In week two, the Colts had a 20-6 lead at one point in the third quarter, only to go on to lose the game 30-27 on a last-second field goal. Many Colts fans were ticked off that the team lost the game, and I wrote about how the coaches essentially cost the team a win with their conservative play-calling down the stretch.
It wouldn't have been as concerning if it was the first time we'd seen it, but instead it was just a continuation of something we'd seen the year before - a coaching staff that looked like it didn't fit the personnel the team had and who were a hinderance instead of a help. That has changed this year, but let's just look specifically at Pep Hamilton.
I loved the hire when the Colts made it, but as the 2013 season went on it became apparent to myself and everybody else that the Colts were limiting Andrew Luck, their best player, in their pursuit of a "power run game." Pep showed progress toward the end of the season, however, in adjusting and that led to hope that 2014 would be different. But in week two, those same concerns came about.
The Colts ran the football 38 times and passed it 34 times. Let's be quick to note that for much of the first half and into the third quarter Andrew Luck was not on the top of his game, but in the first nine games that was the only game in which he hasn't thrown for 300 yards. Could that be because it was a run-based offense for the Colts that night (despite throwing it 34 times)? It was the fewest pass attempts in a game so far this season for the Colts, the most rushing attempts, and the fewest total yards - 67 yards less than their second lowest total. In only two games this year have the Colts scored fewer points than that game. And when the game was on the line, in a tie game late in the fourth quarter, the team didn't place the ball in their star's hands but rather handed it off on two straight plays - leaving Luck only a third and long to keep the drive alive. The concerns about Pep Hamilton as the team's offensive coordinator once again came to the surface after that Monday Night Football loss.
Fast forward seven weeks to the team's second Monday Night Football game of the season. And it perfectly highlighted the change we've seen in the Colts' offense this year. The Colts threw the football 46 times in the game and ran the football 24 times, but it's more striking than just that - a large number of those 24 runs came in the fourth quarter while only 2 pass attempts came in the final period. The Colts opened on a furious passing pace and it led to 40 points and 443 yards on the road against the Giants in a big win. And believe it or not, some actually said the Colts needed to get the running game more involved in the course of the game. Just listen to the difference between the two Monday night games for the Colts this year: after one, fans thought Pep wasn't giving Luck the chance to win games, and after the second fans thought Pep wasn't running the football enough. Never mind that seeming a bit hypocritical (it's always been about balance, I get it), we see clearly in these two games the direction the Colts have been headed this year, and it's an encouraging one for Colts fans.
You see, Pep Hamilton has embraced the personnel he has. He's realized that he's not at Stanford anymore, where they seem to boast a top offensive line year in and year out that led to great success with the power running game. He's in Indianapolis, and here he has one of the game's top quarterbacks and a host of weapons to utilize. He has Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne, Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener, Ahmad Bradshaw, Trent Richardson, and even Donte Moncrief. This team is built to win through the air. Whether or not that was what Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano intended when drafting players, that's exactly what they have now. And they're in turn the league's number one passing offense with a quarterback on pace to break the single-season passing yardage record in just his third year in the league. They have the number one overall offense in terms of both yards per game and points per game.
Last year, Andrew Luck threw more than 40 times in a game four times in the regular season and twice in the postseason. In those games, the Colts were 2-4 and both wins were fourth quarter comebacks. What does that mean? Those passing attempts were a direct result of the fact that the Colts had fallen behind in games and needed to be passing on most plays. Through nine games this year, Andrew Luck has thrown more than 40 passes in all but one game, and in those games the Colts are 6-2. It's not just that they're passing more - it's that they're integrating the passing offense into everything they do. They're passing to set up the run, not running to set up the pass. They're embracing who they're built to be, and as a result they're the top passing offense in the NFL. Andrew Luck is on pace for the most yards in a season in NFL history and the fifth most touchdowns in a season in NFL history while also on pace to throw the second most times of any quarterback in a season in history. Make no mistake: the Colts are a passing team.
Before the season began I predicted that Pep Hamilton would become popular among Colts fans. It think we're seeing that happen, and it's because of his willingness to stop trying to be a power run team but rather playing to the strengths that are obvious to everyone: that the Colts are built to be a dominant passing attack. That's exactly what they've become, and by looking at the two Monday Night Football games for the Colts this year we can see the improvement of Pep Hamilton very clearly.
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