Questioning the Colts?

Dallas Clark contemplates. Colts fans join him. (David J. Phillip | AP Photo)

Mama said there would be days like this. Then again, Mama also said that I was a handsome boy that could be anything I wanted to be, so I really never paid much attention to her warnings. After watching the Colts fall to 0-2 on the season, I wish my Mama had spent less time teaching me lyrics to songs from the ’60s and more time teaching me self-hypnosis. In the wake of the Colts 27-19 loss to the Browns, perhaps the lowest point for this franchise in more than a decade, Colts fans are questioning everything from the talent on this Colts team, to the front office, and even their own sanity. While each fan will have a different answer for each of these questions, it is that questioning – that deep passion for the Colts – that makes us fans. Like you, I have spent a lot of time wondering about these Colts, where they will end up this year, and where they are going in the future, here are some of my answers.

The first question, “does this Colts team have any talent?”, is a simple one, though it is easy to lose sight of the obvious when you suffer a bad loss to a bad team on your home turf. There is a lot of talent on this team. On offense, they have an embarrassment of riches at WR and TE. All six of their top receiving targets (Wayne, Collie, Garcon, Gonzalez, Clark and Tamme) would easily make any roster in the NFL and, in most cases, start. They appear to have two legitimate threats at running back, in Joseph Addai and Delone Carter. And the offensive line, while a work in progress, is already looking better than the units fielded the past two seasons. On defense, the Colts feature perhaps the best set of defensive ends in the league in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Safety Antoine Bethea is perhaps the most underrated defender in the league. Pat Angerer, Drake Nevis, and Jerraud Powers are all young players that should be mainstays on the defense for a long time. The Colts have talent. The problem is that talent, all of it, was built around a system – a philosophy – and that system was built around a Manning. DEs Freeney and Mathis, though underrated against the run, thrive when they are able to slash up field and harass opposing QBs. The defensive scheme, the Cover-2, while able to stand up to the run, really shines when the opposing team is forced to throw into the teeth of its zone coverages. Without Manning, the Colts will struggle to get leads and Freeney, Mathis, and the rest of the defense will be forced to play in situations that don’t allow them to best use their talents. On offense, the system was designed and wired through his brain. To reuse an old analogy, Manning and the offense are one. The offense literally ran through his mind, with adjustments, tweaks, and evolutions occurring each season. Now 13 years into that process, you cannot simply remove Manning and expect the offense to adapt. And I believe it is a misnomer to say that Collins has to learn the system. I believe the entire Colts team has to learn a new system. A new offense, an offense that doesn’t change at the line of scrimmage, that doesn’t run as many option routes, as many audibles. The Colts went to bed with a Ferrari and woke up with a Yugo, but are still being asked to compete. As for Collins specifically, while his first half performance against the Browns was better in every way compared to his play against the Texans (and a lot of that probably had to do with the quality of opponent), Collins still broke down at the end of the game, with his two turnovers (another fumble and an interception) sealing the Colts’ fate. Collins seems frozen by the rush – he holds the ball too long, misses open receivers, and seems to step up into pressure as often as he moves away from it. At 38 years old, he simply is no longer that good. Having a great stable of receiving options does not matter if your quarterback can’t utilize them.  It is like being granted the wisdom of Einstein, but locked in a room for eternity with Jessica Simpson. So, the Colts have talent, but that talent won’t help them win too many games this year, it seems. The next question Colts fans seem to be asking themselves is, “how soon can we get a new coach in here?” Full disclosure:  I was not a fan of the Jim Caldwell hire. He may have been the right man for the job, but I did not see the harm in interviewing candidates and seeing what popped up. It is a similar situation to what the Steelers went through post-Cowher. They were probably going to hire Ken Whisenhunt or Russ Grimm, but found Mike Tomlin. Good things happen when you do your homework. That said, I believe that most coaches in most sports (with hockey being the notable exception) have very little effect on game day. Their work is done during the week, planning, prepping, practicing and installing a game plan. On Sunday, it is up to the players to execute that game plan. The one area I think a coach can make a difference is aggression – specifically 3rd- and 4th-down decisions. My problem with Caldwell is, every time he is given an opportunity to be aggressive, he chooses to eschew it for a more passive choice. He has done it this year, kicking field goals when they needed more points, punting near mid field, etc… With Collins, some of these decisions can be excused, but this has been philosophy of passiveness that Caldwell has practiced since being named head coach. Caldwell has shown an insane willingness to trust his defense, which has shown a unique desire to allow long, soul-sucking drives at inopportune times, over his GREATEST TO EVER PLAY THE GAME quarterback. Perhaps Caldwell does not understand how statistics (in this case “Expected Value”) can help your team better succeed in such situations, but it is his responsibility to surround himself with the best, smartest people possible to help him succeed. Another area of concern for me in the coaching department was the apparent lack of adjustments on the defensive side of the ball. I, along with others, bemoaned their passive approach to the game, especially with Manning out. Now was the time to be aggressive, to force mistakes, I shouted. Finally, against the Browns, the Colts did that. They mixed coverages, they pressed the receivers, they blitzed in conjunction with jamming. It was great to see, and it was the brightest spot I took from the game. The downside to that bright spot, incidentally, was learning once and for all that CB Jacob Lacey is not that good. How he continues to start is a puzzle, and I hope the team stops stubbornly trotting him out there. In the end, I don’t think Caldwell should be fired for the product on the field in 2011. It is not his fault that the team struggles without Manning. No coach would do much better. I do, however, think he either needs to show an ability to better grasp aggressive situations the next time Manning is on the field, or the Colts should move in another direction. There is a difference between staying out of the way of your talent and actively hindering it, and Caldwell’s field goal/punt decisions are clearly in the ‘hindering’ camp. With Caldwell being spared (for now) the axe, we turn our gazes to the Colts’ front office. It seems like a great many people, from fans to bloggers to media, are (not-so-secretly) relishing the Colts struggles as it gives them an opportunity to “justifiably” attack Bill Polian, the former Colts GM that has rubbed more than a few people the wrong way in his 200+ years of dark service. People have attacked Polian’s inability to sign a decent backup that would have the Colts in a better position than Collins. They’ve harped on a “poor draft record” as a reason the team is lacking high-end talent at every position on the field, and some off the field. They mock Irsay, calling him a crazy old man whose tweets are probably the result of some experimenting done in college. Okay, I confess, that last one was actually from me. The first criticism is easy to handle: there is no player available through trade, free agency, or genie wish, that would have made the Colts a playoff team this year. Manning and the offense’s integration aside, the lockout killed any chance to even attempt to build a new system around the next starting quarterback. Manning is out, there is nothing that can be done to come close to replacing him. The second criticism is actually pretty straightforward as well, but it requires some critical thinking. All entry drafts are (supposedly) designed with one thought in mind:  funnel new, young talent to bad teams, and punish over time, through talent erosion, the good teams. Since 2001 (11 drafts) the Colts have made a 1st round selection nine times. The average draft position for those nine picks: 26th. The average 1st round selection for two teams considered to be great drafting teams, the Patriots and the Steelers: 20th and 22nd respectively. Both the Patriots and the Steelers missed the playoffs multiple times, allowing them to draft higher (yes, I know the patriots trade around a lot. I also know they had to forfeit a pick for cheating. Let’s call it a wash and move on). The fact of the matter is, as great as Manning is, his greatness has prevented the Colts from having “self-correcting seasons.” All of those years when the Colts suffered an inordinate amount of injuries, when they battled through mediocrity, only to win their standard 12 games and the division, would have been top-15 draft picks for a team led by someone other than Manning. Manning’s greatness, his ability to lead his team to wins in games the team has no business winning, helped the team while hurting them. The truth is, for where they have had to draft, the Colts’ front office has done a marvelous job of consistently getting production out of most of their drafts. As for the drafts that seem to be major failures, 2007 and 2008 for instance, take a look around the league.  Of the 32 first-round picks in the 2007 draft, nearly half of them (15) are either out of football or on their second (and in some cases third) team. The reality is, those drafts were just not that good. It is easy to say, for instance, that Donald Brown has been a bust, but it’s a much harder task to suggest a reasonable alternative that the Colts could have selected 27th overall that has had a successful NFL career. No team hits on all of their first round picks. Your success rate diminishes quickly when you’re constantly picking near the bottom. The last question I want to deal with is one not of skill, but of Luck. Andrew Luck. Already the chants have started, “Suck for Luck!” Some people just fall into perfect names, like the girl down the street named Cinnamon. But I digress. To me, at this point in time, the notion that the Colts should draft Luck is insane. We are two weeks into a 16-week season. We are two weeks into a 3-6 month rehab for Peyton Manning. Here is what would have to occur before the Colts are even in the position to consider it: not improve at all over the next 15 weeks. Struggle to the point where they are unable to beat the Jaguars (twice), Titans (twice), Chiefs, Bengals or Panthers at least 3 times total. More importantly, since that seems at least somewhat possible, the Colts would have to learn that Peyton Manning’s career is effectively over. So the short, sweet answer first:  If the Colts finish with the top pick in the 2012 draft and Peyton Manning’s career is over, then yes, I believe the Colts should draft Luck. If, however, crazy things occur, and the Colts don’t finish dead last in the league and – hope of all hopes – Manning is able to finish his career (with at least four more years) at a reasonably high level, then I don’t see how the Colts really even consider Luck. First, the way the new CBA works, 1st Round picks are signed at reasonable cap hits for four years, with an option fifth year at franchise tag levels. So the Colts would have Luck signed to a cap-friendly contract for 4 years. Manning’s contract, coincidentally, has four years left on it. If they drafted Luck and Manning returned, the questions would start immediately, “when and how do the Colts get rid of Manning?” I, for one, don’t want it to come to that. I’m a fan. I’m not a business man, I’m not the GM, and I’m not cold, emotionless decision-maker that can forget the past 13+ years and make a decision based only on the pros and cons. If Manning can play, I want him to play until he’s ready to retire. In a business that uses and abuses young men and spits them out without a second thought,  I want to see Manning go out on his own terms. I want to see him play until he’s ready to go. Is it possible that that hurts the team in the long run? Yes, sure, but that’s for the front office to deal with. Manning has brought them more success, more credibility, and yes, more money, than any group of players could have done, he deserves to go out respectfully, gracefully, when he wants. As for sitting Luck down for four years, letting Manning “groom” him until he retires, that route does not make sense to me either. If Manning is the starting quarterback in Week 1 of the 2012 season, the Colts only mission should be to load up with as much talent as possible for those final years, however many there are. Drafting a player 1st over all only to have him sit on the bench for four years would be a massive waste of talent — talent, as we’ve discussed, that the Colts desperately need. The best case scenario for the Colts would be to finish first over all, with multiple teams in need of quarterbacks (Chiefs, Seahawks, Dolphins, Redskins, Cowboys, etc…) finishing with the top 2-10 picks. Allow a bidding war to start, trade down, and load up on enough high-end talent to give the Colts the best chance to send Manning off as the Broncos sent Elway off (minus the cheating): with rings. If you were a fan of the Colts before Manning came along, you’ve seen days as bad as the one you saw yesterday, but that doesn’t mean you were ready for it. It’s natural to feel frustrated, angry, and yes, it’s natural to question the team when the going gets tough. These emotions, these questions don’t make you less of a fan, in fact it’s those emotions and those questions that makes us fans in the first place. You care, we all care. That’s a good thing.So just remember, Mama said there would be days like this. She also said there would be better days ahead. Mama, she’s always right.