The Indianapolis Colts are setting a course for 1960. Every level of management, from Jim Irsay to Ryan Grigson to Chuck Pagano and Pep Hamilton, has cited and emphasized the importance of running the ball and stopping the run. This much cannot be debated at this point. From their defensive free agent choices to the trading for Trent Richardson, the usage of a fullback to the usage of Darrius Heyward-Bey for his ability to block, the Colts have made it very clear what kind of team they wish to be.
What can be debated is whether or not this is the correct way that the Colts should be built going forward. Most of you will know that most of us at Colts Authority vehemently disagree with this philosophy. I know that many of you agree, although not all of you, and certainly not all Colts fans.
So, here it is, once and for all. Why do we hate the run-first philosophy and fundamentally disagree with the style of team that Grigson, Pagano and Irsay want to build?
It all comes down to efficiency.
Running the Ball Got Teams to the Playoffs?
Let's start with a few misconceptions.
The first thing that you'll hear in defense of the "run-first" style is that that is the style of team that wins in the playoffs. I've lost count of how many times I've heard fans or analysts talk about how you have to be able to run the ball and stop the run in the playoffs. Now, I'm not saying that you don't need those components on a team, but saying that an elite running team would be better equipped for the playoffs than an elite passing team would be flat-out wrong
To illustrate that point, I took a look through Football Outsider's DVOA rankings and put together lists of every playoff team for the last 10 years.
Since 2004, playoff teams have averaged about two spots higher in pass rankings than rush rankings for offense and defense (Offense: 11.67 rush vs. 9.73 pass; Defense: 14.07 rush vs. 12.03 pass). In addition, the offensive rankings have averaged about two and a half rankings higher than the defensive rankings.
To put it simply: passing is generally more important than rushing and offense is more important than defense.
BUT WAIT!!! Somebody might say, in response. Those are only the teams that made the playoffs. The whole argument is that running the ball and stopping the run is better equipped to get you through the playoffs. If you don't get to the Super Bowl, getting to the playoffs is rather useless, right?
Well, I suppose if that's the argument, you might have a point, although I'd still say an approach to get to the playoffs consistently is your best bet to get to a Super Bowl. But, I'll humor the idea.
Surprise! The Super Bowl teams from every year for the past ten years have also averaged about two spots higher for passing in both offensive and defensive rankings (Offensive: 9.45 rush vs. 7.6 pass; Defensive: 13.4 rush vs. 11.15 pass), and the offensive rankings average to be about four spots higher in both categories.
Again, passing and offense, tend to be the most important aspects of the team. While one can't completely discount the other areas of a team, those have the most impact, especially in a league that is increasingly pass-heavy.
When you look at specific examples, it's even clearer. The only teams that made a Super Bowl without a top-ten passing offense make sense in context:
2006 Bears: Had one of the best passing defenses of all time, which propelled them to the Super Bowl. Of course, once there, they lost a game that wasn't particularly close, all because they couldn't do anything offensively.
2007 Giants: Eli Manning had a playoff run that far outpaced his regular-season production, which meant what looked like a poor passing offense was actually pretty good in the playoffs. Combine that with a ferocious pass rush, and you get a team that had the key components: pass defense and passing offense.
2008 Steelers: Like the 2006 Bears, they had the No. 1 passing defense in the league. And Roethlisberger was no slouch, which is why he was the one to win the Super Bowl. They made key plays through the air when they needed to.
2012 Ravens: See the 2007 Giants, except Joe Flacco's run was even better than Manning's, which helped offset a defense that was lagging way behind (although still better pass defenders than run defenders).
No, the whole "run the ball, stop the run" thing being the most effective team style in the playoffs is a myth. People tried pointing to the divisional round winners as proof this year, but look at the teams that are going to play in the Super Bowl: a historically great passing offense versus a historically great pass defense.
Oh, and of those four divisional round teams left that were crowned because of running and stopping the run? All four had top-10 passing offenses this year.
Now, does this mean that every team should build their team around the pass, or that every Super Bowl champion is going to be a pass-first, offensively-focused team? Of course not. Teams should build around the best pieces they have, and matchups will sometimes dictate things other than passing (see New England vs. Indianapolis, 2013 divisional playoffs).
But, in terms of what usually leads to success, passing is the key.
Most Effectively Using Your Personnel
Now, go back to that second-to-last paragraph.
"Teams should build around the best pieces they have."
The most efficient way to build a team is by building around your best players and units, maximizing their strengths while covering up the weaknesses on the rest of the team. This shouldn't be a foreign concept.
The Colts did this during the Manning era, and with great success. They built around their best players: Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, with a few others sprinkled in there.
By building an elite offense based on Manning's strengths (reading a defense, timing with receivers, etc.) the Colts could cover up an average or below-average defense by making other teams have to keep up with them. That, in turn, allowed them to let their best defensive players (pass rushers) loose. It was an extremely sound strategy, and it worked.
You can argue against it until you're blue in the face, but when a team misses the playoffs twice in 11 years, it's paying off. The strategy only didn't work when the one whom the whole thing was built around (Manning) was injured for a season. Obviously a few lack-luster drafts added to the problem, but there was nothing wrong with the overall philosophies behind the Polian-era Colts.
Now, the new Colts want to be run-first on both defense and offense, and have cited teams like San Francisco and Seattle as prototypes. There is just one problem: the Colts are in a much, much different position than either Seattle or San Francisco were when they built their teams.
Seattle and San Francisco from the late 2000s until 2012 were teams without a quarterback. Teams without quarterbacks have to build around other pieces until they can find a quarterback. On offense, you have no choice but to try to build around a running game. No matter what pieces you bring in, no passing attack is going to be successful without an above average quarterback. So, building a strong defense and running game is really all you can do. With solid drafting and bringing in quality coaching staffs, both franchises were able to create teams that would be decent, although nowhere near Super Bowl contenders, without a good quarterback.
Then they hit the jackpot, both in 2012. With Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, the two franchises got quarterbacks who aren't elite (yet), but are dynamic enough to terrify defensive coordinators and supplement strong defenses enough to be true Super Bowl contenders.
But the order is key: both teams built their teams and styles before they got a quarterback. They built around the best pieces they had. Now, don't be naive. Neither team will be able to sustain great run games and run defenses for long. When those quarterbacks have to get paid, the focus is going to inevitably shift (as it did with the Patriots and Tom Brady).
Now, Indianapolis was in a very different spot in 2012. Rather than having a few years of rebuilding under their belt before acquiring their franchise quarterback, they started the rebuilding with the quarterback in Andrew Luck. Along with that came a complete roster overhaul. The defenses and run game that Seattle and San Francisco have aren't built overnight. They come from multiple offseasons of strong drafting and focused building.
Could the Colts eventually build those kind of defenses or run game? Sure. But it would take a couple years to reach that level, and by that point, you have Andrew Luck's looming contract creeping closer, and then you have to re-shape your entire philosophy. Go ahead and find me a quarterback getting paid like an elite quarterback who is on a team that focuses on defense and running the ball first.
It doesn't happen.
The Colts aren't in the situation the Seahawks and 49ers were. They HAVE a franchise quarterback. They shouldn't try to emulate teams that built around the very fact that they DIDN'T have a quarterback.
Efficiency is the Name of the Game
The NFL is all about efficiency. Who can use the least resources for the most production? Teams that waste big money on free agents never do as well as the teams that get great production from their draft picks.
So far, the Colts have had a mixed bag in this regard. On one hand, they've been burned on some free agent signings, where they've spend millions on players that gave them replacement-level contributions. Then there's that whole "first-round pick for a running back (who didn't happen to be any good)" thing. On the other hand, they've also gotten very good production from some young players (Jerrell Freeman, T.Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener and, above all else, Andrew Luck).
But how can they be the most efficient going forward? The areas they've spent the most on trying to fix (run game, defensive front seven) are the places that still need the most work, and the areas with the most natural talent (passing game) aren't nearly as productive as they could potentially be.
Long-term, the Colts will have to build around Andrew Luck, no matter how much Jim Irsay doesn't want another quarterback to hold all the cards. Luck is here for the long haul. He is the Colts Super Bowl chance. Building around him and his wealth of talent is going to squeeze the most production out of an offense (and we haven't even touched on the fundamental truth that passing is more efficient than running).
Should the Colts (or any team) ignore the running game or run defense? Of course not. The Colts did lose, in large part, to the Patriots because of their complete inability to stop the run. Any team that has one of the worst units in football has a severe disadvantage in the playoffs that good teams and coaches will exploit.
But you don't need an elite run defense or running game. You just need enough to keep other teams honest. You can do that without making it your primary focus.
That's the disconnect that exists for many fans. Focusing on an elite passing attack doesn't mean that a team will have a bottom five defense or zero running game at all. In fact, it rarely does. Despite the assumption among most Colts fans, the Colts were actually a pretty decent running team during the Polian era, and the defense was rarely among the worst in the league.
Was the defense good? Rarely. But they weren't absolutely terrible most of the time either.
If Grigson and the Colts current front office are really a front office worth holding onto for years to come, building an elite passing offense with a decent defense to go along with it shouldn't be a Herculean task, especially when you were already handed Andrew Luck on a silver platter. Is it easy? I'm not dumb enough to call anything an NFL GM does easy. They get paid infinitely more than I do for a reason.
In the end, the new Colts' philosophies aren't going to cause them to tank and be a bottom 10 team all of the sudden. Andrew Luck is good enough that he'll continue to produce (although not at an elite level) even if the Colts don't focus on building around him. Heck, they might even make a couple deep playoff runs or even win a Super Bowl with this "San Francisco-Midwest" mentality.
But are they what's going to put the Colts in the best position to succeed year in and year out as they move into the Andrew Luck-era? I don't think so. Not for one second.