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Why the Colts are doomed

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Long story short: Andrew Luck is hurt

Jacksonville Jaguars v Indianapolis Colts
The last time anyone saw Andrew Luck in a football uniform (allegedly)
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Indianapolis was poised for a rivalry with Washington (no, the other one), from the moment Andrew Luck and RGIII went 1-2 in the NFL draft. Unfortunately for the other Washington football team, RGIII was eclipsed by some third round pick out west, first by a playoff victory, then by a widening statistical gulf. The NFL was poised for a SEA-IND rivalry, but Ryan Grigson inherited a bad roster and somehow made it worse despite having the QB position locked up. The Colts and Seahawks are set to meet in Week 4, which Seattle fans saw as a great opportunity for Russell Wilson to get revenge for a 2013 loss to Luck, but for now the former top overall pick is out indefinitely.

With the news that Andrew Luck might not start the season, the Colts are doomed.

Where they were

The Colts finished a thoroughly mediocre 8-8 in the thoroughly mediocre AFC South. After five years, enough was enough for Jim Irsay and he fired Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano. Oh wait, they kept the head coach responsible for this:

NSFW

I guess any time you can look like an absolute moron against one of the best coaches in NFL history (still overrated though) you have to keep that mastermind around. With the hiring of Chris Ballard, the Colts are starting the NFL’s strangest rebuild, where they have a good (he is good, guys) QB and a great WR and basically no other exciting players.

The 2016 Colts

Stat Result
Stat Result
Point Differential +19
Pythag Win-Loss 8.4-7.6
Total DVOA (Rank) -4.6% (23)
Offensive DVOA (Rank) 3.7% (12)
Defensive DVOA (Rank) 12.5% (29)
S.T. DVOA (Rank) 4.1% (5)

Unfortunately for the Colts, they don’t have much positive regression incoming. Their +19 point differential leads to an 8.4-7.6 Pythagorean record, which is right in line with their actual 8-8 record. The chart does not paint an encouraging picture. Even with 15 games of Andrew Luck, the passing offense ranked 17th. For comparison, Seattle’s passing offense ranked 14th, but in the interest of fairness, Seattle had the benefit of the 22nd ranked rushing attack compared to Indianapolis who had the 10th best rushing attack by DVOA. Wait a minute…

What they gained

The Colts went nuts in free agency. They signed three players who will make upwards of $10 million over the course of the deal (if they don’t get cut). They also signed a punter to a $3.45 million deal and then cut him when he lost his job to an UDFA rookie. Honestly good for them for saving money instead of sticking with the big money (for a punter) contract. The big free agent signings were DT Johnathan Hankins for $27 million over three years, OLB Jabaal Sheard for 25.5 million over three years, and OLB John Simon for $13.5 million over three years. The focus is clearly on improving the 29th ranked defense by DVOA. Hankins had 7 sacks in a breakout sophomore season in 2014, but has not approached that in the subsequent years. I like the Jabaal Sheard signing a lot. He has averaged about 6 sacks a year since he entered the league in 2011 and give the Colts, who have ranked in the bottom third in the league in sacks the last two years, some badly needed pass rushing ability. John Simon also has some pass rush potential, as he totaled 10 sacks in three years on Houston’s defense.

In the draft, the focus on defense continued. Six out of their eight picks played on the defensive side of the ball. The first two picks give the defensive backfield much needed depth. S Malik Hooker is raw, with only one year of experience starting at Ohio State and offseason surgery prevented him from performing at the NFL Combine. However, his playmaking ability will definitely strengthen the back four in Indianapolis, if he can stay healthy. The Colt’s second pick was CB Quincy Wilson from Florida. A league-average athlete, per 3 Sigma Athlete, the Colts are counting on his large frame (6’1” with 32 ¼ inch arms) to compensate for a relative lack of quickness.

And during the new cut down from 90 to 53, the Colts traded Phillip Dorsett to the Patriots for Jacoby Brissett. More on that later.

What they lost

The players that walked away from the Colts this offseason are largely unremarkable. Mike Adams, a 36 year old strong safety went to Carolina. Zack Kerr, a nose tackle with limited pass rush ability (but as an UDFA has already exceeded expectations if he never plays another down) moved on to Denver. They also let Erik Walden walk after an 11 sack season. Considering that he averaged fewer than 4 sacks for the previous 6 seasons, it was probably smart not to overpay for one year of production.

The Colts finally got rid of Ryan Grigson, who was handed the heir apparent to Peyton Manning on a silver platter and colossally mismanaged his team. The 2011 Colts were 31st in total DVOA, 27th in offensive DVOA, and 26th in defensive DVOA. Five drafts and one franchise QB later, his Colts were 23rd in total DVOA, 12th in offensive DVOA, and 29th in defensive DVOA. In 10 years, the Grigson-era Colts are going to be a case study in how not to build an NFL team.

What comes next

After two consecutive 8-8 seasons, the state of the Colts franchise is in flux. Andrew Luck is the only player who is certain to remain on the team by 2020. Fortunately, he plays the most important position on the field. Chris Ballard has his work cut out for him in renovating a barren roster that is unlikely to lose enough games to earn a top 10 pick. This team could be a Super Bowl contender in a few years, or it could be stuck in the Matt-Stafford-Lions™ zone of perennial mediocrity. The three biggest factors in their future are Andrew Luck, Chuck Pagano, and Chris Ballard.

Andrew Luck been a good NFL quarterback. Of all 24 QBs with at least 1500 attempts, he has the 9th best TD% and the 16th best INT%. His ANY/A is right in the middle at 6.29, good enough for 14th. He is a perfectly acceptable first overall pick. What he is not is great. His offenses have ranked 18th, 13th, 17th, and (skipping his injury riddled 2015) 12th by DVOA. The passing DVOA for those seasons have never cracked the top ten. In fact, in three of his four healthy seasons, the Colts rushing DVOA has ranked higher than the passing DVOA. And sure, his teams have been far from juggernauts. However, great QBs elevate their support cast and overcome talent deficiencies. Seattle finished 22nd in offensive DVOA in 2011 and the only major addition to the offense was a dimunitive 3rd round quarterback. He elevated that cast (including Marshawn Lynch) to the fourth best offense in the league as a rookie. Luck can make every throw that Wilson can, but until he elevates his supporting cast, he will fall short of greatness. Oh and he also hasn’t thrown a pass in forever so who knows when he will start.

If a picture is 1000 words, a gif must be 10,000. I don’t know how much more I can add to my analysis of Chuck Pagano beyond the image above. However, like Pagano, I will sputter along and do my best. Chuck Pagano was hired after one year as an NFL defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens. That year, the Ravens were the third best defense by points and yards allowed and first by defensive DVOA. Of course, the Ravens had ranked third by points allowed every year for the previous three seasons (Never lower than 6th in DVOA). He managed to parley this one season of NFL coordinator experience (he also had one season as defensive coordinator at North Carolina) into a head coaching job. The results have largely been ugly. His overall record is a respectable 40-28, but that has been buoyed by playing in the atrocious AFCS. Fully half of his wins have come against AFC South teams, including going 12-0 against them in 2013 and 2014. As the rest of the AFCS improves, he is not going to be able to count on Luck alone to win him games.

Chris Ballard is less than a year into his job as general manager of the Indianapolis Colts. None of his draft picks have seen a regular season NFL snap. His Wikipedia article is three sentences. He helped build the Kansas City Chiefs, who are justttt good enough to lose in the playoffs every year. GMs should generally get a few years before people start judging them, but sometimes they make a decision so obviously atrocious that it deserves ridicule and derision immediately. The Bucs trading up into the second round to draft a mediocre kicker is one example. Trading Phillip Dorsett for Jacoby Brissett is another.

Dorsett is not a great WR thus far. He has 753 yards and 3 TDs on 98 targets over the last two seasons. He was a 1.4 sigma athlete who had trouble staying healthy, but put up decent numbers when he was healthy. He is a useful offensive player. Brissett… is not. He started two games on a much better team than the Colts and went 3 & out on nine of his 23 drives. He did beat Houston 27-0 but his contribution to the three TDs they scored that game was pretty minimal. For the first TD, he ran in a 27 yard score (after New England started at Houston’s 27 yard line), for the second his contribution to the drive was going 1 for 3 for 6 yards with an additional pass drawing a DPI, for the third, he handed the ball off to LeGarrette Blount twice. Maybe he has potential, but the odds of a third round QB pick succeeding in the NFL are very low.

This deal is made more atrocious by the fact that there is a perfectly capable QB with Super Bowl experience available in free agency. This deal makes no sense no matter how I look at it. Brissett is only going to provide value when Luck is hurt and if the Luck is not going to be healthy and Indy wants to tank, then it doesn’t matter who your QB is, so why trade for one? If Indy are trying to tank, why would they trade a young, cost-controlled asset, for a player who hopefully never sees a regular season snap? If you are trying to win games, then why not acquire the best available quarterback? Concerns about Kaepernick not being able to learn the offensive system are invalidated by trading for a guy a week before the regular season opens. It’s a disgraceful mess and no matter anonymous executives claim it is just a ‘football decision’, it is becoming clearer and clearer that it is not. If Chris Ballard is not interested in making moves that help his team win football games, he might be in the wrong job.

Prediction

The Colts are in a weird space. They have the most important part to a successful franchise locked down. They are just missing virtually everything else. The AFC South is not the cakewalk it used to be and 5 years of Grigson decisions have left the roster in shambles. And the crown jewel of the team, Andrew Luck, may not throw a pass this year. If he comes back within the first month, the Colts might salvage a decent season, but with that looking less and less likely every day, I predict that the Colts will end up going 4-12.