Inside FOA and the 2011 Colts

The Football Outsiders Almanac is one of the must reads for every NFL fan. I talked with Rivers McCown about what the Football Outsiders see in store for the Colts. This interview was done last Friday before the recent Manning news.

1. According to FOA, the Colts have nearly equal chances to be bad, mediocre, or a playoff team.  What is it about Indianapolis in 2011 that makes it so difficult to pin down?

The Colts don’t really have a bigger swing than other teams. Nearly every team has possibilities of being both good and bad. That’s the NFL. If the Colts can keep their important parts like Manning, Wayne, Freeney, and Mathis healthy and regression-free, they can overcome the rest of their problems. It’s not completely unprecedented for a team of older players to stay healthy and productive — the Boston Celtics over the past few years are a decent example for what the Colts should be aiming for — but the fall is usually much quicker in the NFL. If their stars play up to par, then Indianapolis could easily go 10-6 and
win the division again.

2. The projections for the Colts seem rather dire considering that Peyton Manning’s KUBIAK projection seems right on par with previous seasons. If Manning goes for 4300/31/14, do you think the Colts make the playoffs?

It would certainly be a good start towards the playoffs. I would guess that what we’re looking at as the difference maker is the defense. Indianapolis and Houston would both project to have good offenses, and Jacksonville could also make some noise given the run-heavy nature of their offense in a division that looks hard-pressed to stop it. Whichever team can get solid (or heck, even mediocre) defensive results will be in the driver’s seat.

As far as the seeming distinction between the team projection and the KUBIAK projection for Manning, they are two different systems. The Manning projection takes the team projection into account, but other variables as well. Both projections actually represent a range of possibilities, not a definitive specific forecast of exact performance, so it’s possible for them to reflect slightly different circumstances.

3. How much of an impact can Colts fans expect to see from rookie tackles Anthony Castonzo and Ben Ijalana? What kind of effect does taking a tackle in the first round historically have on an offense?

Offensive tackle isn’t typically a position where you can plug in a rookie from Day One and consider the problem solved. There have been some notable exceptions, like Marcus McNeil, but for the most part rookie offensive linemen come with growing pains. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be a backslide in sacks for the Colts given Manning’s pocket awareness and the overall sadness that has been the Colts offensive line for the last few seasons, but the Colts probably shouldn’t expect Castonzo and Ijalana to transform the line overnight. Picking high-round offensive linemen is something that would tend to help the offensive projection in future years. In the present, it messes with the continuity variable.

4. The Colts need a breakout season from Pierre Garcon. He’s started slow and finished well each of the previous two seasons. At the same time, they need more of the same from Collie. FO’s projections for Garcon show some improvement, while major regression is expected for Collie. Talk about those two receivers and what Colts fans can expect from them.

Garcon and Collie are both solid pieces of a good offense, but neither of them is likely to step up and be a pure number two receiver. Collie doesn’t have the breakaway speed and Garcon lacks the hands for the job. Collie’s regression is built mainly on his unsustainable 82 percent catch rate from last season, an unrealistic number for any real cog in an offense to sustain. Garcon would look a lot better in a reduced role for the Colts, which is what we’re projecting will happen based on a healthier Dallas Clark.

5. None of the AFC South teams received favorable projections, and the division seems wide open. Much hinges on Wade Phillips’ ability to fix the Texans defense. What kind of impact can he be expected to have?

We looked for an independent Wade Phillips variable when it comes to turning around the defenses, but the regression analysis came back without much statistical significance. We do know that they added two talented secondary pieces and we’re also counting on simple regression to boost the Texans defense quite a bit. They don’t necessarily need a good defense to be better this year, just one that isn’t a gaping void of suck. That much, at least, we think will happen.

6. Talent-wise, the Colts seem to be paying a price for so many winning seasons. Years of picking at the back of the draft with no exceptions have made it harder to hit on first round talent. If the Colts did experience a losing season and a top 15 draft pick, are the perceived problems fixable with on really good draft or do they go deeper?  Does this team need a fresh infusion of talent or a total overhaul?

I guess you could say that the higher the Colts pick, the better the chance is that they’ll be able to select someone with impact talent. The real problem is that to stay at their current level, they’re going to have to find the successors to Manning, Wayne, Clark, Freeney, and Mathis quickly. Maybe Jerry Hughes can be an answer to one of the end spots, but other than that, the Colts really lack long-term solutions at those positions. That’s a lot to turn around in one draft. The
system as a whole doesn’t need a lot of change, they just need to re-discover their penchant for nailing first-rounders.

7. What kind of boost can the Colts expect from the new kickoff rule? How much of a difference can it be expected to make for the Indianapolis defense?

Considering how much the Colts have marginalized special teams during their run, the rules changes will likely have a bigger overall impact for them. Realistically speaking though, it’s probably not the sort of impact that will make a big difference over the course of a season. Plus, Houston was incredibly bad at returning kicks last year as well, so the change benefits them just as much as it does Indianapolis.

8. Personally, I’m down on the Indy defense, and expect a bottom five unit in the NFL. What kind of player development miracle would have to occur to make Indy a top 10 defense in 2011? What one area or player would need to get better fast?

Indianapolis’ defense would look much better if they either had a second serviceable cornerback or someone who could rush the passer at defensive tackle. In Tommie Harris and Drake Nevis, I think you can see where the Polians decided to cast their vote on the issue, particularly since Bill compared Nevis to Booger McFarland after the draft. If the Colts can get some solid penetration from their tackles, that would be a huge win for their chances of turning the defense around.

9. Can I ask you one more question about your recent FO Insider piece? In it you said that the Colts 10-6 record last season was the result of ‘the aging core’. I was quite surprised by that line, because other than Clark (who suffered a freak wrist injury), the ‘aging core’ players all had outstanding seasons. It seemed like the 10-6 record was more the result of the massive wave of injuries that hit the team.  Could you clarify in what way the aging core contributed to the record last season?

I guess that could come off as a bit specious-sounding.  Essentially, the older age made injuries (like Clark’s) more possible, but where it really hurt was that while the healthy core all had great seasons for their age bracket, they collectively didn’t have a chance to have an insane season like say, Manning’s 2004, Wayne’s 2007, Freeney’s 2004 (man, they really should have won it all that year),  etc. that would overcome the problems they had at other positions. I didn’t mean to come off blaming the core there quite as much as I guess it sounds like I did.