As a football fan, I find myself going through different stages throughout the year. During the off-season there is some excitement around what new players might bring to the table and how moves made by the front office could fill holes on the roster and help the team improve. Through training camp and preseason I focus more on individuals and less on the team because so much of what the team does has no crossover to what happens when the games really matter.
This season, there were reasons to be realistic about the Colts’ likelihood for meaningful success. A return to the playoffs would be a relief and a step in the right direction but expecting anything more than that was pretty far-fetched. In general, I’m still okay with that thought process and these Colts are still in the hunt only one game back in the AFC South.
Then you have the coaching staff, led by Chuck Pagano. There were all kinds of rumors floating around about how horrible the environment was at the Colts facility on West 56th Street. Former General Manager Ryan Grigson was accused of meddling in game day personnel decisions, of sucking the fun out of the room for the staff, and of having a major conflict with coach Pagano that was never fully resolved.
There was a legitimate reason to feel a little hope that the coaching staff would make some positive changes outside of the hostile environment with a new General Manager who seems like a very competitive guy but one who is more personable and who appears to get along better with Pagano. Maybe all of the previous meddling and the poisonous relationship between General Manager and Head Coach were partially to blame for some of the struggles the Colts were showing on the field. Maybe the new regime would flip a switch and show us something new.
Even some of the big changes that occurred in the off-season from a team personnel perspective, spear-headed by Chris Ballard’s obvious lack of confidence in the roster he inherited, gave reasons to hope for something different on the football field. To his credit, my goodness this defense is better than what it was a year ago. In one summer, Ballard has made some positive strides to make his team better and if this defense can get another piece or two at key positions, it could be really good.
Yet, somehow, these changes are being poorly utilized by a coaching staff that continues to struggle. I’m sure that it gets boring reading the same or similar commentary that beats up the coaches every week but this group consistently proves that they deserve to have their feet held to the fire.
Miraculously, Chuck Pagano and his staff have gone from full Jekyll to full Hyde in each half of football games. For years, Indianapolis has come out sluggish in football games and waited until the second half to get anything going. Andrew Luck and the offense would be forced to work miracles late in games and finally show signs of life to win football games. We all longed to have a team that would play decent football in the first half and not put so much pressure on Luck and the offense in the second half.
This year that team comes out and punches opponents in the mouth. There are offensive drives that appear orchestrated, that put opponents on their heels early and had Dick LeBeau looking stunned and defeated on the sidelines. Nothing was working for the Titans defense and the Colts kept their foot squarely on the gas. The scoreboard showed a relatively close game but it felt lopsided in favor of Indianapolis.
Now Pagano and his coaching staff are putting together a string of second half collapses that has to be approaching NFL record level bad. If this team could take the second half out of games, it would look like a playoff contender and the favorite to win the AFC South. If you removed the first half of games, the group would be clear favorites to get the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Before we get into the disastrous coaching effort against Tennessee, let’s call out some players for failures that also made it much more difficult to win the football game.
- Jack Doyle continues to struggle holding on to the football. While his first “drop” was really a good defensive play where the defender got his hand between Doyle’s arms and knocked the ball away, one fumble and nearly a second, along with bad hands in general are plaguing him in 2017. This all is coming out of nowhere as he has been one of the most reliable check down options in Indianapolis for at least a season and a half.
- Jacoby Brissett makes big mistakes in the biggest moments of games. I get that he is being asked to do a lot and fill big shoes and I get that he has only had a limited amount of time to get fully acclimated to the Colts offense. He is also showered with praise when things go well and acknowledged for his great promise on one play and relentlessly criticized for his mistakes on the next. Still, he has to be more calm under pressure during key moments in the game. The intentional grounding hail mary out of bounds cost the Colts a down and big yards when they were in the red zone and could have scored a touchdown.
- T.Y. Hilton was nowhere to be found in a game that he needed to play a big role in to come out with a victory. We’ll come back to this one.
- Donte Moncrief played a relatively strong game overall but he could not make up for the dropped touchdown. This team cannot afford to give away points and expect to win games, especially on the road in a division game. This was an opportunity for Moncrief to make a big play and give Indianapolis momentum. A perfect ball from Brissett was wasted and those points were gone.
- Penalties at key times during drives will haunt the outcome of football games. Darius Butler was called for defensive holding on a play that otherwise resulted in a John Simon sack. While we’ve not been able to breakdown what happened on the play and whether it warranted a penalty, mainly because the broadcast crew had little interest in showing their viewers relevant replays or even injuries as they were happening, we do know that the Titans took their second chance to march down the field and score a field goal.
- Poor special teams decisions will also cost a team dearly. When Quan Bray chose to run a kickoff that was well into his own end zone out, only to trip and fall at the Colts 12 yard line, important things happened that should not. It’s more than just bad field position on one drive and putting more pressure on a young and inexperienced quarterback to make a longer drive to score. It’s about field position in general. The one special teams mistake resulted in a long field for the Colts, a short field for the Titans, and another long field for the Colts. It took a special teams penalty called against Tennessee to make up for it. These bone-headed decisions can entirely alter the outcome of a game.
- Rookie safety Malik Hooker was burned deep by Taywan Taylor on the kind of play that he is designed to stop. He reacted way too late to Taylor coming across his face and let him get well behind him. These kind of rookie learning moments are expected but he needs to be sure this doesn’t continue happening.
Now for the coaching staff:
The second half adjustments that are made every week serve to cause an implosion in each game. The offensive play-calling is less aggressive. The things that were working in the first half are entirely abandoned. Key role players are either unused or misused.
Consider that the Colts kept Robert Turbin in on an entire drive. They will tell you it was all about pass protection but I will tell you that he was used to run the football or to catch screen passes more than he was used as a blocker. I will also tell you that one of the best ways to shut down blitzes and abuse defenses who try to attack the quarterback is to hit the spots on the field that are vacated by the rush.
Let Gore or Mack leak out into the flats or take a seat right where the linebackers used to be for an easy dump-off in space up the middle of the field. Run a draw play to a running back who has the speed to hit a crease and get big yards. Be creative, use your play-makers, do the simple things that coaches need to do in order to win football games.
Don’t have your defense start backing off in coverage and allow everything underneath. Your first half defensive game plan was effective. You were getting real pressure on Mariota and getting a body on him. Play the receivers aggressive and force Mariota to beat you from the pocket without receivers getting clean releases in their routes.
It’s so frustrating to write these things because it is the same thing every week. This coaching staff is incapable of making appropriate half time adjustments. It is incapable of making simple and obvious choices that will keep pressure on their opponents. It is incapable of properly using its personnel out of fear that a young player like Marlon Mack might gasp miss a block in protection once or twice.
I have a new flash for the coaching staff in Indianapolis. It is true and relevant to worry that a rookie running back might have some growing pains and might allow a few hits on his quarterback when he fails to pick up a pass rushers and to properly read his role in protection. However, one thing that trumps that concern is the absolute certainty that if the Colts offense doesn’t utilize its most explosive weapons early and often, if this offense becomes predictable and one-dimensional, none of those concerns will matter.
Brissett was under pressure because the offense was vanilla and pathetic. He was getting lit up behind the line in the second half because the team did nothing to punish them for pinning their ears back and attacking. The problem wasn’t so much a bad offensive line or poor blocking, or a failure by running backs to pick up their assignment in pass protection. The problem was that there was no where to go with the ball over and over and over again and the best Rob Chudzinski and Chuck Pagano could muster as a wrinkle was to lineup their most dangerous backfield weapon as a wide out numerous times.
This group is really bad. A change needs to happen, and the sooner the better. This team should always try to win but the decision to make a coaching staff change is too important to put off, even if it might cost the Colts a game or two.
Things aren’t getting better. The hope and silver linings for the broad changes in the front office leading to a more effective coaching staff are fading fast. Someone needs to take the reigns here and make sure these second half implosions come to an end. If not, the Colts are going no where.