NFL Autopsy 2021: Indianapolis Colts
For all my hits this season, there have been some huge whiffs. This is where I get to start writing about them and analyze what I liked about each team I whiffed on, what I overvalued, and what I undervalued. Our first subject: The Colts.
Indianapolis Colts: A Team Destroyed by Simplicity
Going into the season, I was high on the Colts. They are a team with an identity: they have an amazing o-line that they love running behind with Jonathan Taylor, they have a stout defense that they can rely on, and they have great situational coaching. They win by controlling the ball, winning the turnover battle, and physically dominating line play.
This seems like a winning formula, and it was for a time. Despite having a 31st-ranked offensive pace (sec/play) and only one 300+ yd passing performance, the Colts kept winning by sticking to their formula. Take a look at their wins: Dolphins (9–8), Texans (4–13) [twice], 49ers (10–7), Jets (4–13), Jaguars (3–14), Bills (11–6), Patriots (10–7), Cardinals (11–6).
- The Dolphins were having their worst stretch of the season. They’d won by 1 against the Patriots, and then lost to the Bills by 35 and by 3 against the Raiders. After losing by 10 to Indy, they proceeded to also lose to the Bucs, Jaguars, Falcons, and Bills (again). Only after that did the Dolphins right the ship and go on a run, but this win at the time was very clearly unimpressive.
- The Texans were NFL bottom feeders this year with rookie QB Davis Mills and overwhelmed rookie HC David Culley. The Colts destroyed the Texans in both of their matchups, and it would have been incredibly concerning if they hadn’t, considering that the Colts are built to run the ball during a year where the Texans had one of the worst run defenses of all time.
- The win against the 49ers was during the stretch where they ended up losing 5 of 6 games. They’d been struggling offensively, scoring just 21 against the Seahawks and 10 against the Cardinals. They figured it out following this game, obviously, but this was also a game where the rain was coming down hard and ruining the field conditions at Levi’s Stadium, giving the Colts an advantage for their run game.
- The Jets were a terrible team this year. The vegas line was -10.5 favoring the Colts because nobody expected this game to be close. It wasn’t. This win didn’t verify the validity of this Colts team by any stretch of the imagination.
- The Jaguars were a team the Colts managed to struggle against twice, and their sole win against Jacksonville was when Urban Meyer still coached the team and went up to Indy, only for the Colts to win by just 6 points.
- The win against the Bills was 100% the signature win for the Colts. However, the Bills were in their offensive slump at the time as well, having scored just 6 points 2 weeks prior against the Jaguars. The Colts also dominated the trenches, and the Bills have a difficult time defending power-run schemes. This was also a bit of a revenge game after Indy was ousted by Buffalo in last year’s playoffs. The win was still impressive.
- The win against New England was a battle against a rookie QB and featured two teams that favored the same style of play: play from ahead, run the ball, don’t risk it. I’m actually going to write an article soon about the Patriots, stay tuned for that.
- The Cardinals, as we know, were not a strong team in the later part of the season. The Cards were an especially-bad team without their center Rodney Hudson. They did not have Hudson in this game.
All of this to say: the Colts’ wins were deceptive at times. They were far too reliant on winning the turnover battle, shown by their +15 turnover margin in their 9 wins and their -7 margin in their 8 losses. QB Carson Wentz couldn’t be trusted, with 18.8% of his throws being classified as “Bad Throws”.
Conclusion: I was fooled by Indy’s potential. Save for the Buffalo (and maybe New England) game, the Colts never had a game where they played strong offensively and defensively. The classic rule of potential is that if there are too many if’s, you’re overthinking it. The Colts were going to be great IF Wentz’s play improved, IF the o-line stayed healthy, IF the defense continued being top-10, IF they didn’t turn the ball over, IF they could reliably get leads and stay ahead, and IF they didn’t have to rely on Wentz to win games.
There are 6 if’s in that paragraph, and probably more that I missed. The potential of the Colts was mind-blowing, but we have to also look at what’s actually happening. Playing from ahead can win games, but when you’re a physically dominant team that plays from ahead behind a one-dimensional offense, there are several things that can go wrong: 1) you don’t have the lead, 2) you have to consistently score, 3) you don’t play with the energy that a physically dominant style demands, 4) teams load the box and maybe a WR or two is out.
Future Outlook: What does Indy do next?
The Colts weren’t unlucky, they just didn’t play well enough this year. The reason for optimism, though, is that their roster is still fantastic, and their coaching staff looks to remain intact. The main two areas of improvement seem to be at QB and WR, but QB is the most immediate need. Since they don’t have a first round draft pick, the Colts will be looking in free agency most likely. They’ll have a tough time trading for guys like Rodgers (GB) or Wilson (SEA) considering their aforementioned lack of draft picks, but they could target someone like Derek Carr (LV). If not him, there are plenty of free agency options, such as Ryan Fitzpatrick (WAS) and Teddy Bridgewater (DEN). There are also guys like Matt Ryan (ATL) and Kirk Cousins (MIN) who could feasibly be traded for. As for WR, this draft is loaded with WR talent, so I could definitely see IND piling up some talent at the position.
The Colts had a rough time this year due to a slow one-dimensional offense, but this is something that can be remedied. That, combined with the pieces the Colts already have along with their coaching staff, gives the team a lot of upside in the future. Keep your heads up Colts fans, this team isn’t going anywhere.