After a shocking late season collapse cost them a playoff berth, the Indianapolis Colts are now left watching from their couch as other AFC squads continue to make late postseason noise, still wondering what exactly went wrong—and maybe even what possibly could’ve been.
That being said, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree here, and the same three biggest question marks the franchise had entering the 2021 offseason are arguably the same ones that let them down the most—becoming critical deficiencies down the stretch to finish the year.
So if team owner Jim Irsay could buy a flying DeLorean and the Colts could go back in time in 2021, completely doing it all over again last offseason, here’s three realistic moves that very well could’ve more than likely saved their season:
3. Sign Veteran LT Charles Leno Jr. Over Eric Fisher
The Colts truly had their ‘pick of the litter’ when choosing between former Kansas City Chiefs 2x NFL Pro Bowler Eric Fisher—coming off a late season torn Achilles suffered in early 2021, or ex-Chicago Bears 1x NFL Pro Bowler Charles Leno Jr.—both of whom had surprisingly been released as veteran cuts earlier in the offseason.
Even though Leno Jr. reportedly ‘was begging to come’ to Indianapolis and previously played under Colts offensive line coach Chris Strausser at Boise State, the Colts elected to sign Fisher—who Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard was already well familiar with from his prior tenure in the Chiefs’ football operations department, when Fisher was selected with the #1 overall pick by Kansas City in the 2013 NFL Draft.
The Colts signed Fisher to a 1-year, $9.4M contract (with incentives), while Leno Jr. inked a 1-year, $6.25M deal in Washington.
Unfortunately for the Colts, while Fisher was an asset at left tackle in run blocking, certainly contributing to Jonathan Taylor’s historically great season on the ground, he was often a major liability in pass protection.
Perr PFF (subscription), during 15 starts, Fisher was their 46th best graded offensive tackle with a +68.6 overall grade, featuring a +74.2 run blocking grade, but just a +61.0 pass blocking grade.
Meanwhile, Leno Jr. was PFF’s 15th best offensive tackle with a +81.0 overall grade.
In particular, Leno Jr. essentially had ‘reverse grade splits’ to Fisher, as he had an exceptional +87.3 pass blocking grade but just a mere +63.4 run blocking grade.
Given the potential trade off between the two, and the importance of protecting a quarterback’s blindside, and the Colts would presumably rather have the stronger pass blocker of the two veterans—and that was clearly Leno Jr. during the 2021 campaign.
As a result of his renaissance season, the Washington Football Team recently rewarded Leno Jr. with a 3-year, $37.5M contract extension, while it’s uncertain at this time if Fisher will even return to Indianapolis—after a mixed bag debut season.
2. Re-Sign DL Denico Autry Over ‘Playing the Kids’
The Colts did not increase their offer to free agent veteran defensive lineman Denico Autry last offseason, who spurned his former club to join the divisional rival Tennessee Titans, who offered him a 3-year, $21.5M contract.
The 8-year versatile veteran defensive lineman, who played three seasons in Indianapolis (with 20.0 combined sacks during that same span), tied a career-high with 9.0 sacks in 2021 and appeared in all 17 games for Tennessee—making 11 starts.
Meanwhile, the Colts continued to struggle generating consistent pass pressure, as Autry’s 9.0 sacks would’ve been a team-high, as defensive tackle DeForest Buckner led the way with only 7.0 sacks in 2021.
The logic of not budging from their initial offer wasn’t necessarily horrible at the time, as Autry was 31 years old, plays the 3T as his naturally best position (the same position occupied by then reigning NFL First-Team All-Pro Buckner), and had a newsworthy off-the-field incident—while the Colts theoretically needed to get faster, bendier, and more athletic along the defensive line, particularly off the edge.
That being said, while the Colts elected to ‘play the kids’, young defensive linemen like Tyquan Lewis (who suffered a season-ending injury), Al-Quadin Muhammad, Isaac Rochell, and Ben Banogu (who ended up being a healthy scratch often), it didn’t work out nearly as well as the team had initially envisioned.
For generating consistent pass pressure, the team would’ve been far better off from a production and reliability standpoint of simply ‘ponying up the cash’ and re-signing Autry.
1. Trading for QB Matthew Stafford Over Carson Wentz
While the Colts were among the potential suitors Stafford had ‘early eyes on’, when previously seeking a trade from the Detroit Lions last offseason, the Colts never seriously entered the fray—as despite initial interest, Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard reportedly never got as far as even offering his first round pick in any trade negotiations.
When the Rams went all in on Stafford, offering inconsistent former #1 overall pick Jared Goff, along with their 2022 and 2023 first round picks (and a 2021 third round pick), the price was widely seen as highly exorbitant in league circles.
Given head coach Frank Reich’s comfort zone from their successful stint together in Philadelphia, the Colts then pivoted, if you can even call it that, at a lesser cost to ex-Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, surrendering their 2021 first round pick (*conditional) and a 2021 third round pick to get the deal ultimately done.
After the bottom completely fell out on Wentz to close the season, and 41 passing touchdowns later this season from Stafford, who’s also been ‘lights out’ in the playoffs so far for the Rams, who are about to play in the NFC title game, and that price doesn’t seem so exorbitant after all.
Especially since Wentz could be ‘one and done’ in Indianapolis, with the Colts having neither a playoff berth nor a 2022 first round pick to even show for it these days.
Now, this very well could be a moot point, because even though Goff’s contract was seen as a negative asset largely league-wide, current Lions general manager Brad Holmes, was director of college scouting previously for the Rams, and seemed to value Goff as an actual asset at quarterback—who did in fact start 14 games for the Lions last season—putting up fairly pedestrian numbers again.
There’s a chance that even though the Colts could offer the Lions earlier NFL first round draft picks, the Lions still may have picked the Rams because of Goff—but it’s hard to say for sure (because the Colts reportedly never made a competitive offer to begin with).
However, given their current predicament at starting quarterback, with none of their top leadership brass giving Wentz a vote of confidence entering the early offseason, and the Colts probably gladly tack on another first round pick (presumably their 2023) to potentially land Stafford last offseason via trade—if they were to get a mulligan.
Not only to actually make the AFC playoffs in 2021 this time around—with Stafford starting under center, but in particular, when the team would have to surrender another 2 to 3 first round picks to land either a Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers regardless (in any potential pipe dream, star veteran quarterback 2022 offseason trade scenarios going forward).