Covering the 2011 Colts: Narrating the Narrative

One of the most interesting subplots of the Colts’ 2011 season has taken place not on the football field, but in the newspapers, on radio and television, and on the internet. Peyton Manning’s injury seems to have not only made Colts players vulnerable, but their front office staff, as well. To some, myself included, the media’s handling of the Colts this year seems to have a personal nature to it: as if, after years of being “treated poorly” by Colts President Bill Polian, they decided to pounce on this opportunity to “twist the knife”. In the preseason, when the Colts signed QB Kerry Collins to replace QB Curtis Painter as the backup, much was made about how the organization only used Caldwell as a puppet. That Caldwell had no real power. And that he is, at best, out of the loop.

One month ago the Colts released CB Justin Tryon. The move, understandably, sent Colts fans into a frenzy – Tryon was a fan favorite, a player that many expected to solidify the secondary in a starting role next to CB Jerraud Powers. Instead, Tryon started out 3rd on the Colts depth chart and slowly worked his way towards being released. While fans were upset, some in the media saw this as another opportunity to question the Colts organization. What many, myself included, seemed to lack with Tryon situation was perspective: Tryon was a 4th round draft pick in 2008. He is now, at age 27, on his 3rd NFL team. His first team, the Washington Redskins, traded him for a 7th-round pick. His second team, the Indianapolis Colts, waived him (he went unclaimed). Generally, when a player is as good as Tryon was being made to be, he can stick with a team. Tryon has been inconsistent in his limited time with this Giants thus far. The Colts record under Jim Caldwell, including this year’s 0-8 start? 24-16 in the regular season and 2-2 in the post season. The Colts achieved these records despite being one of the most injured teams in the NFL (2009 numbers, and 2011’s numbers won’t look any better). The New England Patriots released CB Leigh Bodden, a player that was expected to start in their base defense this season. Instead, Bodden opened up as the 3rd-string CB, playing mostly in the nickel- and dime-sub packages. The Patriots pass defense is 32nd in the league in raw/conventional stats and 30th in the league in advanced DVOA metrics. The Patriots decision paralleled that of the Colts – a bad pass defense releasing a CB that was expected to do big things, but instead never claimed the starting job. Unlike the Colts situation, however, not a peep was made about Leigh Bodden’s release, about how it indicated that the Patriots did not know how to build a pass defense, and how he is just another in a long line of failed front office moves for an organization that has been relatively unsuccessfully in both the draft and in making trades in recent years. And about that criticism of Jim Caldwell, “Polian Puppet”? The Leigh Bodden announcement was made during Bill Belichick’s press conference. Bill Belichick was asked about Bodden specifically and did not mention his release, but instead declined to comment on Bodden. Was Belichick called a puppet? Out of the loop? No, it was just “Belichick being Belichick.” And finally, many in the media have made the claim that the Colts have struggled in recent drafts, going as far to say that the Colts’ 0-8 record is a direct result of those “failed’ drafts. A lot of excellent work has been on the draft by Nate Dunlevy at 18to88, Kyle Rodriguez of is working on a draft project, and I am in the process of doing an in depth study on the draft from 1998-2010, and the biggest thing to take away from the work that has been done? The Colts are really good at drafting. Not only do they draft good talent at or better than league average, but they do so from a later position (their average “registered” first round pick has been 26th since 2001, the Patriots were 20th, the Steelers were 22nd). And what about the last drafts that have come under the most scrutiny? A cursory look at the 2007-2009 drafts shows us that the Colts had 26 selections. Of those 12 of those 26 selections remain with the team today. The Patriots, by comparison, have had 29 draft picks (but forfeited one because they cheated) in that same 2007-2009 period. 8 of their 28 draft picks are still with the team. The Patriots are often praised as being one of the best drafting teams in the NFL. One might argue that the Colts hold on to their players longer than most, that those players should not be with the team, etc… but the Colts are in the business of winning football games, so in their opinion those players are better than any of the available alternatives. Further, even if you removed the odd “bubble player”, their draft record would still be on par with what other, “better drafting”, teams have done. The 2011 Colts are not a good team. They are 0-8, one of the favorites for the #1 overall draft pick in the 2012 Entry Draft, and will not be favored to win any of their remaining 8 games. They have problems in their secondary, questions at quarterback, and a coaching staff that has come up short – on the field. Somewhere along the way the truth about the Colts – that Peyton Manning is the best quarterback of this era, and the Colts were unable to overcome his injury – got turned into a grand piece of fiction about how the Colts could not draft, how roster moves were a matter of politics, not skill, and how their coach was merely held up by some wood and string. Bill Polian has undoubtedly brought some of this on himself. The way the Colts treat local media surely leaves writers feeling bitter and upset. His smug, arrogant attitude has rubbed people the wrong way for a long time. He is, however, one of, if not the best, personnel men in the NFL, so perhaps the “pundits” should get their licks in while they can – 2011 presented a unique opportunity they may not have again for some time.