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The 1997 to 1999 Indianapolis Colts: A Statistical Examination of the Rebirth of a Franchise – PART I of III

Introduction:

The 2011 season was a forgettable one for many Colts’ fans. An anemic offense and pathetic defense have left many of us wondering how many years it might be before the Colts again ascend to the lofty heights we’ve become accustomed to this past decade and a half (ESPNs recent 2015 Future Power Rankings suggest it may be a while, they project the Colts to still be toiling away in the NFL’s cellar at #27). For a ray of hope, many fans have turned to the 1997 Indianapolis Colts team, and the drafting of Peyton Manning, to show how quickly a bad team can go from worst to first. While I admittedly believe that these sorts of comparisons are fraught with peril, primarily due to the astronomical number of variables involved in such an exercise, I am still intrigued by the correlations that may be drawn by examining the seasons that followed the roster purge of the 1997 off season and subsequent drafting of Peyton Manning with the #1 pick in the 1998 draft.

To this end, in part one of this two part series, I plan to delve into the Colts’ teams of the 1997-1999 seasons. I will be providing some chronology and context to the turnaround that formed the foundation for the unprecedented era of success we saw during the 2000s. There is of course no way to touch on every aspect of the remodel (even were I omniscient it would be time prohibitive to do so), but I will do my best to hit as many of the contributing factors as I am able. Failing that, I hope you will at least find this a pleasant trip down memory lane.

In part two I will be looking at the 2011 season and will attempt to draw some useful comparisons between the rebuild of 1998 and the now underway rebuild of 2012.

I will be using Pro-Football-Reference’s AV (Approximate Value) metric to examine individual player contributions to a given season. An explanation of this metric can be found here: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?page_id=518.

Simple Rating is also a Pro-Football-Reference metric, one that I tend to prefer over season rankings alone. Explanation of this rating can be found here: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=37.

The 1997 Pre-Draft Season:

Record: 3-13 ; Strength of Schedule: 1.2 ; TO Differential: -3 (19th)

Offense

Defense

Passing

3,142 (19th)

2,820 (4th)

Rushing

1,727 (17th)

2,034 (26th)

Scoring

19.5 (20th)

25.1 (26th)

Overall

304.3 (19th)

303.3 (10th)

Simple Rating

-0.6

-3.8

Pro Bowlers

0

0

Brief Season Overview: Looking at the raw numbers the Colts were pretty mediocre to poor in just about every team statistic in 1997 (as veteran fans of the Colts we know that being 4th in pass defense doesn’t mean much when teams are running all over you). They started that season 0-10, and, despite a less than terrible season from Jim Harbaugh (86.2 QB rating in 12 GS), managed to be competitive in only a handful of games. Young up and comer Marvin Harrison showed the promise he would later come to realize and led the team in receiving with 866 yards and 6 TDs. Marshall Faulk bounced back from an injury plagued 1996 season, compiling 1500 yards from scrimmage and leading the team in AV with 12 (no one else was above an 8 – quick aside, a 10 AV is about an average starter performance, 15-19 is a pro bowl type season, 20 or better is MVP caliber).

5 Best Players By AV: Marshall Faulk (12), Jim Harbaugh (8), Marvin Harrison (8), Sean Dawkins (7), Tarik Glenn (7).

Key Offseason Moves: The Colts fired head coach Lindy Infante (who had been promoted from OC in 1995) after only two seasons as head coach, bringing in media darling (PLAYOFFS?!) Jim Mora to replace him. Bill Polian was hired to replace Bill Tobin as general manager by new team owner Jim Irsay.

The 1998 Draft: Obviously the key addition here was Peyton Manning, but not much else stands out about the 1998 draft. Other picks included Steve McKinney, a serviceable left guard for four seasons with the Colts (average AV of about 7 over those four seasons), and Jerome Pathon, who started opposite Marvin Harrison and caught 50 balls in the 98 season (AV of 5).

The 1998 Season:

Record: 3-13 ; Strength of Schedule: 3.0 ; TO Differential: -14 (29th)

Offense

Defense

Passing

3,630 (6th)

3,266 (16th)

Rushing

1,486 (26th)

2,570 (29th)

Scoring

19.4 (19th)

27.8 (29th)

Overall

319.75 (12th)

364.8 (29th)

Simple Rating

-0.1

-5.3

Pro Bowlers

1

0

Brief Season Overview: In 1998, 16 of the Colts 22 starters either changed positions or were replaced outright (sound familiar?). The Colts again went 3-13. On offense, they changed their base formation to utilize Marcus Pollard opposite Ken Dilger in two tight end sets. The offensive line also underwent a complete overhaul, Tarik Glenn was moved from right guard to left tackle, Steve McKinney was inserted as a rookie to replace Doug Widell at left guard, Tony Mandarich moved to the interior, leaving starting center Jay Leeuwenberg as the lone carry over from the ’97 season. This revamped offensive line allowed 24 fewer sacks (from 62 in ’97 down to 38 in the ’98 season). The Colts saw the re-emergence of Marshall Faulk who was named to his third pro bowl in 1998, rushing for 1,319 yards and compiling an additional 908 yards receiving, a monster total of 2,227 yards from scrimmage, his second highest season total as a professional. He again led the team in AV, this time with an 18. Marvin Harrison actually experienced a slight decline in his numbers from the ’97 season when an injury caused him to miss the last 4 games of the season; he caught 59 balls for 776 yards.

The defense, on the other hand, went from bad to worse. After ranking near the bottom of the league in points allowed in 1997, they were even less effective in 1998, giving up nearly 30 points per game (ouch). The turnover differential also took a precipitous decline as they went from simply bad (-3) to truly awful (-14). Some of this can be attributed to a rookie QB throwing 28 interceptions, but they also ranked near the bottom in the league in takeaways at only 19 for the season. They managed not a single pass defense and no one player had more than one interception.

5 Best Players By AV: Marshall Faulk (18), Peyton Manning (11), Tarik Glenn (8), Marvin Harrison (7), Adam Meadows (7).

Peyton Manning Season Overview: Peyton Manning took over a young and largely unproven offense in 1998. Marvin Harrison, while playing well for a second year WR, had yet to emerge as the Hall of Famer he would later become, and Marshall Faulk, clearly the team’s best player, was coming off a pretty pedestrian season (1,054 rushing yards and 7 TDs). If that wasn’t enough, the offensive line had given up a David Carr-esque 62 sacks the season before. In hindsight we know that Tarik Glenn, Marvin Harrison, and Marshall Faulk (granted, he was a two time pro bowler but his best seasons were definitely ahead of him) were superstars in waiting, but heading into the 1998 season prospects looked pretty dim for an offense that ranked 19th in the league the previous year.

Peyton Manning’s rookie campaign was nothing short of amazing given the circumstances. Provided no help at all from his defense, he led the NFL in pass attempts with 575. He posted an above average AV of 11 in his rookie season despite throwing 28 interceptions (leading the league in this category as well). Manning was a top candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year, and probably would have won if not for the mind blowing efforts of young Randy Moss, who managed to catch a staggering 17 TDs and average nearly 20 YPC on his way to one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time. Unfortunately, with no defense and a pretty poor running game, Peyton’s record breaking rookie statistics did little to generate wins.

Key Offseason Moves: Bill Polian trades Marshall Faulk to the St. Louis Rams for a 2nd (#36) and 5th (#138).

The 1999 Draft: As much as we love to hate Bill Polian, he did do some things right in the early drafts of the Peyton Manning era. The Colts selected Edgerrin James with the 4th overall pick in the ‘99 draft, deciding to pass on Texas phenom Ricky Williams (Mike Ditka famously trading away his entire draft to pick him one spot later at #5). Polian then turned the 2nd round pick from St. Louis into starting linebacker Mike Peterson. Rounding out the draft was Brad Scioli (taken using the 5th round pick from St. Louis), a decent but not excellent 6 year starting defensive end/tackle for the Colts from 1999-2004, and Hunter Smith (not a bad punter for 10 seasons). All-in-all a pretty solid draft.

The 1999 Season:

Record: 13-3 ; Strength of Schedule: 0.5 ; TO Differential: -5 (19th)

Offense

Defense

Passing

4,066 (4th)

3,506 (19th)

Rushing

1,660 (19th)

1,715 (18th)

Scoring

26.4 (3rd)

20.8 (17th)

Overall

357.9 (4th)

326.3 (15th)

Simple Rating

6.6

-0.5

Pro Bowlers

3

0

Season Overview: After a 2-2 start it was looking like the Colts would be making incremental improvements on their 1998 campaign. However, a torrid 11-1 finish, coupled with the explosion of rookie running back Edgerrin James and third year wide out Marvin Harrison, blew those incremental expectations out of the water. The 1999 Colts offense threw for 500 more yards, scored a TD per game better, and fielded both the NFL’s leading rusher (James led the league as a rookie with 1,553 yards) and top receiver (Harrison had his break out season catching 115 passes for 1,663 yards). The three headed monster was born.

On the defensive side of the ball, under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the Colts clawed their way out of the cellar and managed near league average numbers. Their 23 takeaways were again a team weakness and left them 27th in the league in that category, but by allowing 7 fewer points per game they gave the Colts’ explosive offense a chance in every game. It’s interesting to note that the only player on this defense to even play in a Pro Bowl was Cornelius Bennett, who went to 5 with Buffalo in the late 80s, early 90s, but by the ’99 season was nearing retirement; he led the team with 73 tackles. No other player from this 1999 defense played in a single Pro Bowl. In other words this defense was pretty devoid of talent (a contrast I intend to highlight when we get to the 2011 Colts comparison).

It should also be noted that the Colts were a little lucky in the 1999 season (or perhaps clutch if you want to frame it that way), outperforming their expected win total of 10 games (during a 4 game stretch in December they won consecutive games by a margin of 3, 5, 3, and 1). The Colts would lose to the eventual AFC Champion Tennessee Titans in the divisional round of the playoffs, getting run over by Eddie George to the tune of 197 yards.

5 Best Players By AV: Edgerrin James (21, yeah he was that good), Marvin Harrison (20), Peyton Manning (18), Tarik Glenn (10), Adam Meadows (10). The Colts had 3 of the 10 best players in the league in 1999 as measured by AV, Edgerrin James (2nd), Marvin Harrison (3rd), and Peyton Manning (9th).

Peyton Manning Season Overview: Aided by a strong running game and gelling offensive line (which gave up only 14 sacks in 1999) Peyton Manning went from a solid starter his rookie season to certifiable super star in year number two. He threw for 4,135 yards, 26 TDs, improved his completion percentage 6 points (from 56 to 62), and posted a 90.7 QB rating (good for 3rd best among 16 game starters). He managed an AV of 18, putting him 9th in the NFL and 3rd best at QB. Most impressive of all perhaps was the fact that he managed to cut his interception total nearly in half, from 28 in 1998 to only 15 in ’99.

***

Check back for part two when I will take a look at the 2011 Colts (and 2012 pre-training camp roster) and attempt to draw some morsel of insight from a direct comparison with the 1997-1998 teams.

This is my first ever fan post so any feedback or criticism is most welcome in the comments section below. If you notice anything I have missed or have an issue with my interpretation of events please feel free to chime in. I love a lively discussion and am always willing to be wrong. Thanks for reading and I hope you have enjoyed part I. Part II will be out later this week or early next.

Cheers,

JJB

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Stampede Blue's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Stampede Blue's writers or editors.

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