Where does the Colts Offense go from here?

(Charles Krupa | AP Photo)

The Indianapolis Colts are 6-4 with six games remaining; four at home and two on the road, and they are currently in a tie for first in the AFC South.  What makes the team’s future uncertain is that through 10 games the Colts offense has been unable to develop an identity — unless that identity is defined by inconsistent production and injuries.

The offense has scored erratically.  In the second and fourth quarters of games, the offense has put up 98 and 82 points respectively.  In the first and third quarters, they have only managed 40 and 27 points.

Against the Patriots, the Colts offense struggled to find their rhythm.  In the first quarter, the offense turned the ball over and punted.  In the second they scored two touchdowns.  In the third quarter they punted and turned the ball over.  Finally, in the fourth, the Colts put together their two best scoring drives — only to turn it over again on the game-tying or winning drive.

In the first half the Colts managed only 9 yards rushing.  In the second half they produced 62 yards on the ground.  The swings were huge for the offense, going from juggernaut to anemic without warning and seemingly without reason.

The Colts receiving corps has been unreliable; with drops prematurely ending numerous drives.  Indianapolis receivers lead the league in dropped passes.

Injuries have made it more difficult to find consistency.  The Colts have had three different starting running backs (five players have lined up in the backfield), five tight ends (one a converted guard), and six different receivers.

Just when the Colts offense showed signs of finding itself, during a three-game winning streak against Kansas City, Washington, and Houston, injuries put them back on their heels.  Dallas Clark’s season ended prematurely against Washington.  Backup running back Mike Hart, who played a big role in all three wins (34 carries, 177 yards, 5.2 YPA, 1 TD), went down with an ankle injury, joining starter Joseph Addai (shoulder) on the injured list.  Wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez, back after missing five weeks due to a high ankle sprain suffered in the Week 1 Texans game, went down for the year after having his knee driven into the turf on the sidelines.

One week later, in Philadelphia, the Colts suffered a loss at the hands of an Eagles team fresh off of a bye.  It was an admirable effort by a beat up team, losing 24-26, but came with an additional price in a nasty concussion for the Colts biggest receiving weapon this year, Austin Collie.  Collie had just returned from a hand injury that was projected to keep him out much longer.  Even though he gave it his best against the Patriots and was effective, he is clearly not ready to return to regular action.

Even tight end Jacob Tamme, who has played very well since taking over the starting job from Dallas Clark is dealing with a lingering back injury and is now starting to learn how different life in the NFL will be once teams recognize that he is a threat and start game-planning to remove his impact on the game.  The Patriots had no interest in letting Tamme run loose, and on the last play of the game when Manning threw an interception, he was covered by the Patriots top cornerback Devin McCourty.

The offensive line has been going through a year-long metamorphosis.  It is widely accepted that for an offensive line to function at an optimal level, it must have the opportunity to establish continuity as a unit.  The Colts have not had that luxury.

Left tackle Charlie Johnson missed a game due to injury early in the year. The Colts have changed starting left guards due to injury and to Kyle DeVan outperforming Jamey Richard. Even starting right guard has changed from former second round pick Mike Pollak to undrafted free agent rookie Jeff Linkenbach.  This move was made arguably because Linkenbach’s longer arms would aid him in pass protection and his strength and size should also have an impact on the Colts running game.  So far, Linkenbach’s transition to an unfamiliar position has yielded mixed results.  None of these moves address the fact that Ryan Diem is having the worst season of his career.

Over the last four weeks, these things have culminated in having an impact on Peyton Manning’s production.  They have turned Superman into something more human, just when the team needs a hero.

The first thing that stands out in Peyton Manning’s drop-off in production, or at least in his accuracy and stability, is the recurring theme of miscommunication, or misreads between him and his receivers.  In Weeks 1-6, Manning completed 171/254 passes (67%), threw 13 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, and was sacked six times.  In Week 8-11 (Week 7 Bye), Manning completed 115/184 passes (63%), threw 7 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, and was sacked 6 times.

In the latest four game stretch, Manning’s completion percentage has dropped off only slightly, but he has thrown two-and-half times the interceptions in 70 fewer attempts.  What could lead to this kind of production shift?

The first answer has to be familiarity, practice, and comfort with an ever-changing group of players.  The team has been so beat up that Manning has been unable to know with any certainty which of his weapons will be available.  When a player comes back at the last second from injury, all of the work he does with a backup receiver goes out the window.  The timing he has just established is wasted, and he has to revert back to his prior repetitions with the newly healthy players.

Another answer is that with so many of the Colts offensive stars out, it has to be very clear to Manning that if the Colts are going to succeed, an even greater weight falls onto his shoulders.  Passes will need to be even more perfect.  Attention to details and his pursuit for perfection has to have his mind on high-alert when he is on the field.  They say that if you over-think a situation, a game, a scheme, it can come back to bite you just as much as if you under-prepare or lose focus.  Manning might be living proof of that phenomenon right now.

Consider also the offensive line struggling against more aggressive defenses.  Manning has had to make decisions a split second sooner, has a shorter time to make his reads, has thrown interceptions because he has released them off-balance, not set, or with an awkward arm-motion.

All of these things have hurt the asset that distinguishes him from all other quarterbacks who have played the game, the cerebral part of the game — being aware of down, distance, situation.  Knowing when to throw the ball away or take a negative play to protect possession.  These parts of his game are harder to see, he is pushing too hard, and the result is more turnovers, more errant passes, and inconsistency.

The offensive line’s struggles have also impacted Donald Brown’s ability to produce in his first extended role as the starter.  He has been smacked relentlessly in the backfield.  When has had chances to break through a hole he seems too eager to crumble to the ground, awaiting the blow from the initial defender, and fails to keep his legs churning like his counterparts Joseph Addai, Mike Hart, and undrafted rookie Javarris James.  Frankly, it was disappointing when he entered the year without adding noticeable bulk after he seemed overpowered in his rookie season.  To this point, offensive line struggles or not, Donald Brown has not been a clear answer to any of the Colts offensive shortcomings.

No matter the reasons for the Colts inability to find an offensive identity, a big question-mark presents itself as Indianapolis heads into the final stretch for AFC South superiority, a chance to maintain their streak of 12-win seasons, and another playoff berth with promising implications.  The question: Where does the Colts offense go from here?

The good news for Indianapolis is that many of their remaining match-ups are at home, on fast turf, indoors, and in an environment where they have had outstanding success.  If the Colts manage to win all of their home games, something the past suggests is very possible, they only have to beat Tennessee (who is in a state of disarray) and Oakland on the road to finish out the season with six wins and continue their NFL record of consecutive 12 win seasons — and enter the playoffs as AFC South champions.  No winter wonderland trip to Buffalo to close out the season is definitely a good thing given the circumstances.

Even more encouraging, there is a chance that the Colts can afford to lose two of their remaining six games and still win the AFC South, which is somewhat amazing given how tumultuous the season has been compared to the past seven seasons of almost guaranteed 12-win efforts, with very little doubt on making it into the playoffs.  The fact that there is a shred of doubt in Colts fans’ minds is extremely unfamiliar, but the remaining schedule just might give Indianapolis the time to figure things out.

line has been going through a year-long metamorphosis. It is widely accepted that for an offensive line to function at an optimal level, it must have the opportunity to establish continuity as a unit. The Colts have not had that luxury.
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