Chuck Pagano at the NFL Owners Meetings. Photo: Brian Spurlock - USA Today Sports

Were the Colts really “Run-First” in 2013?

For the past 10 months, we’ve talked about the Colts and Pep Hamilton being “run-first.”

Well, let me rephrase that.

We’ve mocked the Colts and Pep Hamilton for being run-first. We’ve complained about every I-formation, loathed the presence of Stanley Havili and watched in despair as Trent Richardson made himself the laughing stock of fantasy football.

Make no mistake about it, the Colts coaches were hell-bent on running the ball, wearing down their opponent and performing countless other cliches.

Or were they?

Despite our (often terrible, but amusing in the echo chamber of Twitter) jokes and simplifying of scenarios, the fact is that the Colts weren’t particularly run-heavy last season. Looking at pure run/pass splits, the Colts had passing plays on over 60% of their snaps last season, roughly the same percentage as they did under pass-happy Bruce Arians last season. According to Team Rankings, that number was good for 11th in the league in 2013, compared to 9th in 2012. That’s not exactly the cataclysmic shift that it may have seemed.

But, remember, the Colts were behind a lot in 2013, especially in the second half of the season, when the passing really picked up. Being behind will, naturally, raise your passing attempts. Fortunately for us, somebody’s already done the work to adjust for this, the brilliant Mike Clay of Pro Football Focus (among other sites). Clay adjusted for league averages over the last six years based on the quarter and score, so that should take care of the passing thing, right?

But Clay found that the Colts actually passed the ball five percent more than they would have been expected too, the eighth-highest increase in the league.

If you’ve been reading Colts Authority over the last week, you’d have seen other related myths also addressed, including the usage of both T.Y. Hilton and the fan whipping boy Stanley Havili.

So, if the Colts actually did pass the ball plenty of times in 2013, if T.Y. Hilton actually did see the field a decent amount and Stanley Havili did help the success of the running game, then what are we all complaining about? Do we owe Pep Hamilton a huge apology? Are the people laying down $1000 on the Colts to win the Super Bowl actually to be trusted, nay, emulated? IS TRENT RICHARDSON BOUND FOR A BREAKOUT SEASON?

Is this real life??!?!!!1!1!!

Not exactly.

See, the problem is that the nuances of offensive play-calling in the NFL is complicated, and our avenues for complaining tend to be simple (i.e. Twitter, post-game podcasts, etc.). In our immediate frustration to last season’s inconsistencies, many of us took to these avenues to vent, and in our frustration, whittled down several key, separate, problems with Hamilton’s offense. It became the running joke of “run-first,” when in reality, the individual problems are much more complex.

Sure, the Colts passed a lot, but what kind of passing did they do? Andrew Luck’s average depth of target in 2012 was a league-leading 10.8 yards, while it dropped down 8.9 in 2013, which tied for 22nd in the league. Despite a higher completion percentage, Luck’s yards per attempt dropped from 7.0 in 2012 to 6.7 in 2013, and his yard per completion dropped nearly two yards. The 2013 Colts focused much more on short passes than stretching the field, and it showed as Luck completed 12 less passes aimed 20+ yards down the field (that’s over 240 yards worth of plays, remember). The lesser focus on vertical passing and more emphasis on short, quick throws has its merits, but it doesn’t utilize Luck’s best talents (his ability to extend plays).

luckdropbackdepthPro Football Focus’ Steve Palazzolo recently broke down a plethora of QB splits from the 2013 season, and some of the most alarming numbers out of that data set is the vast differences in Luck’s play based on the depth of his drop.

Luck’s play dramatically improved as his drop depth increased, largely because those longer-developing plays meant he had more time to trust his instincts and use his talent, which rivals that of any player in the league. The problem with the shorter dropbacks is that Luck relied on what the play was designed to do. These plays were often Luck throwing to his first read with little hesitation, which led to multiple interceptions throughout the year where the corner jumped the throw.

Luck trusts Pep Hamilton so much, and he knows the playbook so well, that he knows and believes in what each play is supposed to accomplish, schematically. On a bang-bang play, Luck often just threw where he was supposed to throw. The problem was that with a young, raw group of targets last season, the plays didn’t exactly always go as planned, and even when they did, the Colts’ personnel wasn’t ideally suited for a West Coast offense. The offense excelled early on when everybody was healthy, but then ran into a wall because they didn’t adapt to having Da’Rick Rogers and LaVon Brazill run routes rather than Reggie Wayne, or utilize Donald Brown over Trent Richardson.

With a group of young, fast skill players, the offense worked best with the field stretched and space made available so guys like Hilton, Rogers and Brown could take passes, or handoffs, and find open space for big plays. When the Colts tried to fit too many bodies into small spaces, the inexperienced group with iffy route-running abilities and on-field awareness struggled.

It was that kind of lack of adaptation that killed the Colts’ offense last season, along with occasional “establishing the run” phases when the interior line wasn’t establishing anything but a putrid stench.

“Run-First” became the embodiment of that: the stubborn attachment to concepts that didn’t best fit the Colts’ personnel. Did the Colts run the ball too much? Overall, not really. In certain situations, in certain ways? Yes. Do they need to get Andrew Luck into more roll-out situations to utilize his legs and accuracy on the run? BY THE BEARD OF CTHULHU YES I HAVE BEEN SAYING THIS FOR TWO YEARS NOW

(Sorry. But he had the fourth-highest grade in the league in roll-outs last year, so I feel justified.)

Should they abandon the run all together, or the short possession-style passing game? Of course not, especially with Wayne and Dwayne Allen returning and Hakeem Nicks coming into the fold. But I’ll stand by this statement until the day I die: the Colts’ next 10 years depends on the development of Andrew Luck’s ability to direct a dynamic, top-five offense. The Colts need to do whatever they can to ensure that development.

Signing Nicks and drafting Donte Moncrief was a great start. The next step is to see Pep Hamilton utilize his cupboard of weapons to its greatest capacity.

Kyle J. Rodriguez

About Kyle J. Rodriguez

A film and numbers guru, Kyle writes about the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for Bleacher Report, Draft Mecca and The Football Educator, and is a co-founder and associate editor of Colts Authority. Kyle also is a high school sports reporter for the MLive Media Group in Michigan, covering high school sports across the state.