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Colts Notebook: Notes from the 2013 Season

Stampede Blue's Josh Wilson gives his notes and observations from the 2013 Colts season.

Andy Lyons

As the Colts walked off the field following a 43-22 divisional round playoff loss to the New England Patriots, the harsh reality set in that their season was over.  The Colts players and coaches certainly have a lot to be proud of for the 2013  season: an 11-5 regular season record, an AFC South championship, and a playoff win, as well as notching wins over 3 of the 4 teams playing this upcoming weekend in the championship games.

But if you asked me what the best way to sum up the season is, I'd say that it was good but felt incomplete.  There were some great moments and stepping back and taking a look at the big picture, it was a very good step forward.  But I can't help but feel that the season was incomplete.  Inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman said Monday that, "goals weren't met" and that "we know we could have done a lot better."  Quarterback Andrew Luck said, "I'm proud to be a part of this team. Proud to get to the playoffs. But that wasn't our goal. We wanted to win a Super Bowl."  Kicker Adam Vinatieri said, "we achieved one of our goals. We didn't achieve them all."  Head coach Chuck Pagano said that "we did take a step forward. We did win a playoff game. We did not reach our ultimate goal."

This is a team that beat the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, and Denver Broncos, as well as the Kansas City Chiefs twice.  They swept their division, going 6-0.  They won a playoff game (and in thrilling fashion, at that).  But we're going to be watching football next weekend, and the Colts won't be playing.  It was a good season overall, especially considering where the team was just two years ago.  Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano inherited a 2-14 team that was in a complete rebuild and had their hands tied with the salary cap.  They went 11-5 and made the playoffs in year one, and in year two they took several additional steps forward by, in addition to another 11-5 season, winning the division and winning a playoff game.  Two years ago, nobody thought they'd be here this quickly.  Entering year three, the future looks very bright for the Colts and they'll look to build on the success they've already had.  They didn't reach their goal of the Super Bowl this year, but they continued to lay the foundations for a Lombardi trophy very soon.

Here are Chuck Pagano's thoughts on the season, as he said Monday to the media in his press conference:

"We've got a great, great group of coaches and players here. I want to thank them. Just talking to the players this morning, I felt like we had a great season. Our ultimate goal, we fell short of. But we will never stop chasing that as long as we're living and breathing and upright. We had a great season and we accomplished a lot. I think to follow up an 11-5 first year with another 11-win season, a division championship, sweep the division, win a home playoff game. I think we took the next step in building this program. We talked about building a program for sustained success. I think we definitely took a step forward. Again, didn't finish the way we wanted it to finish, but we got a lot to be proud of. Like I told those guys in the locker room after the game, I said hold your head high, I'm very, very proud of the players and the coaches for what they accomplished this season."

I've compiled my notes as I debrief the season and have posted them below.  An important thing to note is that this isn't an evaluation of players or positions, as I will be doing in depth looks at each position in the coming weeks.  There will be players and positions mentioned, certainly, but this isn't meant to be a comprehensive evaluation of them all.  It's supposed to instead be my overall thoughts on the team from the 2013 season.

  • You can't really start any mention of the 2013 season without first mentioning Andrew Luck.  The second year quarterback took massive strides.  It was abundantly clear that the Colts relied completely on him, and he was able to handle it.  He lost his best and most reliable target to an ACL injury, as well as several other key offensive players.  He played in an offense that continually put themselves in a hole by trying to run the football, and he continually bailed them out in the second halves of games.  He played behind an offensive line that was among the worst in the entire league.  All of that just added to the impressiveness of Luck this year.  He threw only 9 interceptions in 570 attempts - Peyton Manning has only thrown 9 interceptions one time in his career and never fewer.  Luck continued to show incredible pocket awareness and an amazing ability to avoid pressure.  He never let mistakes get him down but instead they actually made him better.  He really grew as a leader.  I was very impressed with the Colts franchise quarterback this year.
  • Speaking of the offense Luck played in, let's talk about offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton for a moment.  I loved the hire and was a big fan of Hamilton a year ago.  And guess what?  I still am.  He had a bit of a rough year in his first season as an NFL offensive coordinator.  His desire to run the football got annoying and kept digging the Colts in a hole.  His play calling seemed like it was completely limiting Andrew Luck.  For much of the first three-fourths of the season, Hamilton was inconsistent at best, and at worst was keeping Luck and the offense from reaching their potential.  But he really adapted as the season went on.  He began utilizing Luck more and used the shotgun formation and no-huddle offense much more often.  He didn't get away from the run game completely but rather realized that it's much better to set up the run with the pass instead of vice versa and he began to call the run plays at better times.  Also consider that Pep had to adjust due to numerous injuries along the offensive side of the ball, and I'd say that considering that along with the late-season success leaves me excited about Pep Hamilton once again as we enter 2014 - this time with healthy weapons at his disposal.
  • Everybody will mention the injury of Reggie Wayne and the impact it had on the Colts offense this season, and there's no doubt that it was huge.  But I'd argue that Reggie's injury wasn't the one that hurt the team the most.  That one, in my opinion, was the loss of Dwayne Allen.  First off, consider that Allen missed about 17.5/18 games, while Reggie missed about 11/18.  Both significant, but Reggie at least played about half of the regular season.  That's not why I say Allen's was more significant, however.  In talking with several people in the know, it became increasingly evident to me even in training camp that Dwayne Allen was going to play a major role in the Colts offense this year.  I remember during training camp when Allen was injured and gathering opinions of how much that would affect the Colts, and I've only heard more and more as time has gone on: Dwayne Allen was going to be a big part of the Colts offense this year.  As my friend George Bremer of the Anderson Herald Bulletin pointed out the other day, I wonder just how much Allen would have filled some of Stanley Havili's role.  He was used as a pass catcher quite a bit for a fullback, and while he did a respectable job, he was no Allen, and it brings up an interesting point as to just how the offense would have looked with the second-year tight end.  In his rookie season, Allen was a phenomenal blocker and receiver and was beginning to move toward the upper level of NFL tight ends.  It's hard to replace that kind of player, especially when your new offensive coordinator had major plans as to how he would use that player.  That is probably the biggest reason I gave Hamilton a pass with the injuries and probably the thing I'm most excited at seeing next year, regardless of who the Colts sign this offseason: the return of Dwayne Allen.
  • The most pleasant surprise for me this year was the emergence of running back Donald Brown.  Way back in training camp it was clear that the coaching staff wasn't giving up on him, but myself and many other fans already had written him off entering his fifth season in the NFL.  He started the season as the third running back but season-ending injuries to Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw within the first three weeks of the season thrust Brown into a much bigger role, and especially after it became apparent that Trent Richardson wasn't running well, Brown took over the starting role.  His 102 carries on the season was the second lowest total of his career, but his 537 rushing yards were the second highest total and his 6 rushing touchdowns were a personal best, as was his average of 5.3 yards per carry.  He also set personal bests in receptions (27), receiving yards (214), and receiving touchdowns (2), bringing his season totals to 129 total touches for 751 total yards and 8 touchdowns.  He also added 28 carries for 118 yards and a touchdown in the postseason.  His 5.3 average in the regular season ranked tied for second in the NFL (with Cam Newton) among players who qualified.  Labeled a bust for much of his career and best known as "Dammit Donald," Brown really emerged this year as a legitimate running back and threat and his impact on the offense was very important and much needed.
  • The most disappointing player of the year?  It's also the most disappointing and worst free agent signing by Ryan Grigson last year, in my opinion.  To me, the most disappointing player was safety LaRon Landry.  Landry was signed to a 4-year, $24 million deal last offseason following a Pro Bowl year in 2012.  He had a reputation of being an injury-prone safety who was a big hitter but who was terrible in coverage.  Guess what the Colts got?  An injury-prone safety who was a big hitter but terrible in coverage.  The thing that was especially disappointing about Landry was that he missed a lot of tackles.  He was brought in to help in run defense and hit people and bring a physical force to the Colts defense.  His biggest problem this year wasn't injuries or coverage, however - it was tackling.  He missed numerous tackles and, well, being a big hitter doesn't really help much if you can't tackle.  Landry missed several tackles and was terrible in coverage.  For being the only big-name free agent signing by Grigson and being given a significant contract coming off of a Pro Bowl year, we expected much more from Landry - but maybe we shouldn't have.  Either way, he didn't have a good year.
  • And no, Antoine Bethea wasn't that good this year either.  He played well toward the end of the season and made some plays, but overall he wasn't that good.  Right now he's living off of a reputation of what he used to be rather than what he actually showed on the field the past two years.  He's a good guy and a great influence in the locker room, but his play hasn't been that great the past two years.
  • For the second straight season, Jerrell Freeman was very good and held down the middle of the Colts defense.  He again topped 100 tackles, leading the team with 126, and he actually finished second on the team to Robert Mathis with 5.5 sacks.  He continued to improve as a player and continued to become a cornerstone of the foundation that the Colts have laid.  The defense might not have been very good this year, but Freeman was, and he has emerged into a very, very good player at inside linebacker for the Colts.  Just consider this stat line for Freeman's first two seasons in the NFL: 32 games played, 271 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 7 forced fumbles, 2 fumbles recovered, 3 interceptions, 8 passes defended, and a defensive touchdown.  That's incredibly impressive, and he certainly continued to improve in 2013 while also being the Colts second best defensive player by far.
  • The best defensive player, of course, is the Colts lone Pro Bowler, their lone All-Pro, two time AFC Defensive Player of the Month in 2013, winner of the inaugural Deacon Jones Award, and the man who should win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.  Yeah, that's Robert Mathis, whose 19.5 sacks led the NFL and set a new Colts franchise mark, eclipsing Dwight Freeney's previous mark of 16.  Mathis also extended his NFL record for most strip/sacks and set the Colts record for most career sacks with 111, moving into the top 20 all-time.  Mathis eclipsed his previous personal high for most sacks in a single-season by 8 sacks and set a new career high with 10 sacks in the season, beating his previous high by 2 sacks.  Most significantly, Mathis was pretty much the entire Colts pass rush for much of the year.  He accounted for 46.43% of the team's sacks, an insane number for any one person.  When Dwight Freeney was not re-signed, I wondered whether Mathis could handle it all by himself.  He wasn't happy with me for wondering that, and he proved beyond any doubt that he could handle it and more with his best year ever, even at age 31.  If it weren't for Mathis this year, I hate to even think where this team would be.  He turned in one of the most incredible single defensive efforts over a season that I can ever remember seeing.  Oh, and he finally got to sack Peyton Manning, too.
  • Let's just pause here and remember that game, because it was one of the highlights of the season.  Peyton Manning, the greatest and most beloved figure in Indianapolis history, came home to play in Lucas Oil Stadium ("the House that Peyton Built") as a member of the Broncos, taking on his former team.  The stadium was electric, and Peyton received a rousing and emotional standing ovation that lasted for quite a while.  But when the game started, it turned into a clear home-field advantage for the Colts and not for Peyton.  And that's what I thought was so cool - fans clearly still loved Peyton Manning and many (including myself) were wearing a number 18 Colts jersey, but when the game started they were all behind the Colts all the way.  When Robert Mathis sacked Peyton Manning, forcing a fumble that resulted in a safety, Lucas Oil Stadium erupted and was nearly as loud as I have heard it.  It was perfect - the tribute to Peyton and the way the crowd honored him, but also their unwavering devotion to the Colts.
  • While Robert Mathis was terrorizing opposing quarterbacks all year, opposing defenses were terrorizing Andrew Luck all year.  The reason why is simple - the Colts' offensive line stunk.  What I don't want to do is group the tackles - Anthony Castanzo and Gosder Cherilus - into this group, as they both were very solid and protected Luck well, in addition to being the only two linemen to start every game.  But the interior of the line was terrible and a mess.  The worst player was Samson Satele at center, but the guards - Mike McGlynn and the rookie Hugh Thornton - weren't far behind, either.  Keep in mind that Donald Thomas was signed as a free agent to play at left guard and played well before being injured in the second game of the year and lost for the season - but still, the Colts entered the season starting Satele and McGlynn at center and right guard.  And to no one's surprise, it didn't work.  McGlynn was respectable at center but terrible at guard, and Satele was terrible at center.  Thornton began to show signs of improvement as the season was ending and considering that he's was a rookie, it doesn't make much sense to get rid of him quite yet.  But there is no doubt that the interior of the offensive line needs major work.  The best guards this year were Jeff Linkenbach and Joe Reitz - both holdovers from the Bill Polian regime.  Fan favorite Xavier Nixon played well in limited action, but again it was a small sample size - remember, we all thought Thornton did well when he first stepped into the starting lineup.  The bottom line is that the Colts absolutely did not protect Andrew Luck this year and, for the second straight year, the biggest offseason priority will be improving the offensive line.
  • One player who really emerged and built on a fantastic first season was T.Y. Hilton.  He had a good rookie season, but he had a great second season.  Thrust into the number one receiver role after Reggie Wayne's injury, he continued to improve and showed that he can in fact handle it and that he is one of the toughest players to cover that there is in the entire game.  He caught 82 passes for 1,083 yards and 5 touchdowns in the regular season and had 17 catches for 329 yards and 2 touchdowns in the playoffs.  Five times in the regular season and twice in the postseason Hilton topped 100 yards in a game and he had the greatest single-game postseason receiving performance in NFL history with 13 catches for 224 yards and 2 touchdowns in the wild card game against the Chiefs.  The next week, despite Bill Belichick and the Patriots game planning to stop him, he still caught 4 passes for 104 yards.
  • Adam Vinatieri has still got it despite being the NFL's oldest player at age 41.  He set career highs in both field goals made (35) and field goals attempted (40), converting 87.5% of his kicks and all 34 of his extra point attempts.  No one in the entire NFL made more field goals from 40+ yards out than Vinatieri, as he was 15-of-17 (88.2%) on kicks between 40-49 yards and he was 4-of-6 (66.7%) on kicks beyond 50 yards.  In a season that very well might have been the greatest of his career, Vinatieri also topped 2,000 career points and became the first kicker to ever make 50 field goals in a career in the postseason.  Vinatieri has played in 27 postseason games, the second most all-time to only Jerry Rice.  Vinatieri, widely considered the best kicker in the history of the game and a deserving Hall of Fame candidate when he calls it quits, is a free agent this offseason.  He showed this year that he absolutely still has it and is still at the top of his game.  If he wants to come back and continue playing, I'm strongly for it.
  • Of course, no Stampede Blue wrap up piece of the 2013 season would be complete without some thoughts on head coach Chuck Pagano, would it?  I don't think it's any secret that I have been critical of his coaching at times this year (see here and here for some examples).  I've also tried to maintain perspective and not rush to conclusions on Pagano (see here and here for some examples).  I'm not super high on him as a head coach right now, but I'm not super down on him as a head coach either.  I'm kind of in a waiting period.  I think he has some fantastic coaching qualities and the players absolutely love him and love playing for him.  But he also made some bone-headed mistakes this year in-game and his game plans stunk - more than once, too.  Often.  His defense wasn't very good overall.  He maintained a mandate to run the football and tried to do it far too long.  But understand this - his job was never in jeopardy, nor should it have been.  Regardless of what the media thinks, what matters is what the team thinks - and they are behind Pagano.  I'm not going to sugar-coat things and I'll say that 2014 will be a huge year for Pagano.  Another year like the one he just had, and there may be some serious doubts that are well-deserved.  But I think he can improve and it's up to him to want to - and based on his comments in his end of season press conference, I feel confident that he does.  I still have faith in Chuck Pagano and despite the fact that he made some bad mistakes this year, I want to keep things in perspective by realizing that he was only in his second year as an NFL head coach and that he missed most of his first season - and this all after inheriting a 2-14 team two years ago and after an offseason where his general manager failed in several of his moves and with a team that had 17 players on injured reserve, many of them key players.  The Colts still won 11 games, won the division, and won a playoff game.  Pagano was a big part of that, but yet he was also a huge part of the loss to the Patriots and other losses too.  I'm confident that this team, with Andrew Luck at quarterback, will get to the Super Bowl very soon and will soon be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.  I'm also confident that they can get there under Chuck Pagano, but it will take some improvement and work on his part.  I think he's up to it - but we'll see.