colts’ offense.  He is a unique player who creates mismatches.  In some ways, it will be hard to estimate the true impact of his injury on the Colts offense.  To try and get a feel, however, let’s look at the numbers.

Clark’s raw numbers were strong.  On the season, he had 37 catches for 347 yards and three scores.  That’s an average of only 9.4 yards per catch.  That’s a low number for Clark, on pace for by far the lowest of his career.  Teams has purposed to take him away, and he was mostly catching short passes as Peyton tried to keep him involved in the offense.  His production is absolutely replaceableWhat effect his absence has on the way teams play the Colts remains to be seen.

After a strong opening pair of games, Clark’s production in terms of yards had tailed off as teams keyed on him.  Manning simply found other targets.  He still threw Clark the ball, but he wasn’t getting significant plays.  Clark had fewer than 60 yards receiving in three of his last four games.

Clark’s advanced metrics had also suffered this year.  The Footballoutsiders measured him as the 13th best TE in the league this season, less than 6% better than a replacement player.  This was on pace to be his worst season since 2007 when he battled injuries.  If you remember, the 2007 ended as he dropped a fourth down pass that hit him in his heavily wrapped hand.  Again, these metrics can only show what a player has actually done, not the effect they have on the game even when they don’t touch the ball.

The truth is that while discouraging, Clark’s injury should not come as a major surprise.  Clark turned 31 this year, and while his injury was not due to his age persae, 31 is a fall line for NFL tight ends.  Only five men in history have ever posted seasons of more than 750 yards receiving as a tight end after age 31.  This may come as a shock, but Clark himself only ever topped that mark twice in his career (the last two seasons).  Clark’s career numbers are not nearly as overwhelming as Colts’ fans might think.  He has never been more than a third option in the Colts’ passing attack until recently.  In 2007, the year Harrison was hurt, he finished second on the team in receptions, a spot he had held until this year, when he was passed by Austin Collie.

For most of his career, Clark was seen as a luxury in the Colts’ offense as opposed to an indispensable part. After two huge seasons in 2008 and 2009, everyone’s opinions of him changed, and with reason.  The truth is that the Colts were a dominant offense well before Clark was a feature player, and they will likely be a dominat offense without him in 2010.

Again, this isn’t to negate or deny the impact Clark has.  We’ll get a chance to test his real game impact beyond just the numbers in coming weeks.  When losing a player, however, there are two parts of the equation. The first question:  ‘Can the Colts’ replace his produtction?’ is easy to answer.  Yes, and without great difficulty.  The second question, “How will this hurt the Colts’ ability to beat defenses schematically?” can’t be answered now.

Moving forward, the team is going to have to take a long hard look at Clark’s future.  32 is old for a Tight End.  Only 20 tight ends in history even posted one 500 yard receiving season after turning 32.  Only five did it more than once, and only two did it more than twice.  In other words, the level of prodcution that Clark gave is probably never coming back.  More to the point, the Colts still owe Clark a lot of money, and a lot of bonus money.  Given the fact that this offseason could be the team’s last chance to wipe that from the books*, Polian has to at least consider letting Clark go.  It could save the team more than $5 million in cap hits, not to mention a $4 million a year salary.

I love Dallas Clark.  He’s been a speical player, a Ring of Honor performer. I hope he comes back and posts many more great seasons.  Time and the numbers are not on his side, however.

*Assuming there is a cap or someithing like it and a season next year.  Big, big assumptions, I know.

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