There really is nowhere to go but up for an offense that was without Peyton Manning for the entire season and saw Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky start multiple games at quarterback. But sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better, and a 2-14 record paved the way for Indianapolis to take their next franchise QB, Andrew Luck. But just like Manning 14 years before, expectations will be manageable for Luck, who enters a situation where a six- or seven-win season will be met with the same praise Colts fans once reserved for their playoff teams.
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But low-pressure situations are usually indicative of something else: little in the way of hope. That was the case early last season -- and justifiably so; without Manning, fans turned their attention away from the games and focused on then-president Bill Polian's shortsightedness in finding a competent backup. That gave way to the inevitable Suck-for-Luck memes that eventually came true and ended up with Peyton relocating to Denver. But Peyton wasn't the only offseason casualty, just the biggest. Joseph Addai, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, and Jacob Tamme all were thanked for their service before hitting free agency (either through expiring contracts or outright release). The team re-signed veteran Reggie Wayne but he'll be in a new offense with a new coordinator and a shiny, new quarterback. Austin Collie, who has battled concussions in the past, is the No. 2 wideout, though Luck will have his favorite college target, tight end Coby Fleener, playing the same position in Indianapolis (he was drafted in the second round this April).
Under Tony Dungy and then Jim Caldwell, the defensive philosophy went something like this: play a sound Cover 2 scheme, make the plays you're supposed to make, then get out of the way for Manning and the offense. It was a relationship based on Manning staying on the field and upright. Once he was sidelined with multiple neck surgeries, the philosophy, along with any chance of regularly scoring points, went out the window. Owner Jim Irsay decided to rip the Band-Aid off this spring; there is no transitional period -- he just fired everybody and started over. Chuck Pagano, hired to replace Caldwell, knows something about tenacious defense. He comes to Indy from Baltimore, where he was the defensive coordinator. Whether the Colts, a unit with plenty of pass-rushing talent but short on quality depth at other positions, can successfully make the move to a 3-4 defense is another matter (though if you're going to make the switch, what better time than after a two-win season?).
Complicating matters: Two of the team's best defenders -- defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis -- will be moving from hand-in-the-dirt pass rushers to outside linebackers, where one or both will regularly have pass-coverage responsibilities. But Freeney and Mathis are proven NFL playmakers; the same can't be said for the secondary, which generally has to work in concert with the front seven for the scheme to be effective (good pass rush leads to turnovers on the back end, and likewise, good pass coverage leads to sacks up front).
Roster Departures: QB Peyton Manning, QB Dan Orlovsky, RB Joseph Addai, WR Pierre Garcon, TE Dallas Clark, TE Jacob Tamme, G Ryan Diem, C Jeff Saturday, C/G Mike Pollak, DE Tyler Brayton, DE Jamaal Anderson, DT Eric Foster, OLB Philip Wheeler, OLB Ernie Sims, ILB Gary Brackett, CB Jacob Lacey, S Melvin Bullitt.
Staff: Ryan Grigson replaces Bill Polian as general manager; former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano replaces head coach Jim Caldwell; former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians replaces Clyde Christensen (who is now the quarterbacks coach); former Chargers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky replaces Mike Murphy; former Ravens assistant special-teams coach Marwan Maalouf replaces special-teams coach Ray Rychleski.
Virtually every position was one of need, especially in light of all the offseason turnover. The organization addressed many of those needs but the stark reality is this: the Colts will be lucky to sniff .500 -- rookie quarterback, upheaval on defense including a new scheme, and new faces up and down the roster. Clubs don't like to admit their starting from scratch but even Irsay can't deny it. In January, after firing Polian, the owner was frank. "The decisions that are coming up are crucial, and obviously, when you're looking at a general manager, a head coach, having the No. 1 pick in the draft and knowing that you're rebuilding in some areas, that is about as massive as it gets."
Indeed. Perhaps the most underrated of these tasks is protecting Luck, who will play behind an offensive line that ranked 25th in run blocking and 18th in pass protection, according to Football Outsiders. Good news: Only three of the projected starters were on the team in 2011 (and if Mike McGlynn starts over Ben Ijalana, that number drops to two). Bad news: It's not clear the replacements are upgrades. Anthony Castonzo, the Colts' 2011 first-round pick, has the makings of an elite left tackle but the other four positions all come with questions. Center Samson Satele will succeed Jeff Saturday, and while the former is the better athlete, it will be impossible to replace the latter as a respected team leader.
As often happens with coaching changes, the new regime brings players with them. Cory Redding and Tom Zbikowski are former Ravens and know Pagano's system, and Mewelde Moore played for Arians for four years in Pittsburgh. He'll be a steadying force in the backfield, even if his snaps are limited.
X-Factor: Andrew Luck
Maybe it's unfair to write the defense off before the season starts, but any success the Colts have will be because of the offense and specifically the quarterback. In that sense, it's not much different than the Peyton era. Look closer, however, and the differences are numerous, starting with Manning's rookie season when he went 3-13 and notched 26 touchdowns against 28 interceptions. Despite all that has gone wrong with this organization in the past 12 months, Luck could lead Indy to seven, eight, even nine wins next season. Seriously. It has happened before, and not merely once or twice.
Pagano knows from his experiences with the Ravens and Joe Flacco just how important a good defense is for a young quarterback. On paper, the Colts' D doesn't look like it stands a chance, but they don't have to be the 2000 Ravens. Even a mediocre group could go a long way in keeping the team in games next season. Pagano also hired Arians, who also happened to be Manning's first quarterbacks coach in Indianapolis, and he spent the past five seasons as Ben Roethlisberger's OC in Pittsburgh. He knows something about bringing along a young, talented quarterback. "[Arians] understands how to develop quarterbacks, especially young quarterbacks," Pagano told CBSSports.com in Indianapolis during Super Bowl week.
The Falcons, 49ers, Bengals and Panthers are other teams who handed their offenses (either by design or necessity) to rookie or unproven quarterbacks with surprisingly pleasant results. Think about it this way: If the only difference in Indianapolis between annual double-digit wins with playoff berths and last season's 2-14 record is Manning, then why can't the Colts win half their games with Luck in 2012?
Does Wayne still have it?
There were plenty of shocking developments this offseason -- Reggie Wayne re-upping with the Colts was among them. By December, we figured he was headed out of town with Manning and would either join him in 2012 or end up in New England. Instead, he inked a modest three-year deal for $17.5 million and is one of the few remaining veterans on a team that went to the playoffs every year from 2002 to 2010. But if last year's production is any indication -- Wayne had 75 receptions for 960 yards and four touchdowns ... with the triumvirate of Collins, Painter and Orlovsky throwing to him, imagine what he can do with one of the best quarterbacks to come out of college since John Elway.
Draft picks to contribute?
The primary reason Bill Polian was fired had to do with the team's recent poor track record with drafting quality players. Glance at recent first-rounders and you'll see names like Jerry Hughes, Donald Brown, Mike Pollak, Anthony Gonzalez and Tony Ugoh (originally a second-round pick but Polian gave up a future first-rounder to trade up and take Ugoh). We'll know more about Castonzo this season, but you could argue that Grigson's first draft didn't require much heavy lifting. That's true with the first pick, but the team took tight ends (Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen) with back-to-back picks in Rounds 2 and 3. For a team with needs everywhere, that decision required some guts. While Luck and Fleener will play a lot, it's Indy's other third-rounder, wideout T.Y. Hilton from Florida International, who could be the gem of this draft. A deep threat with 4.3 40 speed and big-play ability, he will also contribute as a return man.
Can the running game help Luck?
After two uninspiring seasons, Donald Brown set career highs in rushing yards (645), touchdowns (5) and yards per carry (4.8). Though he has yet to fully live up to the first-round hype (he started only two games in 2011), he's showing promise -- and that's a start. He'll be joined in the backfield by Delone Carter and Moore, and any semblance of a running game means less of a burden on Luck to carry the offense.
AFC scout on Indianapolis: "Might do better than you think. [Andrew] Luck is that good. Scouted him extensively and it can't be said enough how accurate his throws are. When a quarterback is naturally that accurate, he gives his offense a chance to at least function somewhat normally. That's Luck's best hope -- to get to around five or six wins, which would be miraculous. The Colts are the most talentless team, overall, I've seen in this league the last five or six years. ... How quickly they fell apart is like nothing I've seen. Luck is good enough to at least make them respectable for next season. Maybe."
Xs and Os
By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider
|Colts' Rivals: AFC South|
2012 Preview Schedule
Texans @ Colts: 12/30 (1 p.m. ET)
Colts @ Texans: 12/16 (1 p.m. ET)
2012 Preview Schedule
Jaguars @ Colts: 9/23 (1 p.m. ET)
Colts @ Jaguars: 11/8 (8:20 p.m. ET)
2012 Preview Schedule
Titans @ Colts: 12/9 (1 p.m. ET)
Colts @ Titans: 10/28 (1 p.m. ET)
The Colts are in one of the most challenging franchise rebuilds I can recall. Peyton Manning ran the offense for over a decade and he's gone, and the defense was a quick Tampa two 4-3 package and it's gone, too. Speaking of gone, a total of 16 veterans are no longer on the roster. Patience is the major requirement for the Colts' fans.
Andrew Luck takes over and he will need a better offensive line than Peyton Manning had just to remain upright. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians comes over from Pittsburgh. Arians had Ben Roethlisberger as a rookie and kept his pass plays to 23 a game during his first season. I don't believe Arians will have that luxury with Luck. I wouldn't be surprised to see Luck much closer to 35 pass plays a game and a continuation of the Manning no-huddle offense.
The Colts' offensive line isn't built yet to support a power run team, the running backs aren't power backs and the team will be playing catch-up most of the season. In 2011 the Colts only cracked the 100-yard rushing barrier five times and only rushed for eight TDs. The Colts' offense will be primarily a 12 personnel package (one RB, two TEs, two WRs) with rookie tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen playing critical roles.
The defense is making a radical philosophical change to a 3-4 package and it starts with standing Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis up as linebackers. They will be fine in third-down situations because the club probably will go to a four-man rush. The early downs are where the challenges will be as teams spread the Colts out and force one or both to play some zone coverages.
The new three-man front wants to two gap and play big but there's no Haloti Ngata or Terrence Cody on this roster. The Colts were 29th against the run last year and it may be a repeat of that again no matter how much Coach Pagano tweaks the scheme. In the secondary, Indy would like to play a significant amount of man coverage but don't have the players to do so.
By Rob Rang | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst
While quarterback Andrew Luck is clearly the most important of the Colts' ten draft picks, he's not the only player chosen by first-year general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano who could make an immediate impact.
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Florida International wideout and return specialist T.Y. Hilton didn't receive the national fanfare that his athleticism and game-breaking ability warrant. Had he been starring in the SEC rather than the Sun Belt, the fact that he scored six combined touchdowns as a punt and kick returner over his career would have gained more notice. So, too, would the fact that he showed remarkable consistency throughout his career -- catching between five and seven touchdowns a season (24 total) in his four years with the Panthers.
Blessed with terrific quickness, lightning straight-line speed and courage to cross the middle, Hilton could emerge early in his pro career as a dynamic slot receiver. His vision and burst in the return game will make him a playmaker to fear there, as well.
The rest of the Colts' picks:
1st Round - No. 1 overall - Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
2nd Round - No. 34 overall - Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford
3rd Round - No. 64 overall - Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson
3rd Round - No. 92 overall - T.Y. Hilton, WR, Florida International
5th Round - No. 136 overall - Josh Chapman, NG, Alabama
5th Round - No. 170 overall - Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State
6th Round - No. 206 overall - LaVon Brazill, WR, Ohio
7th Round - No. 208 overall - Justin Anderson, OT, Georgia
7th Round - No. 214 overall - Tim Fugger, DE/OLB, Vanderbilt
7th Round - No. 253 overall - Chandler Harnish, QB, Northern Illinois