Do you guys remember the "stretch play"?
You know, it's the play that the Colts started using back in 1999 with Edge. Peyton sprints to the outside and the O-line stretches horizontally (hence the name) and the RB uses his vision to find a seam and cut back into it. The Colts have been running it every year since then... except, for some unknown reason, they stopped running it last year.
Poof! It was gone like magic.
Many of us thought that it was due to the fact that Manning's knee was too weak to handle it, but then the knee got better and the Colts still didn't run it. Were the rookie guards just not able to handle it? Personally, I doubt that. The Colts have always been able to plug in young guards. Just look at years past when they had the revolving door of Tupe Peko, Steve Sciolio, and Rick DeMulling (and whoever else they could find, for that matter). The Colts were always able to run the stretch play despite injuries and turnover. I am not saying the stretch play is easy, but it's not as complicated as Denver's zone blocking system is, either. We will probably never know exactly why the Colts stopped running the stretch play last year, but it did expose us all to the fact that the running game has become a bit of a One-Trick Pony.
Without the stretch play the backs were lost, the O-line was lost (Jimmy Hoffa lost, that is) and the offense lost its identity (due to the inability to run play-action). It's a testament to the skill of Manning that he was able to work miracles without any running-game support. I know the stretch play is important, but don't you find it a little dumb that the Colts weren't able to at least grind out a mediocre running game using more "basic" run plays? I have always believed that if you can't line up in the Power-I formation and get at least 4 yards, then you might as well not even try. That is pretty much what the Colts ended up doing last year. By the end of the year they just flat out stopped running the ball. Short screen passes and hitches became our new running plays. Teams responded to this by running nickel and dime defenses on 1st and 2nd down. They dared the Colts to run because they knew they couldn't. Miraculously, the Colts managed to squeeze out an existence this way. What happened when the Colts needed just one yard...one tiny yard to defeat the Chargers? Well, we all know that story already...
Now, I've been critical of the RB's and the O-Line, but I also think there is another issue here. That issue is the stretch play itself because (and I know this is a controversial opinion) the over-reliance on this play makes the Colts a soft running team. Sure, the Colts have been able to gobble up big rushing statistics, but when they needed that one big game changing yard yard it always seemed to elude them. Think about it... the Colts have struggled, and I mean really struggled at short yardage. Just look at previous examples:
1. Edge fails to get a goal-line TD in the 2004 Pats game.
2. Same situation with Edge in the 2005 Pats game.
3. Joe Addai, in the 2008 Chargers playoff game, fails to convert on 3rd and short to win the game (and God only knows how many 3rd and shorts the Colts have failed on over the years).
4. Finally, let me just add that you know it's bad when every time there is a 3rd and short or a 3rd and goal you, as a fan, feel this sudden sensation of despair sweep over you.
My opinion is that the Colts' over-reliance on the stretch play is the cause of this. This reason being is that the stretch play is about pushing people to the side rather than pushing them back. It's about the RB using his vision to find seams rather than using his speed and power to run North-South. In short, the stretch play makes the Colts too "cute."
Sometimes, you just have to line up and push your man backwards to get that damn yard! The reliance on the stretch play has created a mentality (in addition to promoting a skill-set of speed over power) that makes the Colts very weak in short yardage. The offense spends most of the game using the stretch play, and/or variations of it, so much so that they are inept when it comes time for them to run the North-South style between the guard and the center.
I have no problem with the Colts running the stretch play some, but the team must get back to basics in terms of running the football. Run more straight ahead and a lot less side to side. As I said earlier, if you can't line up in the Power-I formation and get 4 yards then you might as well just not run the ball. Often times football games hinge on getting that one yard and it's discouraging to see this team rake up all sorts of wonderful statistics only to trip on those last few inches! Hopefully, this year Coach Caldwell will make short yardage conversion a priority. I think a big part of that has to be changing the mentality of our running game (both the RB's and O-line). No more dancing in the backfield, and no more fancy blocking footwork! Run North-South and "put your man down" Sean Connery-style in The Untouchables! I just want to see a little more Bill Parcell's style with the Colts running game.
So, to end this, I think it's important to remember that for one year in the Manning-era the Colts were actually fairly good in short yardage running. They weren't great at it, but they were certainly good enough. That year was 2006 and I think the Colts won something that year...