Did the 1998 Colts Have More Talent than the 2012 Colts?

In recent weeks, Bob Kravitz, among others, has repeatedly made the claim that the 2012 Colts that Andrew Luck will inherit after next month’s draft are worse and have less talent than the 1998 Colts that Peyton Manning took over.

The motivations for such statements seems to be two-fold. First, Kravitz is using the state of the Colts roster to take a final shot at Bill Polian. Secondly, by denigrating the current roster, the hope is to lower expectations for both Luck and general manager Ryan Grigson. Kravitz, as the primary media supporter of the recent regime change has an obvious interest in the eventual success of this iteration of the Colts. There seems to be an effort on to place no expectations for success on the Colts until at least 2014. Many in the media do not want the Luck Colts compared to the Manning Colts, because the incredible and rapid improvement of the club would be so difficult to duplicate.

This begs the question: did Bill Polian really have more to work with in 1998 than Ryan Grigson in 2012?

 

First, allow me to set the parameters of this roster comparison.

The Colts returned to league prominence in 1999. This study will compare players on the 1999 roster who were present at the end of 1997 with the players on the Colts roster through the start of free agency this year. I will also give the 1999 Colts credit for the value they received in the Marshall Faulk trade. Faulk was not on the 1999 roster, so using him as a point of comparison is foolish. However, he did bring two draft picks, so we’ll credit the team with utilizing that asset.

The following players were on both the 1999 and 1997 rosters:

Marvin Harrison

Tarik Glenn

Adam Meadows

Jason Belser

Ken Dilger

Marcus Pollard

Ellis Johnson

Bernard Whittington

Tony McCoy

Bertrand Berry

Monty Montgomery

Bradford Banta

Mike Peterson*

Brad Scioli*

*Joined Colts in 1999 through draft picks acquired by trading Marshall Faulk.

Of this list of 14 players, the following had no real impact on the 1999 season: McCoy, Berry, Montgomery, Banta, and Scioli. So the question to be answered is whether or not the Colts currently have more or less talent than the other 9 players. The following chart will compare the Colts using the AV method from Profootball Reference.

Past AV

Future AV

Age (1998)

Analog

Past AV

Age (2012)

Marvin Harrison

16

146

26

None

Tarik Glenn

7

94

22

Anthony Castonzo

4

24

Adam Meadows

7

47

24

Ben Ijalana

23

Jason Belser

34

24

28

Antoine Bethea

35*

28

Ken Dilger

21

40

27

Austin Collie

18

27

Marcus Pollard

5

62

26

None

Ellis Johnson

10

32

25

Fili Moala

12

27

Bernard Whittington

21

25

27

None

Mike Peterson

0

91

23*

Pat Angerer

12

25

The Colts used their first two picks on rookie tackles in 1997, exactly like in 2011. Neither Glenn nor Meadows were outstanding in their first years, and there was nothing then to distinguish them from Ijalana and Castonzo now. Meadows was never anything more than an adequate right tackle whose primary ability was durability.

Belser in 1997 and Bethea are the exact same age. Bethea’s production has been better than Belser’s (*his AV of 35 does not yet count the 2011 season). He’s a slightly better version of Belser.

Ken Dilger and Austin Collie obviously play different positions, but there are some career similarities in terms of value. Dilger was a reliable 40-catch tight end, whose production over his first three years closely matches that of Collie. Marcus Pollard is such an unusual player that there is no true analog for him. He was still a project after the ’97 season, and didn’t fully blossom until he played several years with Manning.

Defensively, Pat Angerer and Mike Peterson are good matches. Peterson was intensely productive his rookie year, but Angerer is also just coming into his prime. Ellis Johnson and Fili Moala are nice comps as far as they are young tackles with limited production to date.

So that leaves the ’97 Colts with three players the 2011 version can’t match: Harrison, Pollard and Bernard Whittington.

The problem is that there is a whole raft of players the 1997 Colts didn’t have.

Reggie Wayne is aging but still has value. Both Donald Brown and Delone Carter have no comparable players on the ’97 Colts. Young defenders Conner, Nevis, Powers, and Rucker are also without adequate parallels.

On top of all of that, we add in Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney. Unless the Colts cut Freeney outright, he still represents an asset either on the field or in trade.

Career AV

Age

Freeney

89

32

Wayne

132

34

Mathis

51

31

Brown

14

25

Carter

2

25

Nevis

1

23

Powers

9+

25

Conner

10

25

Ultimately, the comparison between the ’97 and the ’11 Colts is a landslide for the ’11 Colts. While it’s true that there is no one player comparable to Marvin Harrison, they 2012 team has access to at least 8 different ‘chips’ that are all superior to the ’97 team.

The equation is simple. If you favor the ’97 Colts, it’s because of Marvin Harrison and Harrison alone. If you favor the 2012 Colts, it’s because Freeney, Mathis, Wayne, Brown, Carter, Conners, Nevis, Powers and Rucker outweigh Harrison, Whittington and Pollard, with the other pieces washing out.

The 2011 team has far more defensive pieces returning than the ’97 team did. The ’97 Colts brought back more on offense, but had virtually no defensive talent whatsoever. Any claims that the ’97 Colts had vastly more talent rely heavily on Marshall Faulk (who did not participate in the turnaround) and on after-the-fact knowledge about Tarik Glenn and Adam Meadows. It’s a fallacy to say that Casonzo or Ijalana aren’t comparable to Glenn and Meadows just because we know what Glenn turned out to be. At the time, no one knew Glenn was going to be a star for years. He didn’t even play left tackle his rookie year. In fact, the O-line in 1997 vastly inferior to the line in 2011. If anything, Castonzo was more impressive than Glenn in year one.

Does Marvin Harrison alone outweigh all the other obvious advantages for the 2012 Colts? He might. He was that good. Across the board, however, man for man, Andrew Luck is getting a better overall club than Peyton Manning did. There are far, far more viable pieces in place now than in ’98, even if this team lacks a transcendent Hall of Fame star just entering his prime.

The Colts have no excuse. They should be competitive in 2013. If they are not, the media should be asking hard questions of the coaching staff and front office rather than casting blame at the feet of Bill Polian.

The cupboard is not bare in Indianapolis. There are no long-term cap problems that will force a slow laborious rebuild. 2012 will be rough, and everyone involved gets a pass. If the Colts aren’t back to 9-7 and Wild Card contention in two years, however, fans will have every right to be upset and to question the competency of the new regime.

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