After the worst home loss for the Colts in 20 years, losing 38-8 to the St. Louis Rams, the question many people were asking is whether this team was still a Super Bowl contender.
It's understandable that this was the question people were asking, because not very long ago the Colts were quickly becoming a popular pick to make it to the biggest game of them all this year. Now, after getting dominated at home by the Rams a week after a less-than-impressive come from behind win over the Texans, people want to know whether or not that still is a legitimate pick. Are these Colts still Super Bowl contenders?
In short, no. Not right now they're not. There's too many issues on this team that must be addressed before this team can make a legitimate Super Bowl run. Right now, they look like a one-and-done type of team - and thanks in large part to an awful AFC South division for even getting to the one game.
Here's the positive news, however - there's a real chance that come playoff time, this won't be the case. The Colts have a real shot to enter back into the Super Bowl contender race by the time the playoffs start. And that is the confusing situation that we are in right now in terms of the Colts as Super Bowl contenders. If you want a short, concise answer, it's no. But if you want to go deeper into the issue, the answer might be yes. And that's why we're in the wait and see stage.
The Colts this year have been ravaged by injuries on offense. Running backs Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw both went down for the year within the first three games of the season - both running well. Tight end Dwayne Allen was lost mid-way through the first game of the season and was out for the year. Offensive guard Donald Thomas was injured very early in the second game of the year and lost for the season. And then wide receiver Reggie Wayne tore his ACL in the fourth quarter of the week seven win over the Broncos and is out for the year.
Four offensive starters and another who for all intents and purposes was pretty much a starter. It's hard to overcome that, especially when you lose your top two running backs (who were both running well), your top tight end (who was quickly emerging into one of the league's best tight ends), quite possibly your best offensive lineman, and perhaps the second most important player on your entire team in Reggie Wayne. Teams don't just overcome that.
But the Colts did, and they did well - up until Reggie Wayne's injury. That one was really the back-breaker for the Colts. Since then, the Colts offense has struggled for six of the eight quarters. Andrew Luck has misfired on more passes than anyone would have thought possible and he looks rattled without Reggie there. The receivers have dropped more passes and struggled in every other area more than we imagined. The Colts' running game hasn't picked up but instead fallen off the map, with the Colts running the ball just 28 times in two games, their fewest two game total since 1993, per "the Dean," Mike Chappell. But you can't blame the run game, because the offensive line has been absolutely atrocious.
Entering the Rams' game, the Colts had turned the ball over a league low six times in eight games and Andrew Luck had thrown just three interceptions through eight games. On Sunday, the Colts turned the ball over five times and Luck was intercepted three times. Three of the five turnovers on Sunday came in the Rams' red zone.
Was all of the loss on Sunday because the Colts didn't have Reggie Wayne out there? Absolutely not. But it had a huge effect and showed the cumulative effect that the injuries the Colts have had this year, with the latest one coming to one of their most crucial pieces.
This isn't an excuse but rather an explanation. I remember being at Anderson University for training camp and thinking about how little depth this team had even then, when the rosters were at 90. A bunch of my media colleagues and myself agreed that depth is often the last thing to come in a rebuilding process, but my mind is drawn back to those (warm) summer days when I saw just how little depth the team had.
The Colts struggling to recover from crushing injuries doesn't surprise me, and it shouldn't surprise you either. Most teams would struggle with injuries like this - how much more so a young team already lacking in depth!
But here's the positive in all of this: the Colts have overcome. Chuck Pagano has instilled a warrior's mentality in this team and that is one of never feeling sorry for themselves and never giving up. The team has followed his lead so far, and whether it was an injury to Ballard, Bradshaw, Allen, or Thomas, the Colts overcame. It wasn't always pretty, but it was impressive enough to become legitimate Super Bowl contenders and be ranked at or very near the top of every power rankings. Even on defense, they overcame the absence of Pro Bowl safety LaRon Landry for a few weeks. The mantra of "next man up" has rang true for the Colts for most of this season already.
The question is will it still ring true now? Or will the injury to Reggie Wayne be the one that topples this team? That is the huge question facing the Colts right now.
So far, the loss of Reggie Wayne has been clear and has had an even bigger impact than any of us thought, especially on the Colts' young quarterback. But the Colts have overcome injuries to key starters already this year and have overcome it, and now they face their biggest test. They're learning to adapt to playing without Reggie Wayne right now. They're going to need to get used to not having him there, especially Andrew Luck. The receivers are going to need to step up. But here's my caution: just as I would caution to hold off on saying the Colts are no longer Super Bowl contenders, I'll caution to hold off on thinking this is how it's going to be for the rest of the season. Give them time. It might be ugly (ex: the Texans win), but that's ok. It's still a win, and even with Reggie the Colts had a lot of close games and comebacks like that (although, admittedly, none of that magnitude this year).
I'm not saying it will ever be pretty this year. But for much of the year, the Colts were considered contenders without having any "pretty" games, with a few exceptions. For the most part, the Colts have been in close games and in situations where they needed to come from behind.
What I am saying is this, however: the Colts have had to overcome injuries to offensive starters quite a bit this year. None of them have been as big as losing Reggie Wayne, but I take that to mean that none of them would take as much time to adjust to as playing without Reggie will. It will take time, it will be rough, and it won't be fun. But if the Colts work through the issues now that they clearly have without Reggie Wayne in their offense, gifted by almost an uncontested path to the playoffs thanks to the AFC South (this Thursday's game could essentially lock it up for the Colts almost if they win), then they will once again be a dangerous team come playoff time.
The Broncos have MAJOR issues, with their defense and most importantly with protecting a 37-year old quarterback who has taken WAY to many hits this year. The Patriots are beginning to look like the Patriots, but Tom Brady hasn't been his usual self for much of the year. The Bengals are inconsistent and perhaps might be coming back down to earth a little bit. The Chiefs, though undefeated, have yet to play anybody and while they have done all they could possibly be expected to do, I'm not sold on them until I see them play good quarterbacks (and five of their last eight games are against Peyton Manning, Phillip Rivers, and Andrew Luck, so they will). The road to the Super Bowl is murky at best in the AFC. Could the Colts be the ones to emerge from the AFC and represent the conference in a Super Bowl? Absolutely.
Right now, the answer is no. They aren't legitimate Super Bowl contenders. But look at how they have overcome injuries so far this year and managed to compile a 6-3 record nine games in to the season and you'll see a promising track record. For a team that has lost Vick Ballard, Ahmad Bradshaw, Dwayne Allen, Donald Thomas, and has had to play the 49ers, Seahawks, and Broncos, the loss of Reggie Wayne will be the biggest test yet for the Colts. They have risen to the challenge every other time. I expect them to do the same now, although it likely will take longer to adjust than any of the others did.
But if this resilient Colts team works on the issues and gets used to playing without Reggie Wayne now, by the time the playoffs arrive this team just might be back in the thick of the Super Bowl conversation - and with a murky AFC, they might not only be in the conversation, they might really have a real shot, too. If they can overcome the loss of Reggie Wayne, no task will be too tough for this team.
They just need to be #ReggieStrong.