Another year with championship aspirations, another bitter end. Yet for some reason, I think most of us would agree that this year felt different. That coming up short, at some point, seemed inevitable. That the Colts could only lose so many impact players before they didn't (pardon the pun) have the horses to compete with January teams.
Personally? I got over the loss quickly. Whereas last year's Super Bowl loss festered in the pit of my stomach for a good week, I managed to move on from this loss within a half-hour or so. Yes, the Colts could have won the game. Yes, there were some disappointing decisions and performances, some the culmination of season-long trends. Yes, a victory would have been nice. But in the end, did we ever really think the 2010 Colts were anything but an underdog run? In the end, did we ever think they could stand toe-to-toe with the Steelers or Patriots? I didn't. I'd seen enough sub-par quarterbacks shred a duct-taped secondary to know better. Defense wins championships, folks. Defense and a running game. And in the end, due to a combination of injuries and lack of talent -- with a generous sprinkling of inept special teams -- the Colts didn't have enough of either to continue this run past the wild card round.
I'm attempting to focus this breakdown on Saturday's game, as we have an entire offseason to talk about retrospective issues. I'm sure some issues can't help but segue, though, or otherwise create a bridge between a point I'll make in the game as it relates to an issue that his plagued the Colts throughout the season. As Brad pointed out in last night's Stampede Blue podcast, Saturday's game was somewhat of an ode to all those things that left us shaking our heads throughout the season. That's not to say it was all bad -- it wasn't. But Saturday's game was the product of a season of injuries, mistakes and questionable roster management.
More thoughts after the jump.
1. There is no defending Jim Caldwell's timeout.
If it was just Stampede Blue criticizing Caldwell, you might be able to make a case that perhaps we're biased or skewed or saw this decision in a certain light that others didn't. But Bob Kravitz railed against the decision too. As did Phil Wilson. As did Gregg Doyel, much as I loathe his "contributions." As did Michael David Smith. As did Peter King. The list goes on from there, and more than likely includes Peyton Manning as well, though I'm taking a "seriously, dude?" gesture over any direct quote when it comes to his dissension.
Folks, you don't get that many dissenting opinions from that many sources if there is nothing wrong with Caldwell's decision.
What troubles me most about his decision is that he was essentially betting on the defense. And not betting on the defense to stop the Jets, but to either sack Mark Sanchez or force him into turning the ball over. It was the point of "buying" an extra play, just as Caldwell did at Jacksonville earlier in the year. Well, it didn't work then, when the defense was considerably more healthy. Why would it work now, when the defense had generated just a handful of turnovers down the stretch and proved itself utterly incapable of getting to Sanchez in the second half?
It was a bad gamble. Maybe you make that gamble in Jacksonville, with Jerraud Powers and Kelvin Hayden as your starting cornerbacks and enough healthy defenders to constitute at least a respectable blitz package. But you do not make that gamble with Jacob Lacey and Justin Tryon as your starting corners, stuck in man coverage against the Jets' wide receivers -- who, by the way, had torched them (well, Lacey anyway) all night long.
Caldwell said that the Jets were already in field goal range -- 50-yard field goal range, mind you -- and he wanted to force them to have to make a play and potentially expose the ball to a change in possession or at least a loss of field position in the process. In a similar situation against Jacksonville, the Colts blitzed and left the Jaguar receivers in man coverage, pressing from the snap. Hayden almost ended up with an interception as a result.
If Powers and Hayden were still the corners, maybe I see the mentality. But with Tryon and Lacey...really? And beyond that, they didn't even blitz. Not that they're an effective blitzing team. It's just that, you know, if you're going to leave Lacey in man coverage, you might want to bring some pressure?
Let's break it down:
There's a look at the offensive and defensive sets for the Jets and Colts, respectively. The Jets are in shotgun with three wide receivers and a tight end flexed into the slot after he comes across the formation in motion, bringing Antoine Bethea along with him. The Colts are in a nickel package with Cornelius Brown as the extra defensive back. Their two outside corners, Tryon and Lacey, are in press man coverage on the play, Lacey sitting further down than Tryon.
Here's the defensive look, as best as I can tell given the lone play (no replay) and camera's focus on Braylon Edwards. Cris Collinsworth correctly points out pre-play that Lacey and Tryon are in man coverage and that the Colts "don't feel comfortable" in man coverage. Tryon draws Santonio Holmes in man coverage, Lacey draws Edwards. Elsewhere on the play, Brown appears to be in man coverage on Jerricho Cotchery, though maybe his zone drop just took him step-by-step with Cotchery toward the sideline (I tend to think there would be more give in his coverage if zone, though, but information is incomplete with poor camera angle) and Bethea appears to be in a similar situation with Dustin Keller on the other side of the formation.
As far as linebackers, Gary Brackett is spying LaDainian Tomlinson on the play and Tyjuan Hagler drops into a zone toward Bethea and Lacey, with coverage obviously intended to blanket Keller. Safety Ken Hamlin sits over top all of this in deep zone coverage, the only safety deep. He appears to shade toward Lacey on the play, despite my terrible MS Paint sense of scale.
Basically, the Colts stack eight in the box here with a deep safety over top and two corners in man coverage on the outside. It's a pressure look by the Colts, only everyone drops and no one brings pressure except the front four. I didn't show their pass rush routes, but only Robert Mathis' brings him anywhere near Sanchez. Dwight Freeney is owned on a failed spin move on the outside.
Let's look at what the Jets run. From bottom to top, Holmes runs a fly route, knowing he has Tryon in man coverage. Cotchery runs a simple out route which draws Brown away from that one-on-one matchup on the outside. Tomlinson doesn't really do anything on the play, but after he leaks I imagine he could have either turned back for a quick catch or continued upfield. He doesn't complete the route anyway. Keller just takes Bethea off the line for about four or five yards and sits in a zone, drawing Hagler also in a bracket coverage that frees up a one-on-one matchup with Lacey and Edwards on the other side.
Hamlin, at this point, is presiding over top two one-on-one matchups on two go routes, one of which Edwards breaks off on Sanchez's throw and turns back to leap and grab along the sideline.
So to overlay the two calls, the Colts basically leave those man matchups defended by zone corners, presenting these routes as ripe for the proverbial picking. Let's also not forget that one play prior, Sanchez had Edwards wide open deep for a potential game-sealing touchdown play after Edwards torched Lacey in man coverage previously...but never saw him.
That doesn't matter, though, because he has Edwards on Lacey in man coverage again. Lacey is quicksand slow to react to the ball being launched and just begins to pump his brakes and make that hard cut back toward Edwards as the ball drops in the target area. As Edwards reels in the pass, Lacey is clearly still two yards in front of him. He is in no position to either play Edwards (by shoving him out of bounds before he can establish possession) or the ball.
Let's put everything together now. Caldwell calls a timeout, wants his defense to make a play to either force a turnover or make the Jets lose field position. Some combination of Caldwell and Larry Coyer make this defensive playcall: a man coverage look that has Lacey defending a receiver who roasted him on the previous play. The only pressure comes from the front four, which had proven itself ineffective in the second half.
No real rush, no real challenge in coverage. Pitch and catch for Sanchez and Edwards.
I don't understand Caldwell's thinking at all here. I know what he's gambling on, but I don't know why -- this defense has been allergic to turnovers for quite some time now, not entirely unrelated to the injury bug -- and I don't know what anyone was thinking with that defensive playcall. It perhaps made less sense than the prevent look they showed at the 46-yard line on the drive's first play, with 45 seconds remaining on the clock. Lacey and Tryon were both 10 yards off their receivers on that play. Easiest catch Edwards ever made.
It's like the Colts couldn't give out yards fast enough on this drive. Yet Caldwell bet on them in a season where they've failed to make plays on defense and in a game where the second half defense had let the Jets beat them up for the duration. And he bet on a corner (Lacey) completely incapable of playing man coverage.
There is no way to excuse that call.
2. Pat Angerer should have been benched for Tyjuan Hagler in the second half.
This again goes back to bad coaching. I believe Angerer has a future in this league. He was a solid SAM linebacker for this team, albeit unspectacular, this season. He filled in admirably at MIKE linebacker in Brackett's absence too, even though he was overmatched at times. Angerer gave a great effort all year long and had some moments that really made you think he could be an impact linebacker in this league.
But he should have been pulled from Saturday's game and replaced with Hagler. There really isn't any argument to be made to the contrary, unless Hagler was hurt, and I would tend to doubt that as he was in on the Colts' final defensive play.
Angerer has been exploited in space all year long, and Saturday was no exception. Time and time again, his poor coverage ability cost the Colts. And then when the Jets went to an almost exclusive ground-and-pound attack, Angerer was getting taken out of almost every play, absolutely blasted off the edge. One of my first breakdowns looked at Philip Wheeler's ineffective edge play at SAM (he was benched the following week) and Angerer's performance on Saturday had me thinking back to that game. He was as ineffective vs the Jets as Wheeler was against the Redskins, and largely for the same reasons.
Simply put, the coaches dropped the ball on this one. If Angerer wasn't getting the job done, and he wasn't, they needed to go to the next guy, and that was Hagler. Unfortunately, though, the Colts have this bizarre habit of treating Hagler like he's toxic waste, nevermind the fact he's probably been their most effective SAM linebacker since Rob Morris blew out his knee and ended his NFL career. Even with Clint Session down for the majority of the year, the Colts largely refused to start Hagler at either SAM or WILL linebacker even though he excelled in both as a reserve. And it took a monumental failure by Wheeler and a litany of injuries at the position to even get them to consider bringing Hagler back, or at least keeping him (they actually brought him back, waived him and brought him back again...the ol' 54-man roster trick.)
I don't know for a fact that Hagler would have played better than Angerer, but I do know for a fact that Angerer was not getting the job done. I guess it was appropriate for the night, though, that the defensive coaches kept sticking with something that just was not working. That philosophy was certainly mirrored in that decisive Edwards catch against man coverage.
3. Jerry Hughes is "busting."
BBS used that word to describe Hughes in this week's podcast, and I think it's completely fair. Is he a bust yet? I would never say that. I know anyone claiming such would promptly be pointed toward Fili Moala, who maybe contributed a dirty joke and a Kleenex his rookie season but ended up playing some decent football by the end of his sophomore campaign. The NFL is brutal on rookies, particularly defensive linemen. It took Dan Muir a season to get comfortable with the Colts (of course, in his third season, he promptly reverted to rookie form again.) I understand that it takes defensive linemen time to acclimate and that the book is far from written on Hughes.
But he is "busting" and Brad's term is a completely honest assessment. "Busting" would imply that Hughes is trending toward bust, and until I see evidence to the contrary, he is. He offered nothing as a defensive end on the night...heck, on the season. And on his most important play, the one play this season he had to make a colossal difference for the Colts, he utterly failed. ESPN's Paul Kuharsky noted this and described it best:
On Antonio Cromartie's 47-yard kickoff return that helped set up the Jets’ winning drive, Jerry Hughes had the first and best opportunity to get the defensive back down.
Hughes could have had Cromartie at the 15-yard line or so, but his effort seemed halfhearted and it didn’t take much for Cromartie to angle a bit more to his right and run right past him.
For Hughes, who showed very little as a rookie first-round defensive end, it’s the most memorable (non-)play of the season and the second most memorable thing about him as a Colt.
The first was Bill Polian’s radio lament about not taking Rodger Saffold, a player the Colts thought was a right tackle who played very well as a left tackle for St. Louis this season.
Think about that. For all his invisibility earlier in the season, if Hughes makes a tackle there, he's at least a special teams hero. At least he's on Taj Smith's level, and I don't have to tell you how sad it is that a first-round pick needs to aspire to be on Taj Smith's level (Dallas game Taj Smith, of course, not running-into-the-thespian Taj Smith.)
My biggest concern with Hughes busting is that he's not even a contributing special teams player. When the Colts originally drafted him, they (Bill Polian) foolishly filled our heads with promises of immediate impact, particularly in the 'Joker' role. Polian compared him to Mathis and asserted that he would be an immediate asset to the pass rush. Then -- and again, BBS and mgrex03 cover this in the podcast -- the team slowly started backing off those expectations the further we got into August, until we were told that Hughes was essentially a project.
Okay, fine. He's a project. Polian wishes he could have taken Rodger Saffold in retrospect, but fine, let's just assume Hughes is a project. A project that looks no different than Marcus Howard to me, but a project nonetheless. Let's go with that.
Projects need to be able to at the very least contribute on special teams.
Taj Smith could contribute on special teams. Blair White could contribute on special teams. Kavell Conner, Pat Angerer and Cornelius Brown contributed on special teams. I'm having a difficult time figuring out how Hughes could possibly be so bad that he can't even make an impact on special teams. You could say that few defensive ends do, but I would argue that Mathis was a special teams demon his rookie year and for the 2006 postseason when the Colts put some starters back on special teams. If Hughes really is in the same build as Mathis, shouldn't he be able to at least contribute on special teams as well?
I wasn't surprised by Cromartie's return, and I'm sure few were. It was the Colts' coverage unit, after all. Pat McAfee was perhaps their best tackler on the night. And while it's easy to write off fault due to injury, I would point out that coverage units have long been a problem. Long before this injury-ravaged season. Yet Polian refuses to sign free agents that make any notable impact on special teams (or sign enough of them anyway) or draft enough guys that can get the job done. Part of it is the top-heavy model that has the Colts employing the league's soon-to-be-highest-paid QB, highest-paid DE, K, one of the highest-paid CB and SS in the league, leaving little for bottom-of-the-roster (special teams) guys.
So if the Colts are going to go top-heavy and they're also going to draft projects, those projects have to be able to contribute on special teams. Drafting a guy in the first round that can do literally nothing for your team is inexcusable. Maybe Hughes blossoms (does that word read as awkward as I think it does?) into a fine pass-rusher. I don't know; I haven't written him off.
What I do know, though, is that in a season where every roster spot counts and facing a new CBA that may expand the game to 18-game seasons and would surely make ever roster spot count, you can't have a guy who does absolutely nothing. If Hughes was a poor pass rusher but a special teams demon, I doubt many of us would be upset about his performance. But so far, he's neither.
4. The Colts should have fielded starters on that final, fateful kickoff.
Going hand-in-hand with that last point is a real head-scratcher for me: why on earth did Caldwell and/or Ray Rycheleski fail to field starters on their most important kickoff coverage of the season?
The "starters on special teams" debate is one for another day, perhaps, but this was one play. One play that could define a season. One play where, if they cover the kick at the 20 or 25-yard line, they more or less seal the game (then again maybe not the way they were playing defense.) Why would you not put Mathis, Bethea, Brackett, etc. in on kickoff coverage?
A common response to that question would be "they haven't practiced there, not for a few years anyway." I'd say that was a valid point if the guys who had practiced there were any good. They're not. Hughes was in special teams practices all week, I'm sure. Didn't stop him from making a half-hearted effort on a poor angle to bring down Cromartie. Nate Tripplet was in special teams practices all week too. Didn't stop him from grasping air when he lunged at a free-running Cromartie.
For all the guys that were in special teams practice that week, some of them still left return lanes uncovered.
So why not put starters in to cover one kick? Afraid of injury? The season is on the line, so who cares? I mean, let's take a look at players covering this kick: McAfee, Angerer, Hughes, Taj Smith, Wheeler, Tripplett, Mike Newton, Cornelius Brown, Mike Hart, Mike Richardson and Keyunta Dawson.
No Mathis. No Bethea. No Hagler. No Brackett. No Tryon or Lacey. No Conner.
Please, tell me how that makes any sense. Most of those guys made a name for themselves on special teams in the first place. And you're going to entrust your season, the most important kickoff of your season, to guys like Nate Tripplet and Mike Newton? To Jerry Hughes?
There were a lot of mind-boggling coaching decisions on Saturday. This ranked up there with the
best worst of them.
5. Peyton Manning locked in to Blair White and Jacob Tamme too much.
I only have one criticism of Manning in this game, and it's written above. Consider this: of Manning's eight incompletions, five were to either White or Tamme. His first incompletion of the game was a pass that Tamme flat out dropped. On the second series, his third down pass to White was complete...but short of the sticks, because White ran the route short. On the third drive, a third down incompletion to White killed the drive. A Tamme penalty and follow-up drop nearly killed the Colts' second scoring drive, and finally, an incompletion to White forced the Colts to settle for a long, should-have-been-game-winning field goal.
For as admirably as he played on the season, Tamme was really bad on Saturday. Drops, penalties, terrible blocking that blew up the Colts' first 3rd-and-1 attempt on their first offensive series. You name it, Tamme was bad doing it.
I'm not sure why Manning absolutely insisted on locking on to these two guys and ignoring Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon in the early goings (Wayne for the game.) Garcon was taking Cromartie's lunch from the first snap and had Cromartie beat on several occasions before Manning finally started looking his way. But Manning was so focused on getting the ball to a reserve TE and a fifth-string receiver in the early goings that he didn't really consider what his two proven commodities were doing on the outside.
Look, I'm not in the Manning choked crowd. I thought Manning played a good game. I think any time your offense puts the winning points on the board with less than 1:00 left n the game, the offense did its part. It won the game. Now, can the special teams and defense go on to lose the game from there? Well, you saw it happen. Sure they can. But I have no problem with Manning or the offense's overall performance, because really the game came down to the defense and special teams simply not needing to crap the bed for 50 seconds...and due to a combination of execution and coaching, they couldn't manage to keep their sheets white.
I do, however, think Manning was determined to go to the well one too many times with those guys, and I think forcing passes to targets has been an issue for him all season. Sometimes, Manning gets so robotic, so calculated, that he only considers what should be there versus what is there. Theoretically, yes, Tamme and White were good matchups. But they were Tamme and White. Their range is limited, especially White's. You have to, in my opinion, draw up plays for your proven commodities and go with what works, not what should work.
Manning did finally get away from forcing these passes when he started looking for Garcon and found, surprise, he had Cromartie as tentative and confused as he is on Father's Day. Of course, he still never looked Wayne's way. I have a few thoughts on that, but most are clouded by a nightmare replay of Wayne running a certain route in the Super Bowl.
That about covers my postgame thoughts. Again, there are plenty of issues from this game that overlap with the offseason, and we'll have plenty of time to get to those later. For now, I mostly just wanted to focus on this game and these five issues that cropped up on Saturday night.
I hope you all stick around for the offseason. Between the CBA, draft and Polian's pledge to consider free agency this year, there is certainly a lot to discuss.