Pep Hamilton has had better weeks.
First, his offense struggled to get touchdowns last week against the Titans, but more significantly a report came out from NFL Network's Mike Silver saying that Hamilton is "under pressure" from Colts management and that they think he needs to "step up his game." The Colts issued a statement calling the report just "speculation," but honestly, it's pretty true. Pep Hamilton is under pressure from people within the Colts' organization. And I'll come to his defense a bit.
I haven't been thrilled with Pep Hamilton this year. His play calling has been poor (and credit to him for admitting as much Thursday) and his biggest failure, in my opinion, has been his inability and unwillingness to really adjust after losing players that you can't just replace, such as Reggie Wayne. Instead of adjusting to accomoodate for that loss, however, Pep has continued to try and run the same offense with Darrius Heyward-Bey, LaVon Brazill, Griff Whalen, and David Reed filling Reggie Wayne's role. Hint: none of those players are anywhere close to Reggie Wayne, one of the best wide receivers in NFL history and a future Hall of Famer.
I honestly believe that he's probably coaching for his job in the final month of the season. Now, hear me on this: I don't think Pep Hamilton will be fired after the season. I really don't. But you would be naive to think that he's automatically coming back and is a lock, because he's not. If things don't improve, there is going to be a scapegoat, and it won't be Chuck Pagano. That leaves either Greg Manusky or Pep Hamilton as the coordinators, and firing Manusky would reflect poorly on Pagano because we all know it's really Pagano's defense and that Greg Manusky has actually been doing a fine job this season, given the circumstances. And, the Colts already aren't happy with Hamilton and Pagano is making moves benching players on Hamilton's offense (Trent Richardson and Mike McGlynn, and possibly Darrius Heyward-Bey this Sunday as well). I don't think Pep Hamilton will be gone, nor do I think he should be. But I am confident that the decision has not yet been made whether to retain him.
Here's why I think that Pep Hamilton is taking too much criticism for the failures and is in a way a scapegoat to cover over other issues, and here's why the Colts would be very dumb to get rid of him after the season, regardless of how the season finishes.
1) Pep Hamilton has been an NFL offensive coordinator for just 12 games - in his life. Hamilton had been an assistant at the NFL level but never a coordinator, and he has been for just 12 games so far. In those 12 games, the Colts are 8-4 and are averaging 23.8 points per game this year. By comparison, the Colts averaged 22.3 points per game last year under Bruce Arians, who unquestionably did a great job with the Colts. Furthermore, with Reggie Wayne in the offense, they averaged 26.7 points per game. Has Pep adjusted that well since then? No, and as a result the offense is averaging just 19.6 points per game without Reggie, but the fact remains that the Colts still are as good as or better than 18 teams in terms of points per game average on the year. You can't judge a guy based on only 12 games. You just can't. He's learning on the go, and you can't just throw him out for having "rookie struggles."
2) Firing Pep Hamilton would mean 3 offensive coordinators in 3 years for Andrew Luck. This is an obvious one. If you wrote a manual on how to destroy a young quarterback, giving him 3 different offensive coordinators in 3 years would be right up there. Hamilton should get more of a chance if for no other reason than that you don't want to do that to Andrew Luck.
3) Pep Hamilton has dealt with several big, significant injuries. The injuries that Pep Hamilton has dealt with this year are not to be ignored, and especially when considering the fact that he's in his first year, it's unfair to judge him solely based on this year. Let's look at the offensive players that the Colts have lost for the season: tight end Dwayne Allen (week 1), running back Vick Ballard (after week 1), offensive lineman Donald Thomas (week 2), running back Ahmad Bradshaw (week 3), and wide receiver Reggie Wayne (week 7). All of those players were starters, with the exception of Bradshaw, who became the starter after Ballard's injury. And notice that all but Reggie were lost within the first three weeks of the season. I have been saying since watching this team at training camp that the depth stinks, and that makes sense for a rebuilding team. It actually is very impressive that the Colts did so well during the first half of the season, but there is always a tipping point, and it seems that losing Reggie was that point. Wayne was one of the two or three best players on the team without question, so losing him was obviously HUGE. But also, the Colts lost their top two running backs (which resulted in the bad trade for Trent Richardson) and a guy who played like perhaps the team's best lineman for the just over one game he played in. And, of course, the loss of Allen is one that not many people truly understand the significance of. Dwayne Allen was going to be a MAJOR piece in Pep Hamilton's offense, and like Reggie there wasn't a guy to replace Allen on this team (and there aren't many guys throughout the league that could, either). I'd go as far as saying that the loss of Dwayne Allen had a bigger impact on Pep Hamilton and his offense than the loss of Reggie Wayne did (not a bigger impact on Andrew Luck or anything like that, but on Hamilton and his system it did).
4) Pep Hamilton was given mandates from the head coach that put him in a bad spot. I haven't used this argument yet for Hamilton because for a long time I didn't really know if it was true. I watched this team in training camp and saw that every single day Chuck Pagano was working with the defense and leaving Pep Hamilton to run the offense. He trusted Pep with the offense and left Hamilton to run it for himself. But Pep Hamilton had some really interesting comments on Thursday when asked about protecting Andrew Luck (emphasis mine):
"It's always been a goal of ours to keep him upright and keep him healthy. It's really one of the few mandates that Coach Pagano has given me as the offensive coordinator and the offensive staff as a matter of fact. We have to run the football, protect the quarterback and score. In no particular order. Run the football, protect the quarterback and score points. It's a goal of ours to keep Andrew (Luck) upright. It's hard. It's so many components to it. Of course you know in pressure situations or obvious passing situations like third down, the defense has a built-in advantage. We got to do a great job of protecting him and handling the pressure and giving him an opportunity to do what he can do best, and that's make plays for our offense."
So, in passing (not as a shot at Pagano or anything), Hamilton mentioned how Pagano gave him three mandates for this season. And, credit to Hamilton, he's admitting that he's failing in at least one of the areas that Pagano wanted him to succeed in. But more significantly, let's look at each of those three mandates and see whether it's really Pep's fault:
- Run the Football. This is the one that many people have used to criticize Chuck Pagano, saying that the emphasis on the run game should really be blamed on him. And this is the one I have been very hesitant and in fact have for the most part refused to place on Pagano. I have talked with people I trust who have told me that they think Pagano's real emphasis is mainly on running the football to protect a lead. Certainly, the Colts knew what they were getting when they hired Hamilton (a guy who likes a power run game) and that was absolutely fine and in line with what Pagano wanted, and that's the feeling I got: that Pagano wants to run the football but his main concern is being able to run to protect a lead. We've seen the Colts try to run it all the time this year, though, and even today Pagano said that, "we've just got to [run the football] the whole game." I'm still a bit hesitant to place this on Pagano alone because I know for a fact that Hamilton runs the offense and not Pagano, but at the same time I now think that the run emphasis has had more Pagano influence than I have previously acknowledged.
- Protect Andrew Luck. The first one was kinda Pagano to blame, but this one is fully general manager Ryan Grigson to blame. The Colts just don't have that much talent along the offensive line - at least, not enough to protect Luck well. Their tackles are good players, but the interior of the line has been a complete mess. They lost Donald Thomas for the season, but even then - center Samson Satele and right guard Mike McGlynn have been terrible, and then Grigson's draft pick Hugh Thornton, who has filled in for Thomas this year at left guard, has been just as bad. And add to all of that the fact that the blocking tight ends don't block well, either. Pep Hamilton was blessed at Stanford to have one of the country's best offensive lines. In Indianapolis, he has one of the league's worst. Expecting him to greatly improve an offensive line that wasn't greatly improved in terms of talent is unfair, and that is Ryan Grigson to blame.
- Score Points. This one is pretty obvious, as the team that scores the most points wins the game 100% of the time. And, while this one is absolutely affected by the first two categories (running the football and poor offensive line play both contribute to scoring fewer points), Hamilton's offense actually hasn't been that bad at scoring. As I already mentioned, the Colts are averaging 23.8 points per game this year. That's more than they did last year with Bruce Arians, and more than the Cardinals are with Arians this year. And the Colts were averaging 26.7 points per game before Reggie Wayne's injury, which would have placed them seventh in the league right now, right behind the New England Patriots and right in front of the New Orleans Saints. Considering all of the variables, Pep's offense is actually scoring more than we could reasonably expect.
This article isn't intended to criticize any particular person but instead is intended to show why it would be a terrible idea to get rid of Pep Hamilton and why a lot of it isn't really his fault this year. I think Chuck Pagano, Pep Hamilton, and Greg Manusky should all be back next year and that they just need to get more talent for them to work with. I still have confidence in all three of them. And so even though Hamilton has been under fire recently from fans, media, and team officials alike, I think it's unfair, unwarranted, and that calling for him to be fired is unwise.
I had a chance to be around Pep Hamilton during training camp. He's a very intelligent and likable guy. Some might equate his offense to dinosaurs, but you'd be pretty scared if you saw a dinosaur today, and I still believe that Pep's offense can get to the point where it's really scaring teams (more than it does already... or should I say, more than Andrew Luck does already). All those people who were saying Hamilton was an up-and-coming head coaching candidate? Talk to him for just five minutes and you'd understand why. He's young, smart, likable, and good with the media. If the Colts let him go, some other team will get him, and it could be something that Colts fans regret. I'm not saying that the Colts should keep him just to keep him away from other teams (at the same time if they really felt that way why fire him in the first place?), but I am saying this to say that I still have confidence in Pep Hamilton and still think he is a very good coach. He may be having trouble adjusting to the NFL level, but he hasn't gotten much help from the general manager, head coach, and his offense has been ravaged by devastating injuries - in his first year. Where else would that guy get fired? There's very, very few places (if any), and it shouldn't be in Indianapolis either.