Just 20 months ago, many of us Colts fans were eagerly awaiting the Indianapolis Colts' matchup with the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV (that's 44 for all of you who struggle with Roman Numerals). Our team was heavily favored to win their 2nd Super Bowl in 4 years, which likely would've sealed Peyton Manning's fate as the greatest QB of all-time. Fast forward to present day: the Colts have started the 2011 season with two embarrassing losses on their way to an 0-3 record, Colts' fans are worried that our season is over, and there's a slight chance we've seen Peyton Manning play his final game in the NFL – and it's not a pretty finish. So what has changed in a matter of a year and a half? Certainly, Peyton Manning's absence is the biggest contributor to the Colts' rapid downfall. But no matter how other-worldly a player can be, no team should go from Super Bowl contender to a potential win-less team with the loss of one player. I think everyone's to blame – players, coaches, and the front office – and I'm going to analyze what exactly is wrong with this team:
Many long-time Colts fans are forever grateful to Bill Polian for turning this franchise around in the late 90's, and I understand that. But the NFL is a "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately" league. Yes, all of the 10+ win seasons, playoff games, 2 Super Bowl appearances and 1 Super Bowl ring are great, and I am forever grateful that I got to see Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts win a Super Bowl. But the front office – specifically Bill Polian – has done a terrible job over the past few seasons, and here are some major examples:
- Back in March of 2010, the Colts signed MLB Gary Brackett to a 5-year, $33 million contract. This was puzzling for a few reasons, primarily because it was more money than Brackett deserved. The following season, Gary Brackett was the 5th worst tackling linebacker in the league. Yes, he is a defensive captain, and no doubt offers some level of leadership in the locker room and on the football field, but you don't pay a man $33 million to be a locker room leader. Also, Brackett was 29 at the time the Colts signed him, which meant he'd be 35 years old by the time his contract expired. And oh yeah – Brackett was an undersized, often-injured linebacker who was coming off of 2 injury-plagued seasons. Not surprisingly, he was placed on IR just a few days ago. Just two months after Brackett's signing, the team drafted MLB Pat Angerer in the 2nd round of the 2010 NFL draft – a player many thought would ultimately take over for Gary Brackett. Pat Angerer has outplayed Brackett in 2010 and the early part of 2011, and I have more faith in Angerer moving forward than I do of the defensive captain. So why exactly did the front office sign a 29 year-old, injury-prone, ineffective linebacker to a 5-year, $33 million contract – only to draft his replacement just a few months later? I don't know.
- In February of 2009, the Colts signed Kelvin Hayden to a 5-year, $43 million contract. Now, Hayden is often remembered for his Super Bowl interception that he returned for a touchdown, which really sealed the game for the Colts. But he's never been mistaken for an elite, shut-down CB, which is exactly what this contract was paying him to be. Again, Hayden was coming off of an injury-plagued season, and would be in his early 30's by the time his contract expired. I know hindsight is always 20/20, but in 2010, he was outplayed by both Justin Tryon (acquired for a 7th round draft pick making $550,000) and Jerraud Powers (3rd round draft pick making $480,000). Hayden was due $9 million this year, and was released prior to the start of the season.
- The offensive line. I can't even single out one or two decisions along the line, so I'll mention a handful of mis-haps by our front office. First, we let Guard Jake Scott walk in free agency after starting 46 out of 53 games for us in his first 3 seasons – including the Colts' Super Bowl victory in 2006. Scott has been a fixture along Tennessee offensive line ever since. Then, the team unexpectedly cut Guard Ryan Lilja. Lilja was originally signed in 2004, was re-signed to a 5-year, $20 million contract in 2008, but was released prior to the start of the 2010 season. He had started 59 total games for the Colts, including both of their Super Bowl appearances. Lilja was then signed by the Kansas City Chiefs – and was a Pro-Bowl selection in 2010 as the starting Guard for the league's premiere rushing attack.
- Many fans believe that the Colts' front office didn't address the offensive line through the NFL Draft, but in reality, the team just whiffed on their draft picks. From 2006-2010, the Colts selected 8 offensive lineman: Michael Toudouze (2006; 5th round), Charlie Johnson (2006; 6th round), Tony Ugoh (2007; 2nd round, traded 2008 1st round pick for), Mike Pollak (2008; 2nd round), Steve Justice (2008; 6th round), Jamey Richard (2008; 7th round), Jaimie Thomas (2009; 7th round), and Jacques McClendon (2010; 4th round). As of today, only G/C Mike Pollak and G/C Jamey Richard remain on the Colts' roster, but neither's roster spot is safe.
- Meanwhile, the team recently let Charlie Johnson walk in free agency, and cut promising Guards Kyle DeVan and Jacques McClendon. Johnson signed with the Minnesota Vikings, and is their starting left tackle. DeVan was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles, and immediately became their starting Right Guard; while McClendon was immediately signed by the Lions. I don't expect any of these players to make Pro-Bowls in the near future, but Johnson and DeVan are reliable starters, while McClendon appears to have a talented future. Meanwhile, the Colts offensive line continues to struggle. Imagine a starting offensive line of (from left to right): Anthony Castonzo, Jake Scott, Jeff Saturday, Ryan Lilja, Charlie Johnson – with Kyle DeVan, Ben Ijalana, and Jacques McClendon as reserves or eventual replacements. Instead, we're in for another season of Ryan Diem, Mike Pollak, Jeff Linkenbach, and new-comer Joe Reitz. Awesome – we have the front office to blame.
- Just a quick note: A lot of this falls on our front office – primarily the scouts and player evaluators – but I'll also hold the players responsible for their play on the football field. Far too often – fans, coaches, and the media mistake the Colts' best players at a position as a good player – when in reality, it's merely a matter of who stinks the least.
- Defensive Tackle – Antonio Johnson gets a lot of praise within the Colts' blogosphere, but he's still a below average defensive tackle. He doesn't appear strong enough to anchor a Tampa-2 front line, and gives up on far too many plays. 3rd year player DT Fili Moala hasn't really made an impact yet in the NFL, and a sudden improvement doesn't appear imminent. Rookie defensive tackle Drake Nevis impressed everybody with his play during the preseason, but that dominance has yet to translate to the regular season. I am very optimistic about his future, though. Meanwhile, the front office made no attempt to sign big-name free agents like Barry Cofield or Brandon Mebane; yet the team unexpectedly cut Tommie Harris, a veteran signing who also impressed in the preseason. Pat Williams is still available though, ::cough cough::.
- Linebacker – The two primary teams to run a successful Tampa-2 style defense over the past decade? The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Chicago Bears. Ya know who their middle linebackers were/are? Derrick Brooks and Brian Urlacher – two future Hall of Famers. Gary Brackett will never be mistaken for such. And while I'm high on Pat Angerer's future with the Colts, he does not appear to be the next Brian Urlacher. Year in and year out, the Colts' group of linebackers consists of a few undersized, speedy linebackers who can't play the run and often get injured (see: Gary Brackett, Tyjuan Hagler, Freddie Keiaho, Clint Session). It's quite amusing to hear fans get really excited when a Colts linebacker makes a stop for no-gain against the run, or defends a pass in pass-coverage. You want your linebackers to make plays? Look at a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers (James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons), the Baltimore Ravens (Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs), the Chicago Bears (Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs), or the New York Jets (Bart Scott, David Harris, Calvin Pace). All of a sudden, our Angerer/ Brackett/Kavell Conner combination doesn't look very intimidating.
- Running Back – Don't get me wrong, I love Joseph Addai. I think he's one of the most underrated running backs in the entire NFL. He's one of the best pass-protectors and pass-catching backs in the league, but is below average in running the football. The problem is, with Manning entering the final years of his career (or the slight possibility that his career is over), the Colts need a reliable running game – which falls on the offensive line and running backs. Many people are comparing Manning's final years with the Colts to John Elway's final years with the Denver Broncos – the Broncos had a running back by the name of Terrell Davis. Davis averaged 1,765 rushing yards and 16+ TD's over Elway's final three seasons – 2 of which ended with Super Bowl victories. I know the game has changed a lot over the past 15 years, but I can't imagine the Colts' running backs combining for those kind of numbers any time soon. Donald Brown has been a bust. And while players like Mike Hart, Dominic Rhodes, and Javarris James have provided a few sparks over the past few years, the running back position lacks serious talent when compared with the rest of the NFL.
- I'm sick of listening to fans try and defend Jim Caldwell. He's not an NFL coach. Heck – he even sucked as a College Football coach with a 26-63 record in his 8 seasons as Wake Forest's Head Coach. Supporters may point to a 25-13 career record in the NFL, but do Colts' fans really have Caldwell to thank for that kind of success? Let's take a closer look: During Caldwell's tenure as the Colts' Head Coach, Peyton Manning has 11 4th-quarter-comebacks, 44% of Caldwell's victories. If Manning never bailed us out, Caldwell would have a 14-24 record, and would likely be out of the NFL by now.
- As many of you know, 2 losses can be directly attributed to Caldwell's dumbfounding timeouts. Anybody who defends the decision to call those timeouts either doesn't understand football properly, or is mis-remembering the situation. Against the Jaguars, Caldwell used the team's 1st timeout with just 36 seconds left in the 4th quarter, after a 7-yard rush by the Jaguars. It's important to note that the Colts showed no ability to stop the run that day, allowing 174 rushing yards. I guess Caldwell suddenly assumed that his defense could stop the run, even in a 2nd and 3 situation. But even then – even assuming our defense stopped the run and forced the Jaguars to punt, the Colts would've realistically gotten the ball back on their own 35-yard line with less than 20 seconds remaining, with no timeouts. Not surprisingly, our defense didn't hold up, and the Jaguars kicked a 59-yard game-winning field goal as time expired. The loss nearly cost the Colts a playoff birth. The 2nd timeout came against the New York Jets in the playoffs: the Colts held a 17-16 lead with 29 seconds remaining when Caldwell called the team's 3rd and final timeout. This time, there was zero chance the Colts' offense would get the football back. The Jets were at the 34-yard line with 1 timeout left, and at that point, the Colts' first priority should have been to force the Jets to kick the longest possible field goal (52 yards, at the time). After the game, Jets Head Coach Rex Ryan admitted they were prepared to run the clock down, and take their chances on a 50+ yard attempt. But Caldwell's timeout allowed Jets' quarterback Mark Sanchez and Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to re-group, and diagram a pass-play. The result was an 18-yard completion to Braylon Edwards, and a 32-yard, game-winning field goal by Nick Folk.
- Jim Caldwell was also terribly out-coached in the 2009 Super Bowl by New Orleans Saints' Head Coach Sean Payton. Enough to be the difference between a win and a loss? Who knows. Caldwell wasn't responsible for Manning and Wayne's mis-communication that lead to the game-sealing pick-6. Caldwell wasn't responsible for the secondary getting picked apart by Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees. But there were 3 key turning points in that game that were directly attributed to Jim Caldwell. The first: After forcing a turnover on downs, the Colts had the ball on their own 1 yard line with nearly 2:00 to play in the 1st half, with 2 timeouts left. Rather than attempting a 2-minute drill (which Manning had run to perfection ALL YEAR LONG), the Colts attempted to simply pick up a first down, and run out the 1st half. That's understandable, but the decision to run the ball 3 times, twice to Mike Hart, was baffling. We had Peyton Manning, one of the greatest QB's of all-time, under center. We didn't have a running game all season. Our passing game had become our running game. You want to pick up a first down? Throw the ball. Put the ball in Peyton Manning's hands, not Mike Hart's. The Saints' defense held, and were able to convert a long field goal just before half-time. The second: Coming out of half-time, the Saints caught the Colts off-guard on the kickoff, and recovered an onside kick. Blame the special teams coach, blame the players, blame f***ing Hank Baskett – but it is the Head Coach's job to have his team ready to play, especially coming out of half-time. Instead, Caldwell had that look on his face like, "wait, I didn't know you could kick an onside kick at this point in the game!". The Saints played to win that game, thanks to Sean Payton; and the Colts played not to lose, thanks to Jim Caldwell. The third: A few minutes into the 4th quarter, Caldwell called for a 51-yard field goal attempt from Matt Stover – a kicker who's range was somewhere in the mid-40's. The result? A missed field goal. Tremendous field position for the Saints. The go-ahead touchdown. (Note: It's worth noting that after the aforementioned 4th-down stop before the half, the Colts had the ball with a 10-3 lead. They were also scheduled to get the ball back to start the 2nd half. Best case scenario – the Colts could have scored 2 touchdowns, and held an insurmountable 24-3 lead. Realistically, they score 7-10 points, and hold something like a 17-3 lead, mid-way through the 3rd quarter. However, because of Caldwell's first 2 controversial decisions, the next time Peyton Manning had the ball in his hands was with a 13-10 deficit mid-way through the 3rd quarter. That's your ball game, folks.)
- So after a closer look at Jim Caldwell's record, he has Peyton Manning to thank for 44% of his victories. He's cost the team 2 games as a result of his poor clock-management timeouts. And while the Super Bowl loss isn't directly Caldwell's fault, he was embarrassingly bad in the national spotlight.
- Our personnel philosophy: Smaller is better. All that we have to show for having a smaller, faster defense is a unit that can't stop the run, and is constantly riddled with injuries. I get that a team can't have everything, and that the Colts' front office put a premium on surrounding Peyton Manning with weapons and pass rushers. But after years and years of injuries and an inability to stop the run, you'd think Bill Polian would invest some resources into getting bigger and better on defense, particularly up the middle. And no, Gary Brackett does not count as getting bigger and better. It also works completely against our strengths, for multiple reasons. First: it keeps Peyton Manning off the field. If our defense is going to allow yards and points, I'd rather they do it quickly so that Manning gets to see the field more often. Second: It negates our pass rush. Not being able to stop the run means that Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are rendered useless. I understand the notion that the Colts are "built to play with a lead" – but did the Colts' front office not realize that the game starts with a 0-0 score? Yes, Peyton Manning is great, but you can't design a defense to play with a 14-0 lead every game, because that simply does not happen. Third: Not being able to stop the run leads to long, time-consuming drives by the opposition. Few defenses are equipped to handle 10-15 play drives throughout the course of a football game; but smaller defenses don't stand a chance. The pounding they take from bigger, more physical offensive lineman takes a visible toll on the Colts' smaller personnel. The Colts' defensive philosophy, in my opinion, is the single, greatest reason why the team doesn't have multiple Super Bowl victories in the Peyton Manning-era. We've built a defense that caters to what opposing offenses want to do to the Colts: keep Peyton Manning off the field, negate Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, and tire out an undersized defense. It's simply counter-intuitive.