Before the 2011 campaign began, fans had high expectations despite the late summer news of Peyton Manning’s surgery. The Colts were coming off an admittedly disappointing 10-6 2010 season that was riddled with injuries, poor coaching decisions and another first-round playoff ejection. Most expected the Colts to return to their 2009 form and gain another shot at a Lombardi.
Looking back, that expectation now seems surreal. The 2012 Colts are a mere shadow of the once-great team that built Lucas Oil Stadium. The team that had appeared in two of the last four Super Bowls made sweeping changes, replacing names like Manning, Saturday and Polian with Luck, Satele and Grigson along the way. Their string of mild-mannered, conservative coaches were replaced by a firebrand of a man in Chuck Pagano. In short, they changed everything in a matter of mere months.
As fans, we know our flawed logic is going to prevent accurate predictions. After all, we expected the 2011 Colts to win it all. So how can we determine to expect in 2012? The answer may be found in the past.
In 1998 Peyton Manning took over a team that had won a mere three games behind an aging Jim Harbaugh, and had a handful of offensive threats including Marshall Faulk. The defense was in tatters although they had a few decent pass rushers. In short, it was a team that in many ways mirrored the 2011 Colts.
Just two seasons later Peyton Manning lead the Colts to the biggest turnaround in NFL history. Improving by 10 games in 1999, the Colts had laid the foundation for one of the most prolific runs of consistency in history.
How did they do it and can it happen again?
In 1997 the Colts were expected to win six games using a predictive method called “pythagorean wins.” In short, the statistic predicts whether a team is under or overachieving. Historically speaking the teams that make the biggest improvement year-over-year are those that significantly underachieve in the prior year.
In 1998 the Colts underachieved significantly. Is six wins a great season? Nope but it’s much better than three wins. In 1999 pythagorean wins suggested that the Colts should win ten games–they won 13.
Using the same method the Colts should have won three games in 2011. They won two. In other words they don’t fit the bill as major underachievers despite the fact they were competitive in many of those games.
Only one team has managed to match the 1999 Colts record of improving by ten wins–the 2008 Dolphins. The Fins were projected to win 3.8 wins in 2008 yet under Bill Parcells the team won 11 games. It truly was an amazing, unprecedented example of overachieving. They did so well in fact that the following year pythagorean wins predicted an 8.8 win season. They won 7 in 2009 and essentially haven’t contended since the 2008 season. In essence it was an anomaly of record-breaking proportions and proved to be unsustainable.
In 2012 the Indianapolis Colts will also be a shadow of the 2011 Colts in terms of their roster depth. This is as close to an expansion team as you’ll ever see. Throw in rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and a cadre of new receivers, gaping holes in the secondary and a change in defensive philosophy and the only certainty is uncertainty. Perhaps this kind of shake up can lead to a massive turnaround but as the 2008 Dolphins proved it would likely not be a long-term improvement.
The 1999 Colts are perhaps the best example of the fact that rebuilding in the NFL is a simple as finding a quarterback. I say it often, but the NFL is NOT the NBA. It is not Major League Baseball. In those sports, rebuilding takes time. 4-5 years is not an unusual duration to repair a failed franchise. In the NFL, no rebuild should ever take more than two seasons.
What this tells us is that they aren’t likely to make a major turnaround in the first year of this new era but a quick turnaround is possible. If they do manage to beat the odds and make a dramatic improvement in wins it will be one of the most compelling, and likely confounding stories in NFL history.