The Colts' turnaround from 2011's horrific 2-14 performance to their 11-win playoff season in 2012 was one of historical proportions. The rarity of something like that happening, not only the record turnaround but the complete roster overhaul as well.
While the superhuman play of rookie quarterback Andrew Luck was the biggest contributor to the Colts' unreal turnaround, a huge standing ovation goes out to general manager Ryan Grigson as well.
Any regular reader of mind knows that I'm not afraid to criticize Grigson (or Pagano, Irsay, or any other Colt) when I disagree with a move, especially if it's a very strong opinion of mine. And there have been some moves I disagreed with this offseason, whether that was overpaying for Erik Walden in free agency or drafting Khaled Holmes in the NFL draft.
But let me be clear: the job Grigson has done in rebuilding this franchise has been fantastic. He's done many things very well since his hiring last January. In honor of that, and in the shadow of a tumultuous 2013 offseason, let's recap the five best moves from Grigson in his first season in Indianapolis.
Hiring Chuck Pagano and his coaching staff
To be honest, we still don't know if Chuck Pagano is going to be a good long-term coach for the franchise.
But for 2012, the move to hire Pagano and the subsequent building of a coaching staff worked out fantastically. The veteran players and Indianapolis community bought into Pagano's message immediately, and the sense of unity pervaded throughout the entire season, enabling the team to fight through Pagano's battle with cancer. Pagano's spirit in that battle inspired both players and fans to put their full support behind #CHUCKSTRONG, something that gave the team a tone that may have pushed them to higher levels than their talent level suggested.
From a coaching perspective, the hiring of Arians, while frustrating from a play calling stand point at times, was a big positive for Andrew Luck's development. Suppressing Luck and trying to lean on a poor running game could have hampered the quarterback, but instead Arians encouraged Luck to look to take a shot down the field at all times. Luck has a background in efficient, but very conservative offenses, and allowing him to trust himself right away in his rookie year could play big dividends down the road.
Meanwhile, Greg Manusky was doing a very good job on the other side of the ball. The Colts' roster was weak, one of the weakest defensive rosters in the league. To counter that lack of talent, especially as injuries built up, Manusky (with influence from Pagano) built an ever-changing defense that ran different looks on nearly every play. While the defense still had it's struggles, they made key stops that allowed the Colts to win close games (albeit against sub-par offenses/quarterbacks).
Signing Jerrell Freeman
Before Pagano was hired, Grigson signed three free agents to reserve/futures contracts: RB Darren Evans, LB Jerrell Freeman, and LB Mario Harvey. When the contracts were announced, I went back and watched some tape on Freeman and Harvey, just to see if there were any traits that stood out. Both were long shots to make any real impact, but you never know.
Right away I was impressed with Freeman. While the only tape I could find on him was a highlight mix from his time in the CFL, his speed and range on the field stuck out immediately, as well as his physicality. I liked it. But, it was only the CFL. How he would translate in the NFL was obviously still in question.
But when camp came, and Freeman was taking second team snaps at ILB, I was not surprised. A week into camp, I wrote a piece detailing my excitement about Freeman. Even at that point, I didn't foresee what happened.
After Pat Angerer broke his foot in the preseason opener, Freeman took over the starting spot, and never let it go. With Angerer struggling through his injury throughout the season, Freeman was a lifesaver. He struggled at times, and could get lost in traffic against the run, but overall was a positive force in the Colts' 2011 campaign. As a bonus, Freeman is signed through 2014, and will be a bargain for the next two years.
Re-Signing Reggie Wayne
Before I get into this, let me say that re-signing Mathis was a good move too, but Wayne's impact was far greater.
At 34, Wayne had one of the all-time great seasons for an older receiver, racking up 106 receptions and 1355 yards. That's the 2nd most yards (Marvin Harrison had 11 more in 2006) and the 2nd most receptions (Jerry Rice had two more in 1996) for a 34+ year-old wide receiver. Aside from the end result, Wayne had the best start to the season that any receiver of that age ever has.
He's consistent, wrapping up an NFL record 64-game streak of at least three receptions by the end of the season. He also didn't miss a game due to injury, continuing his career Iron Man status (hasn't missed a game since 2001, his rookie year). He's a playoff warrior, unlike his former teammate Marvin Harrison, going from 5th to 2nd all-time in career playoff receptions with eight catches against the Ravens (second only to Jerry Rice).
Wayne's effect on a very young group of pass catchers cannot be quantified, and his presence as a security blanket for Luck was the perfect role on a team with young, inconsistent pass catchers at receiver and tight end. All of this came for Wayne while he was adjusting to a new role in a brand new offense. It truly was a vintage Reggie Wayne performance, and if he comes anywhere near that kind of year in 2013, we're going to have some serious implications in the "Wayne legacy" discussion.
Drafting Dwayne Allen and T.Y. Hilton in the third round
I can't give Grigson too much credit for drafting Andrew Luck. That decision was made by Jim Irsay and was likely 90% decided before Grigson was even hired.
But give Grigson his due for the 2012 draft, which was a huge success as of right now. The real reason why the draft was such a success was the value the team got in the third round. It began by taking Dwayne Allen at the top of the round, which everybody agreed was great value. Some questioned the taking of a tight end in two straight rounds, but many had Allen as the best TE in the draft, so the value was great.
The Colts traded up to get Hilton at the end of the third, giving up their 2013 fifth rounder. It paid off, as Hilton was one of the top rookie receivers, finishing third in receptions and second in yards by receivers.
Both Allen and Hilton were key components of the 2012 team, but more importantly, they are key components of the Colts' long-term core. Allen especially has promise as both an excellent blocker and solid receiver, while T.Y. Hilton should be a deep threat for Luck for years.
Trading for Vontae Davis
This is the most controversial of the five, but I'll contend that the trade by Grigson was a good decision and crucial for the success of the 2011 season.
First, there's the issue of the value itself. The Colts traded their 2013 2nd round draft pick for Davis, which ended up being the #54 overall pick. The expected Approximate Value of the 54th pick is 9.2 through five years. In return, the Colts received Vontae Davis, who has an AV of 13 (Chase Stuart's draft pick value chart subracts 2 AV from each season) through four seasons.
However, he only had an AV of 4 this past season with the Colts, only counting for 2 in Stuart's system. The Colts would only get the full value of an average second rounder if Davis had a very good season this year. I don't project that happening, and so the Colts likely will not get the full value from Davis as they would have from an average second round pick.
But let's look at Davis' contribution in 2012. The Colts were in desperate need of a cornerback as Cassius Vaughn started the preseason as the starting corner, with Justin King and Korey Lindsey as the primary depth. The Colts would eventually sign Darius Butler, but even with Butler the corner spot would have been incredibly thin, especially once Powers got hurt. Without Davis, I don't see anyway the Colts win 11 games and go to the playoffs in 2012.
Davis wasn't going to be confused with an All-Pro or anything, but he was a solid corner. His coverage grade from PFF was 24th best out of 113 corners. Davis was also physical against the run, finishing in the top ten in run stop percentage for starting corners. Davis took poor angles at times, and needs to cut down on penalties, but overall he was a physical, press corner in a system that desperately needed one.
So, the Colts may not have gotten the best value for the trade, only getting Davis for two years, but for 2012, it worked out extremely well.