Don’t Be Surprised Part I – What the 2012 Indianapolis Colts Lost

Let’s face it, anytime there is widespread turnover with an NFL franchise it typically spells doom for a team’s success for a year or two, at least. It should come as no surprise that most expert NFL analysts, bloggers, and the fan community in general are heading into the Colts transition with low short-term expectations.

There are stark differences between the context surrounding the Colts transition and the changes made for a lot of NFL franchises though. Typically a perennial playoff team with the NFL record long-term regular season success who fields a team that is a front-runner for title contention for the better part of a decade does not drop weight and “start over.”

It just doesn’t make any sense.

When you throw fan loyalty to the players and coaches that helped make a run of success possible into the equation, the outlook can be outright ugly. How is it possible for the Indianapolis Colts to find success without players and coaches with the reputations like those named Tony Dungy, Tom Moore, Howard Mudd, Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Dallas Clark, Jeff Saturday, Gary Brackett, and Joseph Addai? The answer, for now, is that no one really knows.

If fans in Indianapolis take a step back and look at some of the players that are leaving and some of the holes the team has to fill, along with what pieces the team already has available, however, it is plausible that new general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano already have a lot of the pieces they are looking for.

Are the Colts in a full-scale rebuild? The obvious answer is yes, but the ramifications of that rebuild may be different than what it has been for teams in the past.

The albatross in the entire list is clearly Peyton Manning. Manning is the best quarterback in the history of the Indianapolis Colts and will be forever considered one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, no matter what happens during the remainder of his career. Should he go on to win another Super Bowl he may seal his claim on the greatest of all time label that some fans are reluctant to give him.

There is no doubt that from day one the comparison between Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning is unfair. The Colts are absolutely losing short-term — and probably long-term — quarterback production and performance.

However, there are a lot of reasons to believe that Luck will be a top 20, maybe even top 15 quarterback at season open. He will make mistakes and have some growing pains to experience like all young quarterbacks do, but he should be able to produce at levels high enough to keep the Colts offense competitive — at least at his position.

Marvin Harrison is a future Hall of Famer and the greatest wide receiver in Colts history. Finding another Marvin Harrison is going to be extremely difficult. They do not come around often. Of course, Harrison hasn’t been with the team for years so including him is simply an acknowledgement to his greatness. The team had the talent to win championships even after he departed, and should have won the Super Bowl against the Saints following the 2009 season.

Consider that Dallas Clark started only 16 games over his final two seasons due to a hand issue that had a noticeable impact on his ability to secure the football. Consider also that Jacob Tamme stepped in for Clark in 2010 and was able to produce on a Clark-like level due to his athleticism and experience working in the old Colts system. Both players were high-impact offensive weapons who, when handcuffed to one another, provided Peyton Manning with excellent weapons to stretch the middle of the field.

Losing Clark hurt more than losing Jacob Tamme from a fan loyalty perspective but there is little doubt that the player who Indianapolis is really replacing is Tamme. Does that sound like a task that is so difficult to fulfill?

Jeff Saturday was the most important part of the Colts offesnsive line under the control of Peyton Manning. He was the quarterback and the captain of holding the unit together, communicating on defensive assignments and movements when necessary, and may end up in the Hall of Fame. However, over the past two seasons Saturday has noticeably suffered against bigger and strong defensive tackles who did not give him as much fits earlier in his career. Too often he was beaten by younger and more athletic defenders who could take advantage of his age. Add the fact that Manning is no longer leading the old Indianapolis offense and moving on from Saturday simply makes sense.

Gary Brackett is the kind of player that just about anyone should love. He is undersized, came from no where, walked on in college, and made the team as an undrafted free agent. For him to become a defensive captain and one of the most important leaders for the Colts defense during his career is a fantastic story. But Brackett missed almost all of the 2011 season and was outplayed by his second-year replacement Pat Angerer. Throw in a scheme switch that does not fit Brackett’s experience and size, and losing him is not a major blow to the team’s short- and long-term future.

Joseph Addai was the perfect running back for the old Colts offensive scheme, both in terms of blocking and producing. However, over the last two seasons Addai started only 16 games, never broke 500 rushing yards, and dropped off significantly as an outlet in the passing game. There are a lot of reasons Addai’s production dropped, not all of those reasons are things he could control, but replacing him becomes possible if the blocking scheme changes — and all indications are that it will change significantly.

The other big loss in free agency was wide receiver Pierre Garcon. 2011 gave Garcon a chance to prove to the NFL that he could be sure-handed and make a difference in a horrible offense with terrible quarterbacks throwing to him. His production in 2011 earned him a ridiculously high contract with the Washington Redskins that the Colts could not and should not have matched. Still, losing Garcon means losing the team’s second — arguably first — receiver.

The coaching staff turnover has been happening gradually as coaches have either retired or taken smaller roles with other teams. How or why exactly all of the changes occurred are not completely clear in each situation but there are some things fans should honestly keep in mind when they’re considering the changes with the coaching staff.

I have stated more than once that Tony Dungy’s reputation as a Colts head coach has been skewed by history. Winning the Super Bowl in 2006 is certainly an amazing accomplishment and something fans should be proud of. Questioning Tony Dungy’s moral or ethical positions is certainly a waste of anyone’s time as it should be clear to all at this point that he is a wonderful man. With that backdrop in mind, though, fans should not so quickly forget how frustrated much of the fan community was with Dungy’s conserative play-calling in key situations, his calm demeanor even when some in the community thought it was time to show some emotion, and some of his game time decision-making. Many of the complaints that are so easy for fans to remember after Jim Caldwell took over as head coach were the same complaints the fan community was throwing at Dungy prior to the Super Bowl win.

Tom Moore is a legendary offensive coordinator who has accomplished much in his career, and no accomplishment is greater than the work he did with Peyton Manning. He did a fantastic job creating an offensive scheme with Manning, for Manning, that gave competitors fits, allowed Manning’s natural abilities as a field leader to shine, and kept things simple enough to allow for on-field adjustments and audibles on a level that few team’s could successfully pull off. However, Moore’s influence on game-time decisions gradually declined as Manning got more experience, and even Moore often earned criticism as a dreadfully conservative offensive play-caller during key situations in games.

Howard Mudd put together an offensive line that was known for being undersized, cheap, and excellent at limiting sacks. His offensive lines were also known for getting dominated on running attempts, and for requiring a running back with excellent blocking skills to make up for their physical shortcomings. In the Manning offense those kinds of lines worked, in no small part because Manning gets rid of the ball so fast, but moving on to a rookie quarterback who is more used to working with a balanced offense that requires running, play-action, uses a fullback, and keeps defenses off-balance means moving on to a more balanced offensive line scheme and player philosophy.

There is no doubt that the Colts have lost a great deal of talent and experience from key positions both on the sidelines and on the field, but who is replacing those names, that talent, and who will take the Colts into the future? Tomorrow Colts Authority will take a look at what fans should expect and not expect in the team’s near future.