The Colts and their front office think their team is on the verge of a Super Bowl. They've said as much publicly. The quest for a second Super Bowl trophy in Indianapolis begins with the start of voluntary workouts and OTAs. As the 2014 season begins, these six questions - and the answers to them - will likely determine whether or not the Colts shall hoist another Lombardi in February.
As always, with these question, we pull no punches.
Will owner Jim Irsay return to running the day-to-day operations for the Colts?
Yes, this is a legitimate question because no one really knows the answer right now. The Colts start and end with Jim Irsay, and his embarrassing arrest in March absolutely effected every aspect of the franchise, including roster decisions. The lingering questions about his health and whether or not he will return to the team in the same capacity need to be addressed if the Colts are to have any shot at winning a Super Bowl this season.
For now, Irsay's eldest daughter and team co-owner, Carlie Irsay-Gordon, is running the store, so to speak. However, Jim Irsay's status within the franchise, along with his overall well-being, are topics that will pop-up again and again throughout the season until they are resolved. Such distractions are not ideal for a team looking to contend.
Will running back Trent Richardson suck in 2014?
The book has been written already on Richardson, and the first chapter is titled "Draft Bust." Colts fans aren't yet willing to give up on the former third overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but pretty much everyone else has. The Colts themselves still hold out hope for Richardson, but even they likely know the whole "he just needs a full offseason to get good" excuse is a load of bull. Running the football isn't a complicated job, and, far too often last year, Richardson simply looked scared when attempting to advance the rock.
Richardson's success in 2014 is critical to general manager Ryan Grigson's overall credibility, not necessarily the team's success in 2014. That success is predicated on quarterback Andrew Luck, and many times last year his fourth quarter heroics made Pagano and Grigson look much better than they actually are. The Richardson trade was a career-defining move for Grigson. If it busts in Indianapolis, it will be a massive dent to his reputation, especially considering how deep a draft class this is in 2014. If Grigson had held onto his first round pick this year, he'd be using it on May 8th to fill stronger roster needs rather than answering questions about Trent Richardson.
Will veterans Reggie Wayne, Vick Ballard, and Dwayne Allen return healthy?
That's lots of positive chatter about Wayne and Ballard returning from ACL injuries, and even the Indianapolis Star has given us a feel good story on Dwayne Allen rehabbing from hip surgery. Obviously, it would be great if all three can return to their pre-injury form, but experience teaches us that this likely won't be the case.
We've heard this song before. I just need to utter the words Bob Sanders to make my point. Until we see these three players on a field, in pads, hitting people in regular season games, it's folly to just assume all three will be okey-dokey in 2014.
Of the three, Allen is the most important. He's a superior player at the tight end position over the limited Coby Fleener. Dwayne Allen's blocking and pass-catching ability were sorely missed in 2013. It's less critical to rush Wayne and Ballard back because the Colts have some intriguing depth at both WR and RB.
the return of reggie wayne
WTF does Rob Chudzinski do for this team?
Both Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson have done a poor job articulating what in the hell Rob Chudzinski does for the Colts as a "special assistant to the head coach." Every explanation they've given suggests "Chud" is there to undercut the team's two coordinators: Pep Hamilton for the offense and Greg Manusky for the defense.
Since Manusky is a defensive coordinator pretty much in name only - Pagano himself spends a great deal of time working with the defense - it's safe to assume Chudzinski's presence is to add another voice when it comes to offensive game-planning and scheme. As both I and former Colts head coach Rick Venturi have commented on, this isn't a good idea. Too many voices in a room can muddy the message, and if Pep Hamilton is truly in charge of the offense, does he have the authority to basically tell Chudzinski to shut the hell up if, in Pep's opinion, Chudzinski is stepping off message?
It's a murky internal dynamic that makes for fantastic speculation. Chudzinski's role is still mysterious, and, hopefully, we'll get some answers once OTAs truly get going.
Is this the year the defense finally starts looking good?
The Colts have spent over $71.5 million in guaranteed money on free agent defensive players the last two years, including $20 million to corner Vontae Davis, $11 million to linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, and $10 million to defensive tackle Arthur Jones during this offseason alone. You have to think that, at this point, the excuses have run out for Pagano and his "hybrid" 3-4 scheme, which has been just as bad at stopping the run as the Tampa-2 was under Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell.
Some have said that Pagano should get the same leeway Dungy did when it came to building a quality defense. To this I say no. Dungy was never given $71.5 mill to build his defense. He had to make due with second and third day picks mainly because then-team president Bill Polian often used his first round selections on offensive players during the Dungy Era. Pagano has had his pick of the cupboard both in the draft and free agency. He and Grigson opted to spend big money on players like LaRon Landry, Erik Walden, and Ricky Jean Francois last offseason, and then to draft Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
All four were bad in 2013, as evidenced by the team's piss-poor run defensive ranking and, outside of Robert Mathis, it's non-existent pass rush.
This is a big year for Pagano. After two seasons, his defensive scheme has been a failure in Indianapolis, and, just like during the Peyton Manning years, the Colts are a team that need to win in spite of their D. Not because of it. To change that, the Colts need a massive defensive turnaround.
Without a significant defensive turnaround in 2014, it is difficult to view Pagano as any sort of credible head coach seeing as his roots are all on the defensive side of the ball.
Colts WR depth
What offense will we see in 2014?
The "power run" scheme that Pep Hamilton attempted to coordinate last season was a near-disaster. To Hamilton's credit, he junked the system in late-November and ran his whole scheme out of the shotgun. The Colts transformed into a short-passing offense, highlighting the natural play-making abilities of young receivers like Da'Rick Rogers and T.Y. Hilton. Hilton especially.
The offense in December 2013 was exciting and interesting. The offense the other three months wasn't.
Pagano has preached from day one that, for him, offense starts with running the ball. As Stampede Blue's Matt Grecco proven time and again, this is a flawed and dated philosophy. Also, the Colts kind of sucked at running the ball in 2013 due, in part, to poor interior line play and to the ineffectiveness of Richardson.
Little has been done to improve Indy's offensive line. In fact, one could argue that it's gotten worse. Unproven second-year player Khaled Holmes is the presumed starting center for 2014, and backing him up is the underwhelming Phil Costa. Neither are viewed by anyone as upgrades over last year's disappointing starters, Samson Satele and Mike McGlynn. Satele was released in March, and McGlynn signed with Washington.
The return of Donald Thomas could prove a boost to the line's interior play, and, perhaps, maybe a healthy Lance Louis can make a difference. Whoever plays inside, Hamilton will need to decide what kind of offensive system best fits the personnel Grigson and Pagano have handed him. The addition of former-Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and the continued development of Hilton, Rogers, LaVon Brazill, and Griff Whalen give Hamilton some impressive firepower. With a still-maturing Andrew Luck under center, the Colts have the tools to create an impressive air attack in 2014.