Colts Monday Musings: Let’s talk about the Coaches

Well that was fun, wasn’t it?

A day after the Colts worst loss of the season, it’s still hard to find many positives to take from their 35-9 thrashing courtesy of the New York Jets. Not only was yesterday’s loss the result of a complete team effort: poor coaching, poor play by the offense and poor play by the defense, but the Colts also walked away from the game with their customary killer injury – Cory Redding appears to be this week’s winner, in case you were wondering.

We know what went wrong: the Colts offense, though it had success moving the ball, was unable to produce a single touchdown, the Colts defense couldn’t stop the run or the pass, and the Colts special teams units were called on in far too many situations where the offense should have remained on the field.

After the jump, we’re going to talk about the coaches: why I’m critical, what they could do better, and why they do what they do.

It was brought to my attention yesterday by a long-time reader that I have been uncharacteristically harsh and negative towards this year’s coaching staff. After asking a few questions and then doing a thorough self-examination, I came to the conclusion that, yes, I am rather hard (perhaps too hard?) on the Colts coaching staff.

After realizing that I was being overly critical of the Colts coaches, my next step was to pinpoint the cause for my critical stance. After all, this coaching staff is replacing Jim Caldwell, who, while a nice man, may be the worst coach in team history. Caldwell’s inability to understand his team’s strengths and weaknesses, along with his atrocious in-game management, lead to some of the most frustrating, defeating moments a fan could ever experience.

It was then, right as I was thinking about Caldwell’s failings as a coach, that I understood why I was critical of Pagano and his staff. This was billed as a “New Era” of the Colts – they had wiped the slate as clean as possible, they were going to start over with a young roster and a new quarterback. To help build this new era, they brought in first-time GM Ryan Grigson, a talent evaluator who had not only helped lead successful drafts in Philadelphia, but also had a reputation for being aggressive in both free agency and trades. It was clear that Grigson’s style would be a departure from the Bill Polian style of managing.

To lead this New Era on the field, the Colts hired first-time head coach Chuck Pagano. Though it’s hard to judge Pagano, both because he’s a rookie, and due to the Leukemia diagnosis which may sideline him for the rest of the year, I think we have a pretty good idea of what this Colts coaching staff’s philosophy is after 9 (4 preseason and 5 regular season) games. If I were to give my analysis of this staff’s weaknesses, I would say: they fail to understand the composition of their roster, its strengths and weaknesses, they are not quite yet sure how to put their players into the best position to succeed, and their game management is maddening.

Sound familiar? My critical view of the Colts coaching staff isn’t so much about them, but the decision to basically hire the same type of coach they already had. This was the “New Era”, lead by a young, aggressive GM. Why wasn’t a young, forward-thinking, and, dare I say… aggressive? coach brought in to lead it?

Before we get too far into this, a couple of points. First, Pagano IS a rookie, I fully expect him to grow and improve as he learns. That’s hard to do from a hospital bed, but I do think that he can watch from afar, take this season in, digest it, and become a better coach going forward. We can talk about his coordinators at some later point, but I’ll briefly say: given the situation, it’s hard to judge DC Greg Manusky this year. I have, however, completely judged OC Bruce Arians, and he scares me.

The second point is injuries. Going into this season most people understood that, in order for the Colts to win 5-7 games, they would have to max out their best players. Unfortunately, their best players, especially on defense, have all wound up on the injury report: Robert Mathis has a knee injury, Dwight Freeney’s ankle injury appears to be far from healed, Pat Angerer seems to have had a set back in his recovery from a broken foot, Cory Redding, the stabilizing force on the defensive line and the team’s vocal and emotional leader, has been hobbled by injuries all year is and now in a walking boot. And this is to say nothing of the offense, which has seen injuries ravage an already-thin offensive line.

Not only is it hard to get good, consistent play from your team when you’re dealing with so many injuries, it’s incredibly hard to “coach up” your squad on their mistakes when you’re coaching different people from week to week.

Understanding all of that, I’m still critical of the coaching staff because of a principle I learned while playing poker: “judge decisions, not results.”  This saying has been refined into the more popular: “judge the process, not the outcome.”  Whichever way you decide to say it, the point remains: sometimes good decisions have undesired results, and sometimes bad decisions work out. Like it or not, luck plays a factor in everything we do, so the best way to be successful is to focus on making the right decisions as often as possible. If you do that, your actual results will start to closely mirror your desired results.

So what decisions are the Colts coaches making that I disagree with?

The easiest decisions to look at are those that come on 4th downs. The Colts coaches, both Pagano and Arians, heavily favor punting and field goals on 4th-down situations where I, personally, would prefer to allow the offense to attempt to pick up a fresh set of downs. People a lot smarter than myself have analyzed punting and FG situations, and I know some people are about to cringe, but the math shows that, while on your opponent’s side of the field, it’s generally a bad idea to ever send out the special teams unit.

Now, there are obvious situations where that’s not the case: 4th-and-extremely longs, field goals at the end of the game to win or tie, etc… but for the most part, especially in quarters 1 through 3, the Colts coaches need to be far more aggressive on 4th downs. This mindset will also allow them to be more versatile with their 3rd-down play calling.

The other obvious area where I disagree with the coach’s decision is the defensive game plan. Twice, against the Jaguars and the Jets, the Colts faced a run-oriented team with an inferior quarterback. In both games the Colts should have done everything in their power to make the inferior quarterback beat them. In both games, the Colts defense was gashed by the running game. Now, again, part of this is injuries, part of it is an overall lack of talent and depth on the defensive side of the ball, but their overall approach on defensive is still suspect.

Which leads us to the more important, underlying issue, which comes from another rule I learned from gaming: always understand your role in the game.

This may sound confusing, but it’s really simple, I promise!  First, understand what you are: are you favored, more skilled? Are you the underdog? Understanding and correctly answering that question will lead you to the following questions: should you be more aggressive than normal? Should you be more defensive than normal?

By kicking field goals, by punting, by constantly making decisions where the Colts are seemingly relying on their defense to carry them to victory, the Colts have clearly misidentified their role in the game. The Colts shouldn’t be, against any team they face this year, considered the favorite. They are younger, more inexperienced, and, more often than not, more injured than their opponent.

When you’re the underdog, you should be more aggressive, pushing every possible edge. That means, when you get inside the opponent’s 5-yard line, you get a touchdown, or you turn-it-over-on-downs trying. That means that every trip you make to your opponent’s side of the field, you go for it as if a touchdown is a beautiful breath of air, and your lungs are in desperate need of oxygen.

Now, you may be asking, “Greg, it’s easy to say that underdogs, and the Colts specifically, need to be aggressive, a lot of people say this, but they never say WHY!”  This is true. It’s easy to sit on twitter or on a blog and say, “be aggressive, be be aggressive,” without supplying a reason. The simplest answer is this: your (more skilled) opponents are likely to have more successful drives than you (especially compared to their average) and you’re likely to have less successful drives. So, when you get inside the 5-yard line, you should get a touchdown, because you’re not likely to get there again very often.

That reasoning should apply to all underdogs, but is especially important for the Colts. By taking the less aggressive options on 4th-downs, the Colts coaches are saying – for a reason known only to them – that the team’s best unit is its defense. This is a team that has built around its offense: its best player is WR Reggie Wayne, they spent all but two of their 2012 draft picks on offensive players (including that guy named Andrew), and their offense, through 4 games, was bordering on top-10 status. Even before the injuries to Mathis, Davis, and Redding, the Colts were lead by their offense. The Colts should be doing everything in their power to let their offense – not their defense – decide the outcome of games.

But, to be fair, the Colts coaches get a small pass here, as they are just doing what a majority of their brothers in the coaching fraternity do: coach to not get criticized. No one in the media will criticize a coach for kicking a FG to take a 3-0 lead in the 1st quarter. No one in the media will criticize a coach for punting, EVER. It’s not coaching to win, or coaching to not lose, it’s coaching to not get criticized. It’s wrong, it’s not the way a team should be coached, but it’s accepted.

And this brings us full circle to why I’m hard on this coaching staff: perhaps they grow, perhaps they change and evolve, perhaps they improve, but, for now, they are a carbon copy of 90% of the coaching staffs in the NFL. They are a carbon copy (with more blinking and expletives) of the coaching staff they replaced.

This New Era was a chance to hire an aggressive, forward-thinking coach, but instead, we just get more of the same.