Now that we’re past the halfway point of training camp, we’re starting to get a read on the strengths and weaknesses of the 2018 Indianapolis Colts roster. Some young players have made an impression, free agent additions have started to show how they might contribute to the team, and a bit of personality has started to take shape in the most physical training camp practices that have been reported for many years.
As we approach the first preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks, Bob Kravitz sat down to interview former Colts head coach Rick Venturi to get his thoughts. Venturi has decades of football coaching experience at every level of competition and shared some insight into some of the highs and lows on the roster and provided some perspective on realistic expectations for Luck, the coaching staff, and the team in 2018.
What to Expect from the New Colts Coaching Staff
Anytime a team undergoes major changes to the coaching staff, it is hard to get a good read on what to expect. This is particularly true when those changes coincide with bringing in entirely new schemes and not having enough time or resources in one off-season to put together a roster suited to fit those changes.
Of course, it is also entirely reasonable to note that the previous schemes and coaching staff were not effective. What is worse, sticking with a system and staff you know isn’t working or trying to figure out how successful you are going to be with unknowns in those areas?
As it relates to the Indianapolis Colts, I suspect that fans will broadly admit that the previous regime had to go. Not just because the schemes they ran were ineffective but also because they proved to be woefully inadequate at getting the team ready to start football games and even more inadequate at making adjustments to counter opponents at half time.
There was no way that the previous system was sustainable, particularly if the goal was to return to a winning culture.
This leads fans to feel pretty confident that the new coaching staff represents an upgrade over the old one. While there is some concern generally about returning to a Tampa 2 based defense, because soft teams in the past helped throw away many of Peyton Manning’s formidable years, the upgrades that are expected on offense help keep things in balance.
Venturi went into detail about his early takeaway from the new coaching staff and what fans might be able to expect:
There is no Colt team that hasn’t gotten a big bump from a coaching change. Ron Meier came in, took an 0-13 [team] that won 3 in a row at a the end of ‘96, and won the AFC East. Marchibroda took a 1-15 and went 9-7. Rod Dowhower even took the team from 4 to 6 [wins]. Mora went to 10-6. Pagano had the huge jump. Dungy, 6-10 to 10-6.
So, just on enthusiasm and I do think this staff is going to hold these guys accountable. I think the combination of the juice, style, accountability, I think you’ll be better by accident.
It is both interesting and compelling to know the history of Colts teams after a coaching change. If this coaching staff continues the theme, fans can expect meaningful improvement in 2018.
What might make this jump even bigger than usual is that this season should be closer to 2012 — when Pagano’s Colts took a big leap. 2012 was Andrew Luck’s rookie year. While Jacoby Brissett was a better quarterback in 2017 than Curtis Painter and crew were in 2011, it still feels like getting a first round draft pick on the field at the most important position on a football team.
Venturi also admitted that it is difficult to judge a coaching staff based upon what the team looks like during practice. After all, coaches at this level ought to be able to run an organized practice. Where the rubber meets the road is during games. Venturi said:
Now, I don’t judge an NFL coaching staff by how they look in practice. Everybody that is on an NFL staff at this point in time can put together a practice, can get you ready for training camp. You judge NFL staffs at game time. The game plan, the adjustments. As somebody said to me the other day, you can’t change the direction of the wind but you can damn sure adjust the sails. That’s the difference in great coaches in the NFL is the adaptations. Adaptations to injuries, adjustments.
It goes without saying that any NFL coaching staff should be able to make their team look relatively good during scripted practices. Where great coaches differentiate themselves is making changes in real time, adjusting, and finding ways to win football games when the outcome counts.
The good news is that Indianapolis has brought in a guy who has showed some aptitude in this area and worked under coaches and in systems that provide some reasons to feel confident. Venturi said:
Now, we have got to like what we’re getting in Frank. First of all, I was never a McDaniels fan. I was the happiest guy in the world when that happened the way it did. I think Frank is a really good fit here.
The other thing about Frank is I want cutting edge football, I don’t want the Colts to be out-coached every game. You know, you’re not going to win that battle every week but you don’t want to lose it every week. The thing that Frank comes with other than his leadership presence is he comes from the most cutting edge, in my opinion, the most cutting edge offense in the league right now. I think the Philadelphia Eagles did the best single season job of offensive football -- incorporating college RPOs, pro match-ups, adapting from one quarterback to the other, I thought they did a phenomenal job. So, we are getting a part of that.
Also, Frank coached with Tom Moore, which was one of the premier offenses of all time, and he played in the K-Gun which was revolutionary, so he has been around revolutionary offenses.
There is no doubt that Frank Reich’s pedigree suggests that fans in Indianapolis will get to enjoy exciting offensive football. There are reasons to believe that the offense will put pressure on opponents to make adjustments, will exploit weaknesses, and will hopefully find ways to get the ball out of Andrew Luck’s hand faster — helping to keep him healthy. The “multiple” approach to offense should coincide with a great detail of flexibility and make it easier to make adjustments throughout the game.
What might be most important to Venturi is that Reich’s offensive system will likely demand a lot from the quarterback. Systems asking a player like Andrew Luck to play an active role in what happen on the field play to his mental strengths as a football player. Venturi said:
I think you’re going to have a chance to have a cutting edge guy who puts a lot of mental pressure on the quarterback but that’s what we want with our guy. We want our guy to be the ring master, we want him to orchestrate run pass options, check with mes, this is where he thrives. So, that is really a good fit.
While none of Venturi’s observations are particularly ground breaking, he reiterates the reasons to have confidence in the Colts young coaching staff — particularly on the offensive side of the ball. The offense will make a drastic change from highly predictable to revolutionary. It will change from heavily scripted to adjustable on the fly. Importantly, it will let Andrew Luck’s mind do a lot of heavy lifting and he has given fans plenty of reason to believe that will be a very good thing.
On the defensive side of the ball, Venturi didn’t go into great detail about individual coaches but did have some concerns about the scheme. He countered his own concerns by acknowledging that most important thing to winning on defense is having the pieces to succeed in the system, from the general manager down to the players. He said:
The defensive staff, looks like a good bunch of coaches, I think they’re good coaches. I have never been in love with the Tampa 2 scheme but that’s insignificant. Whatever the scheme is, [you have to] know it, and Ballard has been with it his whole life so he knows how to draft for it.
The one thing it does do is simplicity... simplicity is good and it’s bad. The good part of simplicity is that is allows guys to play fast and it usually will breed a little bit more of an aggressiveness. The bad part of simplicity is that what is simple for your players is simple for the other offensive coordinators on Tuesday night. I am not going to get into those arguments. We will talk about that when we get into the season.
It appears that Venturi shares the same kind of concerns Colts fans have had with the Tampa 2 scheme for years. At its best, the scheme will bend in the middle of the field but tighten up in the red zone. At its best, the scheme will generate pressure on the quarterback and create turnovers. At its worst, the scheme is soft and can allow opponents to control the ball and the clock, taking the team’s biggest weapon out of the game for long stretches.
The question that can’t be answered right now is whether Chris Ballard and Matt Eberflus can find a way to bring this system back to Indianapolis without bringing the soft moniker along with it. It will take regular season football, and likely more than one year, to get a legitimate answer to that question.