According to Football Outsiders Aaron Schatz via ESPN (subscription), the Indianapolis Colts offensive and defensive trends of the past decade were marred by both inconsistency and injuries (the latter especially offensively at quarterback):
Offense: As you might expect, the Colts have been one of the most injured offenses of the decade, with more adjusted games lost than any other offense except the Giants and Redskins. The Colts’ bad offensive years are no surprise, because they mainly line up with quarterback injuries. There’s the year of Peyton Manning’s neck injury, 2011; the year Andrew Luck missed half the season, 2015; the year of Luck’s shoulder, 2017; and then the year Luck surprisingly retired before the season, 2019.
What’s surprising is that the Colts don’t rank higher in the years that Luck was healthy. Some of that has to do with a lack of talent around him, especially on the offensive line (except in 2018). Some of it has to do with adjustments in our DVOA formula that penalize teams for higher offensive numbers indoors. Some of it is that Luck never quite lived up to his fantastic potential. For example, he never ranked in the top five of ESPN’s QBR measure, and he ranked in the top 10 only in 2016 and 2018.
Offensive outlook for 2020: There are questions about the receivers, but our projections like free-agent signing Philip Rivers to rebound behind this strong offensive line.
Defense: The Colts’ defense was poor to start the decade. It took a couple of years, but eventually a couple of 2012 moves — new coordinator Greg Manusky, a trade for cornerback Vontae Davis — helped move the defense back to respectability for a few years. Things crashed again in 2016, and the Colts had a couple of more years of bad defense, but they’ve been better the past two seasons.
Defensive outlook for 2020: Primarily because of the addition of DeForest Buckner, we expect improvement. But can another new addition, cornerback Xavier Rhodes, get his game back together after a dismal 2019 season?
Schatz further explains DVOA, as well as some of the expected defensive volatility from it year-to-year for all NFL franchises:
DVOA measures how efficient offenses are at producing yards and points, with zero representing league average in each year. Since better defenses are preventing yards and points, defensive DVOA is better when it is negative, not positive. You can read more about how DVOA works here.
One of the most important discoveries of football analytics is that defense is less consistent from year to year than offense is. So one thing you’ll find in the tables below is that the defensive numbers bounce around a lot more than the offensive numbers, and sometimes it is harder to find a good explanation for why defenses suddenly got much better or worse. Still, it’s the NFL, so the offenses can be pretty inconsistent too. There’s a lot of year-to-year change in this league!
Now, there’s several things to unravel here.
First, yes, the Colts suffered a number of injuries to high profile quarterbacks over the past decade. Peyton Manning never played a snap in 2011 (which led to Curtis Painter), while Andrew Luck was injured for part of 2015 (9 games) and the entirety of the 2017 and 2019 seasons (having abruptly retired ahead of this past year).
Second, I’ll fight to the bitter end that Luck ‘never lived up to his fantastic potential’—when he actually played. Outside of T.Y. Hilton and late career Reggie Wayne, Luck typically lacked high end playmakers and played behind a poor offensive line (the latter which was consistently below average to awful aside from the 2018 season).
If you’re evaluating Luck’s success solely based on ‘quarterback rating’ which is an imperfect metric, you’re doing it wrong.
Luck may not have ever been a Top 3 quarterback at any season of his playing career, but there were times where he flirted with or was clearly in the Top 5 signal callers in the NFL. He pretty well carried the Colts to the AFC Title Game in 2014—on what was nothing more than around a pretty average NFL roster.
Given what he had to work with—which wasn’t generally a whole lot, Luck performed quite well, and I’m not sure he ‘never lived up to his potential’—when he actually played. (Now if you want to argue that he didn’t live up to his enormous potential because his playing career was cut too short because of injuries, then okay, I can buy that.).
Next, former defensive coordinator Greg Manusky (2012-15) actually did a pretty good job with the Colts defense his last two seasons in Indianapolis all things considered. It’s irrelevant now, but it’s something that he rarely gets credited for.
Lastly, the Colts’ 2020 DVOA projections seem to be helped by both the signing of Philip Rivers and acquisition of DeForest Buckner—and rightfully so (although there are some questions of whether Xavier Rhodes can hold up in coverage). That’s hardly surprising, but it is encouraging for a hopefully much improved Colts team this upcoming season.
The Colts made the playoffs in 5 of the last 10 seasons, and the franchise could be poised to return once again in 2020—following a strong offseason.