Please welcome Chris Blystone to the Stampede Blue writing team. After spending a lot of time and energy creating and maintaining his own Colts blog, he looks forward to focusing more on writing about the team he loves and less on website administration. His first story will counter the recent 5 reasons the Colts will make the playoffs article — showing that Chris is not afraid to jump into the fray “going negative” with the fan community.
Before you protest, I know. Doom and gloom are not a good look when training camp has not even started yet. The off-season is a time when teams are supposed to be rolling out the tropes they have had stored deep in the bowels of their respective facilities and serving them up to the fans to fuel our undying optimism. Allow me to serve as the icy cooler of Gatorade dumped over your optimistic little head. Or rather, for our purposes, the cooler of Gatorade that just sits there, because Gatorade showers are for winners. Without further adieu, here’s why the Colts will be watching come playoff time.
Andrew Luck’s Health
Andrew Luck has epitomized “Grit” in literally everything from his never say die attitude to his somewhat gross looking neckbeard. No player could have been better prepared to come in and pick up the reins of a legend like Peyton Manning. Like most quarterbacks coming into the league, Luck has been prone to, as he puts it, “bonehead mistakes.”
He holds on to the ball too long. That never say die attitude that has led to all those fourth quarter comebacks? Luck possesses it on the per-play level. No play is dead in his mind. That is what we love about him and what makes him incredible to watch. Except that some plays are dead.
Do not misunderstand, I absolutely don’t want Luck to change. He is, in my opinion, the most exciting quarterback to watch every Sunday because he makes plays that no other quarterback makes out of sheer determination.
Unfortunately, if you have a bad offensive line, no running game, and a tendency to hold the ball too long, you are going to get hit. A lot. Because of that, here we are one week from training camp, left to wonder when we will see our prodigious quarterback return to game form. If he has to miss time, that is a big problem.
The Colts have what looks like the easiest schedule in the league, but coming up in the first 4 games are the Rams, Cardinals, Browns, and Seahawks. With Luck healthy, I think that could easily be a 3-win or even 4-win stretch. However, with the tough defenses of the Rams and Seahawks as well as the dynamic running and passing game of the Cardinals, it would be easy to see the Colts squeaking out a miserable 1-3 start if they are missing their signal caller.
While there is currently no reason to think he won’t be back and ready to start the season, Ballard has made it clear that he will not be rushed back and that they will wait for him to be fully healed. Also worth considering is that if he is cleared just before the regular season, he will have had very little arm activity and nearly no repetitions with his receivers since last season. That means they will likely struggle for awhile to get in sync. The sky is not falling yet, but if Luck misses time, the Colts will be in trouble.
The AFC South – A Division on the Rise
Colts fans have enjoyed remarkably good luck in the AFC South because for the better part of the last decade the division has been a laughing stock. That looks to be changing.
The Tennessee Titans have found their franchise QB in Marcus Mariota. If not for an injury last December it is likely that he would have led the Titans to a division title and ended the Texans time on top. For the Titans, their success last year and projected success this year start in the trenches. They were 3rd in the league in yards per game in their rushing attack, and 2nd in yards allowed in their rush defense.
Those kinds of numbers really help out a young quarterback. What helps him more? Drafting Corey Davis with their first-round pick. Their biggest weakness remains their pass defense. They bolstered it through free agency and the draft, picking up CB Adoree Jackson with the number 18 pick, and if those additions can make an immediate impact, the Titans may be a sleeping contender in the AFC.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have been the off-season darlings each of the last three years. This is the year I think they might just do it. Everyone is ready to write them off after having been such disappointments despite all the young talent, but just like the Texans, it all hinges on the quarterback position. Blake Bortles showed in 2015 that he had the potential to be a solid passer. If all the off-season tropes about his throwing motion being improved are true this is a team with the receiving corps to be a major weapon.
Perhaps the best thing the Jaguars could have done to help their quarterback regain his mojo was to bolster the offensive line and get him a running back who could be a threat and slow down pass rushers. They did both. Leonard Fournette might not have the year that Ezekiel Elliott did, but his angry downhill running style will certainly take some pressure off Bortles. With so much young talent on the defensive side, the danger that some of those younger guys can begin to put their games together and become a force on that side of the ball is very real.
Last, and intentionally so, are the Houston Texans. Their defense has been seriously formidable, but on the offensive side of the ball, there are still a lot of questions. DeAndre Hopkins is an elite receiving talent, but you have to really stretch the truth to say anyone else on that offense is a major play-maker. That could change if Deshaun Watson lives up to the Texans’ hopes for him.
One thing is certain, the Texans’ defense will be tough to face. When healthy, J.J. Watt has a bigger impact than any player in the league who doesn’t play quarterback. Having him back to fighting shape and across from Jadeveon Clowney who really brought up his game, last season will give nightmares to teams with struggling offensive lines--like, you know, the Colts.
The Youth Movement
Chris Ballard came in like a whirlwind this off-season and whisked in with him a novel idea: The Colts needed to get younger. And better. Shocking that such a concept was a revelation, but Grigson clearly forgot all about the whole building process when he got a look at just how good his quarterback was. Good teams, and good general managers, know that to build successful teams that stay successful, you have to have young talent and be able to draft well and develop your own players. Paying free agents is expensive and risky (Looking at you Art Jones and company).
You might be wondering why getting younger would be a reason to count the Colts out of playoff contention. To be clear, everything Ballard has done so far, at least in my thinking, has been good. The team is younger. They are a lot more athletic. The problem is that those qualities come with their own obstacles. The defense will likely be made up of a majority of new players. While that sounds great in theory given how miserable the defense was last year, it also means they start at square one. Most of them will be in a new scheme. They will have to develop chemistry together, and that takes time.
In addition, it means the loss of leaders like Robert Mathis, Mike Adams, and D’Qwell Jackson. All these guys needed to go. But their leadership in tough spots will be felt. Their knowledge and understanding of the game will leave a noticeable vacuum that even very talented rookies cannot totally fill. When you add in the fact that Clayton Geathers, one of the most talented defensive prospects drafted in the Grigson era is a major question mark with a neck injury, it leaves a lot in the air for the defense.
None of this is bad. In fact, it is a part of what the process of building a good team has to look like. But all growth has growing pains and this year that is a very likely reality. The same things can be said for the young offensive line. While they are likely on the upswing, they are still a young group. It may be another year before we can truly see the results of Ballard’s efforts.
The McAfee Effect
Pat McAfee is a funny guy. He successfully launched himself into the world of stand-up comedy and decided it suited him. So, when he retired and joined Barstool Sports, the human part of most of us was happy for him for following his dream and ending his time with the NFL on his terms and in his own time. But the other part of us, the diehard Colts fan, was not happy.
Because Pat McAfee isn’t just a funny guy. He is a really good punter and all around special teamer. That is a change that can easily be overlooked in the off-season. Sometimes it is easy for us to look past the impact a punter or kicker has on the game because we don’t exactly see the results presented in front of us.
Great special teams play can change an offense’s ability to call plays and impacts how a defense plays as well. When a team struggles on defense like the Colts have, special teams can sometimes bail them out by putting the opposing offense in a position to limit what is open to them. Better yet, sometimes the special teams group can steal a possession by onside kicking or running trick plays. Since 2014 the Colts have onside kicked 7 times. They have recovered it 4 times. That percentage is insane to me, and it is a credit to McAfee. Losing his ability to pin offenses deep and knack for the onside kick means even more pressure on a young defense to get stops and takeaways.
Pagano’s Game Planning and Play Calling
I like Chuck Pagano. None of us can really know how much his work environment was impacted by Ryan Grigson and all the hostility in the building, but I want to give the guy the benefit of the doubt. He gives a great locker room speech, and the guy whipped cancer. But there are times that I am just not sure he is an asset on the football field in the area of play calling and game management.
When you have been given the lack of talent that he has had to deal with, it is understandable that sometimes you would struggle, but I have sometimes watched the Colts with the thought that Pagano is an old school coach in a new school game. I will never understand why a team that can pull off a major late-game comeback cannot seem to come out of the gate firing on all cylinders. It also befuddles me that the Colts under Pagano have consistently kneeled away the end of the second quarter with a minute on the clock and all their timeouts available.
And then there is the infamous fake punt. Or Griff Whalen’s poor attempt at the “Annexation of Puerto Rico.” Whatever you want to call it, it was ugly, and it was at least partly Pagano’s fault. Maybe he will surprise us all and coach like a surly, unpleasant, Grigson-shaped weight has been lifted off his shoulders. For my money though, I don’t think so.
All these things add up to what could be a frustrating season for Colts fans and a strong likelihood of seeing 8-8 and a coaching change. But in typical NFL fashion, a lot can change in the coming months.
For a more optimistic and hopefully more accurate look at the coming season, check out 5 reasons the Indianapolis Colts will make the playoffs in 2017