Entering the 2014 season, there were plenty of questions surrounding the Colts coaching staff.
Two weeks into the season, those questions were nearly overwhelming. A number of people, including myself, felt like failures from the coaching staff helped lead to the Colts loss. After a 2013 season that didn't inspire much confidence in the staff, the first two games of this season just looked to be adding to the negative feelings.
Fans and media were upset because they felt like the coaching staff was wasting Andrew Luck's early years. That Luck was succeeding despite his coaching staff. That the coaches were way too conservative and that it was hurting their chances to win.
Now, the Colts are on a four-game winning streak, in first place in the AFC South, and regarded by nearly everyone as a top ten team in the league. Much of that credit must certainly go to the team's MVP candidate in quarterback Andrew Luck, but I'd like to point out a few other people who deserve credit for the success the Colts have been having recently: the coaching staff.
I think Chuck Pagano, for all the criticism he has received, is improving. He's learning. He has displayed a humble attitude and continues to maintain, even this week, that there are plenty of things he needs to work on personally to improve, and that humble attitude has led to noticeable improvement in the past four weeks.
Remember how last year the biggest criticism that Chuck Pagano received was over his team's slow starts? After the same issue showed up in week one (the Colts fell behind 24-0 in the first half), the Colts have since improved and in the past five games, they've jumped out to leads at various points in the game (20-6 over the Eagles, 30-0 over the Jaguars, 17-0 over the Titans, 13-3 over the Ravens, and 24-0 over the Texans). Some of those leads came earlier than others, but here's the key: the Colts haven't been putting themselves in a hole early, and in fact we've seen that most of the time they've reversed that this year. And if you're going to blame Pagano for the slow starts, you'd better give him some credit for having his team ready to play and jumping out to a fast start.
I think that last week's start against the Texans is a perfect example of both this and the increased aggressiveness from Pagano, which go hand in hand. The Colts forced a three and out on the Texans offense to start the game, and then the Colts offense drove down the field to kick a field goal to go ahead 3-0 early in the first quarter. It was then that Pagano called an onside kick, which the Colts recovered. A few plays later, an Andrew Luck touchdown pass made it 10-0 Colts. The onside kick was a bold risk but one that helped set the tone for the game - an aggressive move, to be sure. And it was the second time this season that Pagano has dialed up an onside kick in the first quarter of a game with the Colts leading. "We're going to play as aggressive as we possibly can," Pagano said on Monday (while noting that they're certainly going to be smart about it). From what we've seen the past four weeks, they actually are playing very aggressive, and it's working.
Give credit to special teams coaches Tom McMahon and Brant Boyer, too. Just hearing the praise that players and other coaches have for both of them and the way their special teams units are consistently prepared and playing well, they deserve credit as well.
But Pagano is the head coach, the one calling the onside kicks and those sorts of things, the one with the ultimate responsibility. And in the past month, that has been a good thing for the Colts, not a hinderance. Sure, there are things you can point to that he has done wrong, such as the bizarre non-timeout and then even more bizarre timeout at the end of the first half against the Texans. But for the first time in a while, those things are just nit-picking now from people who don't want to point to what he's doing right. No coach will be perfect; all I ask is that they give their team a better chance to win by being the head coach. Recently, we've seen that be true of Chuck Pagano.
And then there's the whole issue about his defense. It hasn't been great this year, but during the winning streak the defense has been playing very well. Here's what I wrote about it on Monday:
How well? They've allowed 306 yards per game during the streak, which would rank as the third best total in the NFL this season. They've allowed 202 pass yards per game (which would also rank third) and 104 rush yards per game (which would rank 11th - which is exactly what the Colts do rank over six games, too). They've allowed just 18% of their opponents third down attempts to be converted, which would be the best mark in the league by a lot. They've allowed just 1 of 4 fourth down tries to be converted (tied for ninth best in the league - the same the Colts rank right now). The Colts defense has allowed just 16.75 first downs per game in the last four weeks, which would rank first in the NFL this season. And during their winning streak, the Colts have notched 16 sacks, 5 interceptions, and recovered 6 fumbles. They've allowed just 18.75 points per game over the last four weeks, which would rank fourth in the league this season. In other words: the Colts' defense has been impressive.
Chuck Pagano had high praise for his defensive unit, saying that, "this is as close as we've been to what we envisioned when we first got together." Pagano runs the defense, but he runs it with defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, who also deserves a ton of credit for the way the unit is playing.
Having lost their best player and most impactful pass rusher in Robert Mathis, there were plenty of questions about how the Colts would get to the quarterback. They've answered that in resounding fashion by continuing to get pressure on the QB as if nothing was different, and Andrew broke this down in tremendous fashion yesterday. It has been a lot of players elevating their play and a heck of a job by Manusky. He has had to get creative with his schemes and it has worked out very well, and he's been able to get the most out of his pass rushers and his defense as a whole. Look, the defense isn't great yet by any means. But they've been very impressive in the past four weeks and considering what was expected of them entering the season (especially the pass rush), it's hard not to be impressed with the job that Greg Manusky and Chuck Pagano have done with this defense this year. It's easily the best coached this defense has been since the two arrived in Indy in 2012, and for a few years before that as well.
And lest you think that we've forgotten about Pep Hamilton, let me assure you that is most definitely not true. Hamilton has adjusted his offense ever so slightly to make a huge difference - he's now passing to set up the run instead of running to set up the pass. The Colts still run the football and they'll still try to run the football, and that's exactly what Chuck Pagano wants them to do. But before they were doing so at the expense of Andrew Luck and the offense as a whole, while the past month has been in support of Luck and the offense. Like with Pagano, there are things that Pep gets wrong or things you could disagree with, but I feel that those things have moved into the "nit-picking" category as well, because in the past month we have seen Pep put Andrew Luck and the offense in the best position to succeed since he arrived in Indianapolis a year ago.
Look, it's only four games, three of which have been against division opponents. But the things I've mentioned are not ultimately predicated upon the success or the opponent but rather the scheme, system, or mindset. Those things can translate to other games, and if the coaches do continue to play according to them, then I think we'll continue to see it pay off much more often than it doesn't. One of the biggest questions I had entering the season was whether Andrew Luck and this team could win despite their coaching, but in the last month that hasn't been a problem at all. Instead, the Colts are winning in part because of the great, aggressive coaching from Chuck Pagano, Greg Manusky, Pep Hamilton, Tom McMahon and Brant Boyer. As we talk about the Colts' current four game win streak, we need to give credit to the coaching staff and the improvements they have made. Hopefully, it continues.