The prime Peyton Manning years were best known for one of the strongest offenses of the 2000s. Peyton Manning had three amazing pass catchers in Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark. He also had one of the league’s best running backs in Edgerrin James and a stout, talented offensive line. These pieces benefited from strong coaching with a staff that included Tom Moore and Howard Mudd.
It is no surprise the unit was so consistent and set so many records.
Flashing forward to today, the Colts are defined by a young quarterback in his prime, Andrew Luck. After him, you think about great receiving options in TY Hilton and tight ends, Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron. You also have a top 3 offensive line with talented running backs. The unit is led by one of the best offensive minds in the league in Frank Reich and Howard Mudd has returned to help the offensive line.
The similarities are definitely there.
When you look at the defenses, the mid 2000s Colts teams focused on speed, a strong pass rushing force and very much had a no-name secondary. This current Colts defense has added a lot of speed over the past two seasons, made strong additions to their defensive line and pass rushing units and have an unheralded (yet talented) and almost unknown secondary.
Let’s look at how the mid 2000s team was so successful, why this team is so similar, and how the Colts are poised for some big things in the coming years.
Superstars at the Helm
Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning are two of the best quarterbacks in their respective generations. Both have similar, goofy personalties, but when they’re on the field, they’re as serious as can be and know how to win games. Luck’s regular season win percentage as a starter of .616% is creeping closer to Manning’s regular season percentage (with the Colts) of .677%.
Andrew Luck is entering his prime years as a quarterback and already has a few very strong seasons under his belt. Luck has actually put up better numbers than Manning through 6 seasons. When comparing both through their first 6 seasons, Luck had a better passer rating, touchdown to interception ratio, yards per completion average, touchdown percentage and interception percentage. Many other numbers were similar.
Luck has been set up well for the next few seasons as the Colts have great players at each core position on offense and have plenty of cap space and good draft picks over the next few seasons. Luck should continue to thrive with Coach Reich.
Reliable Go-To Guys in All Areas of the Field
The Manning years had stars all over the field. Reggie Wayne was reliable on 3rd downs, Marvin Harrison was a great all around receiver with big play potential and Dallas Clark did a lot of damage in the red-zone. From 2007 to 2009, Clark amassed 27 touchdowns and was Manning’s go-to guy in the red-zone.
Eric Ebron seems to be developing a very similar role as he amassed 13 touchdowns last season with Luck. TY Hilton isn’t as good as Harrison was, but both have very similar games as they’re undersized (almost the exact same size) explosive deep threat players. Harrison was a more reliable pass catcher, but Hilton has developed a strong relationship with Luck and has been a trusty target in massive games, just like Harrison.
The current Colts are still looking for a Reggie Wayne as there isn’t a reliable route runner who is always open on key downs. Jack Doyle has been Luck’s security blanket on many of those downs, but he isn’t an athletic receiver like Wayne and isn’t necessarily a receiving threat all the time since he is a very good blocker. A solid route runner with great hands is something the current Colts are missing.
Extremely Strong Offensive Lines
Manning had a great offensive line for just about every season with the exception of a couple of seasons early on in his career. Other than those seasons, he had one of the best group of blockers in the league in front of him. Luck’s offensive line last season was one of the best in football and it was led by the strong play of the sub-25 year olds, Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly and Braden Smith. Luck was sacked only 18 times last season, the lowest amount since 2010 when Peyton Manning was the quarterback.
From 2002 to 2010, Manning was sacked on average 17 times per season, so the 18 sacks figure that Luck had last season puts him on par with the elite Colts offense during Manning’s tenure.
A strong offensive line is the key to strong play and consistency on offense. It’s no surprise that the teams that boasted the best offensive lines last season were the best teams in football (Patriots, Saints, Rams, Chiefs, Colts and Eagles being the top offensive lines in the league). The current group of Colts are primed for many years of success.
Speed on Defense and Strong Pass Rushers
The Dungy era Colts were known for being speedy and undersized. Gary Brackett was 5’11, 235 pounds and had sideline-to-sideline range. Cato June was 6’0, 225 pounds and had similar speed. Athletes have become bigger, faster and stronger, so while the size of the current Colts linebackers is larger than that of the Brackett era ones, they are just as quick, especially in the case of Darius Leonard.
In this year’s draft, the Colts opted for high level athletes with raw skills and a lot of versatility. They opted for players who can play multiple positions on defense. During the mid-2000s, Colts defenders were asked to do multiple things. Linebackers had to be fierce coverage players and have the speed to take on slot receivers down the field. Safeties needed to play great Cover 2 defense, the same defense the Colts defense utilizes the most today, and play tough in the box.
While the Colts have given more defined roles to their secondary players, it’s become clear that linebackers must be great in all areas and that sub-package linebackers aren’t needed. They’ve also signed defensive linemen with coverage experience. Everybody needs to do everything, which has become a theme for the Colts defense over the past 15 years.
No-Name Underrated Secondaries
The 2000s Colts had a bunch of defensive backs go in and out of the building. With the exception of Antoine Bethea, it seems as if there were new faces at every secondary position every year. While that isn’t entirely true, the secondary did have a lot of unknown players come in and play well throughout the years. They weren’t household names, but they got the job done.
Kelvin Hayden had a pick 6 in the Super Bowl to seal the game for the Colts, yet it isn’t talked about like Tracy Porter’s, despite the fact that both happened in very similar situations. The Colts defense, which was an average defense for the most part, never received a lot of recognition and utilized a bend don’t break style of defense.
While many Colts fans could name you the current secondary or the secondary from the 2006 Super Bowl team, the reality is most fans around the league can’t; they aren’t guys who are going to be popular on Pro Bowl ballots. While they aren’t recognized by most, analytics and in-depth analysis sites recognize them as stellar players. According to Pro Football Focus, Pierre Desir was ranked as a top-20 cornerback last season. Quincy Wilson finished the second half of last season as a top 15-cornerback. These guys get the job done and don’t get recognized, just like the guys from the prime Manning-Dungy years.
The Manning-era Colts had a lot of success and ended up with a Super Bowl win in Manning’s 8th season in the NFL. Luck is going to be entering his 7th year in the league so he has two years to match Manning’s Super Bowl to stay on track with him.
The most remarkable thing about the Manning Colts was their consistency. They were always among the best teams in the league for about 10 years straight, perennial playoff contenders and made deep playoff runs on several occasions. Most would consider them the best team of the 2000s after the Patriots. So, if the current Colts can copy the old Colts and be a perennial powerhouse, Colts fans are in for a fun decade.