Jason Cole Misses the Mark in Colts Rankings: Offensive Line

For Colts fans, Jason Cole is to the written word what Cris Collinsworth is to the spoken:  Both are football analysts given a national voice who have the habit of making pretty questionable statements about our favorite team.  This off season, Jason Cole is going through each team and ranking their units (why they let him into a locker room full of naked men with such questionable motives is another discussion).

For the next few weeks we will look at Mr. Cole’s rankings and analysis on each unit, using standard NFL stats, advanced stats, and also some good, old fashion common sense.  We will also continue the discussion and analysis for each unit of this year’s Colts team on our own, discussing potential depth charts and any potential changes in scheme stemming from personnel and coaching changes.

[media-credit name="Darron Cummings | AP Photo" align="aligncenter" width="427"][/media-credit]

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, center, celebrates his second quarter touchdown pass against the New York Jets with teammates Ryan Lilja (65) and Jeff Saturday (63) during the AFC Championship NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2010, in Indianapolis.

For the first article in this series, we’re going to start with the unit that has been the hot-button topic this off-season for the Colts.  It is a unit that has been questioned for some time now — including in the AFC Championship Game loss to the Patriots, in the Divisional Round loss to the Steelers, and last year, when the Colts were one of the worst teams in the league running the ball.  I’m trying to be a good writer here, but let’s just say that the topic was brought to the forefront this off-season when Bill Polian openly blamed the Colts’ Super Bowl failure on the offensive line.

One thing we should all admit before we see how Jason ranked the Colts’ O-Line:  While even the most uninformed football fan can talk their way through a discussion of quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers, the art of understanding line play, particularly offensive line, is something that can probably only be judged by experts.

While ‘skilled position players’, and, to some extent — thanks to advanced stats — even defensive players, have a plethora of stats to help gauge their performances, offensive linemen are basically judged by the performance of others.  David Carr’s offensive line, for example, was apparently made up of tiny morsels of Swiss cheese — very delicious, but not too handy against NFL caliber pass rushers.  So was it the O-lines fault, or did the QB hold on to the ball too long?

The same principle applies in the running game.  Yes, the O-Line is responsible for opening holes for the ball carrier to go through, but running backs hold some responsibility when they fail to gain yards.

There are also things that the lay person will never know:  What play was called, where was the play supposed to go, was an audible called and someone missed it, what were the responsibilities of the backs and tight ends on the play, etc…  So a lot of the analysis and conclusions we come to are based on assumptions and educated guesses.

And, let’s be real, who wants to stare at hot, sweaty, large guys in spandex all day just to figure it out?  Okay, you caught me.

So with that in mind, here is what Jason Cole had to say about the Colts’ O-Line going into the 2010-11 season:

9. Indianapolis Colts: If the Colts were at least some kind of threat on short-yardage situations, then they’d be ranked much higher. As it is, I’m giving the line a lot of credit for being the best pass-blocking unit in the league last season. Realistically though, quarterback Peyton Manning should get a lot of credit for that.  No quarterback does a better job of getting rid of the ball on time than Manning. But it’s telling that the Colts often line up in shotgun formation on third-and-1 or third-and-2. That’s about as big a slap in the face as you can give to your offensive line.

My immediate reaction to this ranking is that it’s too high.  Categorizing something in the Top-10 is borderline elite, in my opinion.  The last word that comes to mind when I think of the Colts’ offensive line is elite.

Cole’s analysis only confuses the issue.  He doesn’t give them high marks in the running game, especially short-yardage situations.  He does, however, say he gives them a lot of credit for their pass-blocking prowess — but in the next breath attributes most of that to Peyton Manning.  So, in his mind, the unit he ranked 9th does nothing particularly well.

One explanation for this phenomenon might be found in Cole’s analysis for the Patriots, which Cole has ranked second on this list:

Critics will immediately say the Patriots are over-ranked at this spot. There’s no debating that the group’s high ranking is partially a reflection of the rest of the league being downright mediocre.

I think this sums it up pretty well.  Think of all the teams in the league and try to come up with one that has a truly elite O-Line.  It’s very hard to do.

Last years darlings, the Vikings, started out strong, but by the end of the season they were giving up sacks in bunches and their running game had started to stall.  Even the Saints,last years Super Bowl Champions, were not immune to the struggles of inconsistent play.  If they had lost that game left tackle Jermon Bushrod would have probably been amongst the goats for the Saints.

So, is this the explanation?  Does the Colts’ ranking stem from them swimming in a sea of mediocrity?  Or in the land of the turn styles, are the Colts more revolving door than velvet rope?  To answer that we will need to take a look at some of the stats.

The Colts running game has produced some ugly results since their 2006 Super Bowl winning season.  They have struggled to replace left tackle Tarik Glenn and offensive guard Jake Scott.  Instead, they have relied more and more on the right arm of quarterback Peyton Manning, sometimes eschewing the running game all together in favor of four and five wide receiver sets.

These factors combined last year to leave the Colts tied for 30th (Houston) in the league in yards per carry, at 3.5 yards per carry.  Only our good friends and lovable winners, the San Diego Chargers, did worse with 3.3 yards per carry.

The Colts ran for the fewest yards per game in the league, by exactly eight yards per game.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since only the Arizona Cardinals (365) ran the ball fewer times than the Colts (366), which was around 62 attempts under the league average for the year.

Not a pretty picture we’re painting so far, but conventional NFL stats are often deceiving.  Next, we’ll use some advanced stats to get a more complete picture.  My advanced stat of choice is DVOA (www.footballoutsiders.com).  Your mileage may vary, and if you don’t like FO, I’m sorry, I like them and am comfortable with their numbers.

The first number that we will look at is the Power Success.  This was a specific concern mentioned in Jason Cole’s article, so it will be easy to tackle this point head on.  Football Outsiders defines Power Success as:

Power Success: Percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer. This is the only statistic on this page that includes quarterbacks.

I wanted to include their entire explanation here because I feel, as Colts fans, these types of situations seem to haunt us every year.  As I type this, Willie McGinest just faked a heart attack.

According to their numbers, the Colts were 12th in the league in Power Success, converting in 66% of those situations.  They had a better Power ranking than three teams Cole had ranked above them.  I can’t say I’m surprised by the number, because I follow their stats on a weekly basis.

I can say, however, that week-in and week-out, the Colts — to me — don’t feel like an above average power team.  This could be related to what we talked about earlier:  the extreme mediocrity plaguing the leagues O-lines.

Unfortunately, this is as good as it gets for the Colts.  In the next area FO looks at, their Stuffed %, or runs that are stopped for no gain or a loss, the Colts ranked 27th in the league — and were stuffed a disturbing 22% of the time.  Unlike the previous number, I have a feeling that most of you are nodding your head in agreement.

How many times last year, particularly on stretch plays, did it seem like Addai and Brown were getting hit almost immediately after receiving the hand off?  For that type of failure, the bulk of the blame has to fall at the feet of the O-line, not the running back.

The bad news continues from there:  The Colts ranked 21st in the league in yards per play in the second level (defined as 5 to 10 yards passed the Line of Scrimmage) and 29th in the league in yards per play in the open field (defined as any yardage at least 10 yards passed the Line of Scrimmage).  So not only were the Colts running for zero yards or less almost a quarter of the time, they weren’t getting very far on the runs that were getting passed the LOS.

The strength of the Colts OL in the running game was definitely the interior of the line.  While the Colts were 31st in the league in runs around left end and 20th in in the league in yards around right end, they were 8th in runs up the middle.  This makes the release of OG Ryan Lilja even more confusing.

The Colts acknowledged this by running 35% of their running plays up the middle.  Not that anyone needed more reason to like him, but this is also a nice compliment to Jeff “Cigar Arms” Saturday, whom the media never seems to give enough credit for being a well-rounded center.

This brings us to a topic on which both conventional and advanced stats agree:  the Colts O-line seems to shine in pass protection.  Colts quarterbacks were only sacked 13 times last year, and 3 of those were part of the Curtis Painter Experience™.  Football Outsiders supports these numbers, ranking the Colts O-line number 1 in Adjusted Sack Rate (which is the ratio of sacks + intentional groundings/per pass attempt, and then adjusted for down, distance, and opponent).

But what of Cole’s remark where he credits Manning for most of the pass blocking success?  This is something that is impossible to gauge, though it’s probably safe to say that Manning is one of the best in the game at putting the team in position to avoid negative plays. I also think everyone can remember more than one interception last year that was the result of a blown block, usually from the Pollak/DeVan duo.

What makes it even harder to judge the O-line is we simply never see the first team O-line with a quarterback that isn’t Manning.  Not that fans are complaining, but Manning never misses time due to injury, and the team has made it a habit of playing the second unit O-line with the backup quarterback(s).

That said, you can’t summarily discount what the O-line does in terms of blocking. Manning was kept relatively clean against Mario Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch, two talented pass rushers that the Colts faced two times a piece last year.

The Colts offensive linemen are also asked to do more mentally and physically than any other O-line in the league.  They most have a complete understanding of the audibles that Peyton Manning will go through, and they must be able to stay in their stance while Manning does his song and dance.

In the end I’m forced to disagree with Cole’s ranking.  Not because of stats, analysis, or anything I personally saw last year, but because of the simple fact that no one has any clue what this years O-line will look like.  They have released OG Ryan Lilja.  They have moved OT Tony Ugoh to guard.  Colts President Bill Polian went on record as saying that every job would be up for grabs this off season.

I’m not too worried about the interior of the Colts O-line next year; Saturday will be great, as always, and there seems to be a good mix of talent vying for the guard positions.  What does worry me, however, is that this O-line reminds me a little too much of Deion Sanders — Where are the tackles?

I don’t see a good tackle in the group.  Charlie Johnson will be serviceable, but I feel he’d be better on the right side of the line as opposed to watching Peyton’s blindside.  Ryan Diem, on the other hand, is clearly on the downside of his career and has been declining rapidly.

All of this works to better explain Polian’s move in the 2007 draft to move up and get Tony Ugoh.  He looked around at the NFL landscape, saw a thin talent base at tackle, and got the best one available in hopes of plugging a hole for the foreseeable future.  That the move hasn’t worked out to date is a shame, but he should be lauded for aggressively trying to better his team.

Only two things seem certain this year:  Colts fans will continue to take issue with things Jason Cole writes, and the play of the Colts offensive line will be the on-field story of the year.