Every year, Football Outsiders puts together an almanac that analyzes each team before the college and NFL seasons begin. Included is a look at statistical analysis on a team and individual basis, along with projections for 2018. For those who are more interested in how Football Outsiders views the Colts overall, seven pages of team-specific content is also filled with commentary from Tom Gower.
TOM GOWER has been a fan of the Tennessee Titans since they were the Oilers and he was growing up in Houston. He has remained a fan of the franchise in subsequent stints in North Dakota, Illinois, Washington, D.C., Japan, Maryland, Ohio, and back to Illinois. With degrees from Georgetown University and the University of Chicago Law School, he currently considers himself the most over-educated member of the FO staff. (Clearly, recent football success was not a priority in school selection.) Tom currently maintains Reading and Thinking Football and contributes to Total Titans. His contributions to each week’s Audibles at the Line should not be considered legal advice.
After Stampede Blue’s staff had a chance to read Gower’s thoughts on the Colts in this year’s almanac, we were afforded the opportunity to ask some follow-up questions. We hope you enjoy the interaction below.
SB: Andrew Luck has been a full go throughout all of training camp, making throws all over the field. Given the changes on the offensive line and assuming Luck plays the whole season, what would you project for the Colts offense in 2018?
TG: Our projection in Football Outsiders Almanac 2018 has the Colts 13th in offensive DVOA. That assumes Luck’s readiness for the start of the regular season with no particular limitations, with no more risk of getting injured than any other quarterback. It’s worth keeping in mind our projections are based on many simulations and are the average of a lot of different possibilities. That projection is pretty much in line with what the Colts did do on offense in 2016.
SB: Other than Andrew Luck, who would you pick as the dark horse candidates to significantly alter your predictions on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball?
TG: Rather than specific players, I think a lot of the offense and defense comes down to schemes and particularly the coordinators and how effectively they’re able to get players playing together and how effective they are at game-planning and adjustments.
Looking more at specific players, I’d highlight Tarell Basham and Kemoko Turay on defense. Jabaal Sheard was one of the league leaders in hurries per our charting partners at Sports Info Solutions, and the emergence of a second pass rusher would really help.
On offense, I don’t know if he really qualifies as a dark horse, but I think T.Y. Hilton is actually a key player. Given all the questions at wide receiver after him, it would be useful if he could be a target sink. But the Reich/Sirianni offense will be oriented more around stretching the defense horizontally rather than vertically, so Hilton will probably be asked to win in somewhat different ways than he has in the past.
SB: What has been your observation about teams playing under a new coaching staff? Is there something instructive that Colts fans might be able to use as a reference to keep expectations in check?
TG: New coaching staffs range from the exceptionally successful to exceptionally unsuccessful. Frank Reich has never really run his own offense, Nick Sirianni is in his first year as a coordinator, and Matt Eberflus has coordinated only in college means the Colts are a hard team to predict from that perspective.
SB: Outside of quarterback, what position on the team do you feel will be most improved in 2018 and how much does that impact your record projections?
TG: It’s hard not to pinpoint the offensive line after the big draft investments and all the issues the position group had last year, as long as Anthony Castonzo’s injury does not linger into the season (as I write this on August 7). That will definitely help, but the scheme change from Rob Chudzinski to Reich/Sirianni will probably be at least as important for protecting Luck and keeping him healthy than the change on the line.
SB: Based upon changes over the last couple of years for the Colts in terms of adding younger players, having new management, and completely overturning the coaching staff, how would you project the team’s future?
TG: It comes down to scheming and player development, and we should learn a lot this year about that. I thought heading into last offseason that this year we’d be looking at a defense where we could identify a couple building blocks, a couple average players, and a couple players replacing guys it was clear last year needed to be upgraded. Instead, we’re looking at another year of a lot of new players coming together.
We’re actually not that pessimistic about the Colts defense for 2018. I know, that seems weird to say when they’re 29th in our projections in the book. As I noted, though, the projections are the sum of a range of possibilities, and the defense has been bad enough long enough and there aren’t enough significant investments in draft and free agency that our projections see a good chance of becoming a top ten unit. But they should be better. The 2017 Colts defense was really awful on third downs-one of the worst third down defenses of the DVOA era (going back to 1986). Those defenses have tended to improve more than most bad defenses. All the personnel changeover makes us a little uneasy about that, but I also covered the 2011 Texans, who changed over a lot of players and without the benefit of pre-training camp offseason work went from awful to really good.
With an offense that’s a little above average and a defense that is bad but not awful, the Colts are wild card contenders this year in our view, in what should be an extremely competitive AFC South (we’re down on the Jaguars relative to people who pay more attention to playoff wins, and the gap from first to last place in the division is just 0.6 wins in our projections). The AFC as a whole is New England and Pittsburgh and a really big gap to anybody else. Tom Brady will fall off or retire eventually, right? And Ben Roethlisberger’s not going to play forever, and doesn’t seem to be aging as well as Brady, anyway. The conference beyond the immediate future looks wide open, and Luck taking another step in his development plus one or two defenders turning into a real playmaker could put Indianapolis at the top of that group. But they’re not the only team in the conference or even the division that can tell that kind of story.
Gower was fair in his assessment about the Colts moving forward. Interestingly, we agree that while the AFC South should be very competitive, it is more likely that the Colts will take a step forward and the Jaguars a step back. Only time will tell just how big those steps will be.
It is interesting to note that some of the biggest weaknesses for the Colts 2017 defense tend to see meaningful rebounds in the following year. New coaching staffs make it hard to predict how volatile the Colts could be relative to those historical results but there is every reason to believe that a much more consistent offense, in both halves of football games, will take pressure off of the defense. This alone could help the team find more success.
Another seemingly unanimous opinion is that Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni will have a profound impact on how the offense functions. The quicker releases and more horizontal aspects to the game could help keep Luck upright and help the offensive line better.
What do you think about Gower’s comments?