For the past two seasons there have been a myriad of problems with the Colts preventing them from reaching that proverbial mountain top of the football world.
In 2007, the injuries to Marvin Harrison, Dwight Freeney, Rob Morris, Joseph Addai, and half of the offensive line, took it's toll on the team as they struggled to perform at their highest level going into the playoffs, thus ending their run as defending champions.
In 2008, Peyton Manning was hindered by two knee surgeries to remove an infected bursa sac, and a revolving door at just about every offensive line position caused the offense to sputter and fall out of sync. In addition to that, the loss Ed Johnson and Marlin Jackson weakened the defense in that players like Keyunta Dawson and Tim Jennings were moved into starting positions.
So as we inch closer to the start of the 2009 season, the Colts must utitlize the past as a tool to better themselves for the future. All the while taking into account for the improvements or changes that have been made in the offseason. As I have reminisced the problems that have prevented the Colts from being successful in reaching their ultimate goal these past two seasons, and taking into account the recent changes, I've created a list of 10 things the Colts must do to become Super Bowl champions once more. Failure to complete these tasks will result in yet another disappointing season.
10. There must be a smooth transition with the new coaching staff
Nearly every coaching position on the staff has been filled with a new person. This is one area that the Colts have had such an advantage over most other teams in that there has been very little change in personnel over the years. The Colts are going to start the 2009 season with a new head coach and defensive coordinator for the first time since 2002, as well as a new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach for the first time in the Peyton Manning era. These are not minor changes, these are huge, potentially franchise crippling changes, the likes of which we've haven't seen in over a decade.
On a more positive note, the great thing about these changes (Larry coyer and Ray Rychleski aside) is that all of the replacements have been made by promotions from within the coaching staff created by Coach Dungy. This will help ease the transition in the sense that there is already familiarity there between coach and player. The coaches who have been promoted understand what it takes to win and how the Colts, the most consistent team in the NFL this decade, go about winning. So in this sense, the transition should be smooth, but only time will tell.
9. Special teams play must improve
Since Russ Purnell was kicked to the curb, and the real special teams coach (and best special teams player) was signed by the Denver Broncos in free agency, it will be interesting to see how the special teams play this season. Ray Rychleski is going to have his hands full that's for sure. But he has to get things turned around because the special teams play has been subpar for far too long.
8. The 2nd tight end/h-back spot must be solidified
This position is the second biggest question mark in terms of who will be filling it going into the 2009 season. For a closer look at the candidates who may fill this role, Colts Homer provided us with some analysis.
Two tight end sets are an integral part of the Colts offensive system. The importance of this position lies solely in the player's blocking ability. They are to be an anchor on the offensive line, sealing the edge for the Colts best running play, the stretch.
Last season, the Colts were incapable of running the stretch. Earlier in the season it was due to Manning's knee, but later on it was because the interior of the offensive line played horribly preventing the running backs from even making it to the tackle position, especially on the right side. So as the offensive line improves, this second tight end position becomes more important.
7. Find a good balance on offense
With Manning slowly but surely recovering from his surgeries last season, logic would tell you that the Colts should have relied more on the run until Manning was fully healthy. It's a great logic, but the problem was the Colts couldn't run on a high school team, therefore forcing Manning to take over games and pass the ball more than he should have been. The offense hasn't had great balance since the middle of the 2007 season. When Addai started to get hurt, Peyton had to rely on guys like Kenton Keith, who was really just an average running back that had bricks for hands. And we're all aware of how the 2008 season went down; poor play on the offensive line, and even poorer play from the running backs, Addai in particular.
If the offensive line can improve and Addai can start producing better, the running game will be able to take a lot of pressure off of Manning and the passing game. Balance on offense is the key to effeciency, and effeciency wins games.
6. Defense needs to hold its ground
Our god Bill Polian has answered our prayers, he went out and stacked the interior defensive line with a ton of talent. That should solve the problem in stopping the run right? Wrong! Unlike running a rock concert, it takes more than just two guys to stop the run. The entire defense must play as one unit. Yes it all starts up front with the defensive tackles, but they can't be expected to play flawlessly for 60 minutes. The defensive ends must be able to seal the edge and not overpursue on every play. The linebackers need to be able to roam freely and attack the ball carrier when they have the opportunity instead of overpursuing or being stoned by a lineman.
If there were ever a year that the Colts would be able to stop the run effectively, it's this year. In stopping the run, the Colts would be forcing opposing offenses to convert longer down and yardage than in the past. By keeping offenses in 2nd and 8 and 3rd 5 situations, an offense becomes more predictable. When an offense becomes more predictable, and by predictable I mean one dimensional, that works in the favor of the defense especially the Colts who excel against the pass.
5. Gonzo needs to step it up, big time
With the departure of Marvin Harrison a huge void was created in which Gonzo was used to fill. We knew this day would come, and the general consensus amongst Colts fans is that Gonzo should do a good job. But there's always that question of, how do you replace a legend? The answer is simple: you don't, you strive to be better. This is what I want to see from Gonzo. I don't want another Marvin Harrison. I don't want another Reggie Wayne. I want the next great receiver. Someone who is willing to go above and beyond to become the best to ever play his position. Trying to "replace" a legend does nothing but set you up for failure. Gonzo and Marvin are two different people, and two different players. So it would be foolish for us to hope that he can be as good as Marvin, when we should hope that he wants to be better.
The Colts have had two #1 receivers ever since Reggie matured and went from prospect to legitimate threat. With Gonzo having two years under his belt to learn the offense and work with Peyton, he should be able to step up without missing a beat.
4. Run the ball
Last year was a disaster for the running game. Our "star" running back missed 4 games, and was hampered by injuries for most of the season. Our backup running back played up to his level, but his level was never really that high in the first place which prevented him from being able to make up the ground lost with Addai constantly out of the lineup. And then there is the story of the offensive line. When you combine all three of these problems, it's no wonder that the Colts were 31st in rushing.
Those problems aside, the Colts must run the ball. The Colts need to know that when called upon, Addai or Brown can rush for a first down on third and short. The safety of Manning and the longevity of his career hinges upon the running game and it's ability to produce and take pressure off of him. When the playoffs come around, and it's freezing cold outside and snowing or raining like the dickens, the Colts must run the ball.
3. Better defensive 3rd down efficiency
The biggest problem with the defense last season wasn't that they were being run all over or getting burnt deep against the pass. It was the failure to stop teams on third down, no matter what the distance. Back in January mgrex03 crunched some numbers that showed how the defense performed on third down. Let's just say it was bad, real bad.
The more I think about all of the problems the Colts had last season including the defensive 3rd down efficiency, the more apparent it became that finishing the season with 12 wins was a downright miracle. By failing to stop teams on third down, the defense prolonged their time out on the field causing them to become more tired towards the end of the game. While they were out on the field getting their butts handed to them, Peyton and the offense was chillin on the bench chomping at the bit to get back out on the field.
The Colts average time of possession per game last season was 28:46. The opponents average time of possession was 31:34. The Colts only won the time of possession battle in 5 games last season, two of which were blowouts against the Ravens and the Titans in week 17. That-is-pathetic. Is it all the defense's fault? No. Part of it was the inability to run the ball and eat up clock, but a good part of it was the lack of 3rd down stops by the defense. If the 3rd down efficiency improves, that will give Peyton and the offense more opportunities to milk the clock and score themselves. The more opportunities Peyton has with the ball, the better chance the Colts have of winning games, period.
2. O-line must improve
The biggest question mark by far going into the 2009 season is how the well o-line will play. This may seem like a very redundant thing to say, but everything the Colts do on offense revolves around how well the line plays. If the o-line can't pass block, Peyton will die. If the o-line can't run block, apparently Addai won't be able to run for crap and will average only 12 starts a season.
The o-line is essential in order for the Colts to rely in the run when need be (#4), allow Peyton time in the pocket to hit his open receivers (#5), and to keep balance on the offense (#7). If the inconsistent play of the o-line continues, don't expect the Colts to be as lucky as they were last season and keep their 12+ win streak alive.
1. Stay healthy!
It's about time our reign as one of the most injured teams in the league came to an end. It's hard enough to win a game week in and out, it' For the love of all that is good, no more injuries!