Indianapolis Colts: So, What Now?
After falling behind in the standings early this season, the Indianapolis Colts caught a bit of luck as they put some wins together and the AFC South-leading Houston Texans began to develop chips in their armor, giving ground to the Colts and Tennessee Titans in the division. Last Sunday's showdown between the Colts and Texans was everything the Colts needed to shake off any wrongdoings earlier in 2016 and launch themselves towards the playoffs. Both at 6-6, the Colts would take the outright lead with a win. First and foremost, the game was at home, and they were going to get a struggling Texans offense. The Colts had just walloped the New York Jets, 41-10, in their own house the week before, so momentum was on the Colts' side.
And then the game actually happened.
The Colts only led for a portion of the first quarter, and countless errors never allowed them to fully come back. They were within one score for much of the fourth quarter, but all of the penalties, drops, turnovers, missed tackles and allowed QB pressures all came together to do them in. Final score: Texans 22, Colts 17.
Now, it will take the equivalent of a football miracle to get the Colts into the playoffs. They are a game back (6-7) of both the Texans (7-6) and Titans (7-6), and there are just three games left in the regular season for the Colts to surge and the Texans and Titans to completely fall apart. The Colts' three remaining games come against the Minnesota Vikings and Oakland Raiders (combined 17-9 and both have controlled their divisions for part of the season), as well as the Jacksonville Jaguars, an underachieving, downtrodden squad, but one that beat the Colts 30-27 in Week 4 in London earlier this year.
Last Sunday meant everything to the Colts, and now, you would expect them to be emotionally let down. Are they spent? Or do they truly believe they can still make it into the tournament? The optimist will go with the latter, but the realist will tell you that it is probably time to start looking toward the offseason.
With all of that in mind and the regular season coming to a close in a few weeks (Merry Christmas?), what should lie ahead for the franchise in need of a major bounce-back?
1. Make Changes to General Manager and Head Coaching Positions
It's time. It just is. The regime of general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano started out with three consecutive 11-5 campaigns, going further in the playoffs each time. After Pro-Bowl quarterback Andrew Luck was out with injury for half of the season in 2015 (including some injuries that appeared to have been covered up or not fully disclosed by the duo), the team understandably came back down to earth with an 8-8 record. It was a bummer, but when five quarterbacks take snaps throughout the year, it's not expected to end well.
Then came this January, when a super weird square dance took place that saw Grigson and Pagano almost certainly fired but then somehow rewarded with new contracts after owner Jim Irsay sat them down for a time-out, followed by a day-long make-up session. Even with "Grigano" back in tow, the Colts had a quality draft, and expectations (locally) for 2016 rose back up to where they were following the 2014 season. Why shouldn't expectations have been high? The team nearly made the playoffs without Luck, and now their top-10 quarterback was returning.
While the general manager can be blamed for offseasons and team-building (and we'll get to that later), what happens to a team during the season is largely on the back of the head coach and his staff, and that of the Colts' has a lot heaped on it at this juncture in the season. While it is still technically possible, there is no reason that the Colts should not be in first place in the AFC South and headed back to the playoffs. The Titans are a solid, consistent team, but the Colts swept them this year. The Texans have a terrible offense because of their 31st-ranked quarterback and depleted line, and JJ Watt, their team's best player, has essentially missed the entire season. They have also dealt with season-ending injuries to starting offensive linemen Derek Newton and Nick Martin as well as cornerback Kevin Johnson.
Instead, the Colts can't show up prepared for consecutive games, winning back-to-back contests just once this year so far. They've allowed teams to steal their leads and come back to win late in games, and the aforementioned penalties, drops, turnovers, missed tackles, QB pressures and overall lack of execution from last Sunday's game is a microcosm for how their entire season has gone. When you couple players that can't collectively get out of their own way with coaches that do the same, something has to give.
I am a firm believer that you don't just cut ties with someone unless you have a solid plan to replace them. For the Colts, unless they wait until the last minute this offseason to part ways with Grigson and/or Pagano, they should have their pick of the litter of candidates. The Colts do have an attractive nucleus of young players, plus a state-of-the-art stadium, a supportive fan base and an always-winnable division. And, although Irsay is an outspoken, quirky owner, he does not micromanage, and he gives whatever tools his employees need to be successful.
2. Out With the Old, in With the New
As of the start of the 2016 season, the Colts have the fourth-oldest roster in the NFL (26.52 average age). In 2015, they were the oldest and were fourth-oldest again back in 2014. Their age mostly resides on the defensive side of the ball, though 44-year-old kicker Adam Vinatieri doesn't help the average. On offense, their eldest statesman is running back Frank Gore (33). He has been an exemplary player for the Colts since joining last offseason, and though the offense hasn't had a back with his vision since Edgerrin James, the Colts need more out of the position. Finding someone in the draft would be a wise way to go, whether that be a blue-chip talent like Dalvin Cook or Leonard Fournette in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, or someone along the lines of Royce Freeman, Jeremy McNichols or Samaje Perine on Day 2. Gore honestly doesn't look done, however. If the Colts drafted a player that they plan to be his successor, perhaps they could have the two split carries for a year.
Letting go of veterans is never easy, but for the Colts defense, the offenses they are facing are flat-out more athletic and spry than they are. Outside linebackers Robert Mathis (35), Trent Cole (34) and Erik Walden (31) are all past their primes and rarely create plays on their own, the best days of inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (33) are behind him as well, and safety Mike Adams (35) is essentially a placeholder for the duo of Clayton Geathers and T.J. Green. Mathis, Cole, Walden and Adams are also all free agents in 2017. The issue with letting go of these players is first, they are almost all leaders, especially Mathis, Jackson and Adams. Mathis has been in Indianapolis since 2003 and is the franchise's all-time sack leader. Pagano is also fiercely loyal and seems to genuinely love these guys. What probably should happen and what probably will happen don't always coincide when the Colts are involved. I don't expect the Colts to part ways with all three of Mathis, Cole and Walden, but they should explore putting whoever stays into more of a situational pass rusher role while integrating younger players like Akeem Ayers in, and they absolutely have to pay attention to pass-rushers early in the draft.
3. Be Smart in Free Agency, Draft
Now, to Grigson. Possibly the least popular man in the Colts organization, people constantly talk about his shortcomings, and it is well deserved. However, I do want to point out some of his successful moves before joining the torch-and-pitchfork side. In free agency, Grigson was able to rope in Jerrell Freeman, Cory Redding, Darius Butler, Jack Doyle, Mike Adams, Kendall Langford and Gore, and he traded a second-round pick for Vontae Davis and got first-round value in return. And in the draft, Grigson found TY Hilton, Donte Moncrief and Henry Anderson in the third round, Clayton Geathers in the fourth and David Parry in the fifth, plus countless late-round picks and undrafted free agents that have made the team and contributed. However, you can hit on these mid-to-late-round guys all you want, but what is the deal with the top of the draft?
In Grigson's five drafts, the Colts have drafted 38 players... only 18 of them are still on the team (47%), and just 17 if you consider that former third-rounder Hugh Thornton was stashed on Injured Reserve this year and shouldn't have made the team in the first place. Only 3-of-10 players remain from the 2012 draft class, 1-of-7 from 2013 (Thornton), 2-of-5 from 2014, 5-of-8 from 2015 and 7-of-8 from 2016. Two first-round picks are gone (Bjoern Werner, Trent Richardson), one second-round pick is gone (Coby Fleener), one third-round pick is gone (D'Joun Smith, another if you consider Thornton). Plus, 2015's first-rounder, Phillip Dorsett, has absolutely not shown first-round value so far. In 23 career games, he averages 2.0 catches (4.0 targets) for 27.8 yards and 0.1 touchdowns per game.
When you observe Grigson's first and second-round flops and look at some of the players that were chosen within 10 picks after the Colts picked, it only makes the sting worse: Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes, Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins, Los Angeles Rams LB Alec Ogletree, Green Bay Packers DB's Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, New England Patriots DL Malcom Brown, New York Giants S Landon Collins, Chicago Bears DL Eddie Goldman and Seattle Seahawks WR Tyler Lockett.
Grigson has also had some subpar to downright awful free-agent signings. Samson Satele (three years, $10.8M), Mike McGlynn (two years, $2.65M), Tom Zbikowski (three years, $5.4M), Donald Thomas (four years, $14M), Gosder Cherilus (five years, $35M), LaRon Landry (four years, $24M), Darrius Heyward-Bey (one year, $3M), Hakeem Nicks (one year, $3.9M) and Todd Herremans (one year, $3.5M) all failed to see new contracts with the Colts. All are also considered huge free-agent flops either due to injury or performance.
It can't be easy for Irsay, an owner accustomed to the decade-plus of success he saw in the 2000's, to have to hit the "reset" button yet again for the second time in five years, but if he wants all of these Super Bowl titles that he talks about and that he knows that Luck, the franchise and the fan base are all being robbed of, changes need to be made. Grigson and Pagano should be commended for their successes since their arrival, but to get to the next level, Colts need people who have been there and who know how to win consistently and without stipulation.
If they make these changes, make sensible decisions in free agency and the draft, then they should find themselves back on top of the division, returning to the playoffs and trying to summit the AFC and the rest of the NFL.
Jake Arthur is the AFC South Division Manager, Indianapolis Colts Team Manager, Assistant Director of NFL Content and a Featured Analyst for Pro Football Spot. He is also a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @JakeArthurPFS on Twitter as well as on h, Google+ and FanCred.
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