In this final installment, we'll compare the 2008 Colts to the 2009 edition by looking at special teams and coaching.
Place Kicking: If there is one area the 2009 Colts are dramatically weaker in this year, it's in the area of place kicking. Vinatieri has battled the effects of off season hip surgery since training camp, and is still not active. Matt Stover has taken over and performed adequately. The numbers seem to show some improvement, but they are a bit misleading. The 2008 Colts hit 80% of their FGs and had a DVOA of -2.9%. The 2009 Colts have hit 81.3% and have a DVOA of -1.6%. I still say the Colts were better off last year. This season, Indy has hit zero FGs of 50 yards or more, whereas they hit two in 2008 (including a game winner over the Pats). Vinatieri also nailed a game winner against San Diego. Stover simply doesn't have that kind of range any more, and I have little confidence in him. The numbers say the Colts are touch improved, but the naked eye says they are worse. If there is one giant achilles heel on this team, it's the place kicking. We've had too many seasons undone by a crappy kicker (2000, 2004, 2005). One more could kill me.
Kickoff Coverage: The 2008 Colts dramatically improved their kick coverage, but the 2009 have taken it to a new level with Pat McAfee handling the duties this year. DVOA says the Colts went from a solid 2.4% to a stunning 12.4% (second in the NFL this year). McAfee already has more touchbacks (14) this season than AV did all of last year (8). He has revolutionized the Colts coverage game as he booms the kicks high and deep. As much as fans loved to complain about the coaching of the coverage units, the real problem was the lack of distance and hang time on the kicks. Indy has improved dramatically in this respect.
Kickoff Returns: Yuck. Chad "the Human Touchback" Simpson continues to do a good job of not fumbling each week. Unfortunately, little else is going right in the return game. I suppose it's still technically an improvement over 2008 when the Colts posted a DVOA of -9.0% (29th in NFL). This year, they are up to -6.5%. Simpson is averaging 21.3 yards a return this season, which is down from last year when he and Frenchy took turns and posted similarly mediocre averages of 22.9 and 21.6 yards a return respectively. Honestly, there has been no real change in this department this season.
Punt Returns: Copy and paste. There's been a DVOA improvement (-10.2% to -4.9% this year), but the effect hasn't been noticeable. Ratliff averaged 5.6 YPR last year, and Rushing has done most of the work this season and stands at 5.7 YPR. It's basically been a rerun.
Punting: One of the big questions this offseason was how rookie Pat McAfee would do replacing long time Colt Hunter Smith. The answer is: pretty well. DVOA loved Smith's ability to pin teams deep and rewarded the 2008 Colts with a rating of 9.0%. That number has fallen off this year with McAfee scoring a still positive 1.3%. More traditional numbers help McAfee a little as he averages 44.7 yards per punt compared with Smith's 44.2 yards. Smith had a net of 38.8 Yards per punt with 23 inside the 20 with only two touchbacks and 11 fair catches. McAfee's net is down a little (37.7), with 14 inside the 20, 3 TBs, and 10 fair catches. In other words, he hasn't quite mastered Smith's ability to kill the ball deep, but has done a good job forcing fair catches. In all, there's a slight drop off from Smith to McAfee when punting from the 50 in, but McAfee more than makes up for it with his kickoff work.
Summary: DVOA likes the 2009 Colts a little more than the 2008 version (0.2% up from -1.9%). That means Indy has gone from slightly below average to average. They are a little worse in two phases (kicking and punting), the same in returns, and dramatically improved in kickoff coverage. If Vinatieri comes back healthy and can hit some 50 yard field goals, that will go a long way to helping my confidence in the 2009 Special Teams.
2008 was one of the finest coaching jobs I've ever seen as Dungy took a rattled, beat up team and gave them hope and kept them focuses and afloat long enough for things to start going right. The 2008 Colts battled a massive wave of injuries and made the playoffs posting a series of tough comeback wins.
The 2009 Colts have battled a wave of injuries losing Sanders, Jackson, Gonzo, and Vinatieri for most of the year. Jim Caldwell and company have kept the Colts focused and prepared. They've shown no let down after big wins. They battled tough scheduling problems (back to back road night games in 6 days). They've beaten the dregs. They've handled the 'BIG GAME' against the Pats. They never panic and can't be counted out until the clock hits zero. The offense has shown new wrinkles as has the defense. Caldwell has consistently shown a willingness to go for it on fourth down, as evidenced by his bold attempt in Indy territory this past Sunday. His team is locked in, focused and motivated.
Most importantly, the Colts have thrived with rookies in key positions. Austin Collie. Jerraud Powers. Jacob Lacey. Pat McAfee. Donald Brown. If this coaching staff wasn't competent, it would show. There are too many young players playing too well to just chalk all the wins up to Manning doing his thing. The Colts coaches have done a great job putting the young men in positions where they can have success, and the rewards have been evident.
There is only one number you can use to truly see how a coaching staff is performing. This year, that number is 11-0.
2008 was one of the great coaching performances ever in Indianapolis. 2009 has been just as good.
My gut told me the 2009 Colts had improved.
The good news is that they have.
They pass better. They run better. They stop the pass better. They stop the run better. Their special teams are a little improved. The coaching has been flawless.
This team is simply better than the over-achievers of 2008. The biggest potential weakness is in the kicking game. We'll just have to hope and pray that AV comes back ready to hit more playoff winning kicks.