Many have asked me to respond to Bill Barnwell's piece in Grantland about the Colts. Most of it has been addressed on this site before, but I wanted to give a cliff-notes style response to his specific arguments.
Barnwell is one of the best NFL writers around, and one of my absolute favorites. This was not his best work, however.
ARGUMENT #1: The Colts collapse began in April 2007.
He lays out the argument that the Colts have drafted poorly. That has been refuted time and time again. Here's his key paragraph:
Even without considering Manning, just look at that run: James, Wayne, Freeney, Clark, and Sanders. Those guys combined to make 18 Pro Bowls as members of the Colts, and you can probably make the case that every single one of them besides Clark was the best player in football at his position at one point or another during the past decade. Those guys are now past their prime and/or out of the league. If the Colts had kept up a steady string of drafting stars at the top of the draft, they might have been able to fade a Peyton Manning injury for one season and play competitive football. Instead, they've drafted four clear failures and Castonzo, on whom the jury is still out. Players like Gonzalez, Ugoh, Pollak, and Brown should be in their prime and the stars on this Colts team. Hughes should be their Jason Pierre-Paul, the devastating pass rusher everyone is afraid to see when he steps on the field. Instead, the Colts are left with an overmatched, injury-riddled team that lacks playmakers on either side of the ball.
There are multiple problems here. First, Donald Brown is actually really good by both conventional and advanced metrics. Second, his argument about Jason Pierre-Paul is nonsensical. Pierre-Paul was the 16th pick in the draft. Hughes was the 31st. Hughes has been horrible, I'll grant you, but expecting him to be Pierre-Paul is irrational.
This point isn't as big a bone of contention as you might think, however. His argument, though couched in terms of the draft as a whole, is basically that the Colts haven't been getting great first round production.
They haven't. That's not open for debate. The obvious reason for that is draft position. Draft position matters most in round 1, so it's clear that Indy would suffer most in the first round, recovering nicely in later rounds where position matters less. So, if Barnwell wants to claim that Indy is getting worse because they are getting less first round talent, I would agree 100%. That's not "forgetting how to draft", however. It's just called "picking in the final 5 slots every year".
ARGUMENT #2: You can't say Manning is the whole cause for the Colts collapse because nothing like this has ever happened for that reason.
He goes on to compare other teams that have lost quarterbacks to show that the drop off for losing a starting QB shouldn't be 10 games.
As valuable as the quarterback can be to a team, though, this sort of disastrous decline is close to unprecedented. When Tom Brady went down for the Patriots in the opening week of the 2008 season, New England went from 16-0 to 11-5 with Matt Cassel at the helm. That's just a five-game swing.
The huge problem is that there are three factors that make the Colts situation unique:
1. Manning is possibly the greatest player ever and is just better than the other quarterbacks named.
2. The other teams had viable backups. Matt Cassel is an NFL starter. So was Scott Mitchell who he later cites. Those are guys who played at a Pro Bowl level at some point in their careers. The Colts have replaced Manning with the worst possible starters in the NFL. The comparison doesn't hold. This is the point that's overlooked. Manning isn't worth 10 wins over a replacement QB. He is worth 10 wins over the worst QB in the league.
3. The Indy offense is more uniquely tailored to Manning that any offense in history. He's been running it without change for more than a decade.
Argument #3: Salary structure makes it unlikely that Manning is worth 10 wins.
He argues that we know Manning isn't worth 10 wins because the league doesn't pay QBs that way.
It's hard to figure that the difference between a 10-6 season and an 0-13 one could be entirely up to the absence of Manning. Is Peyton Manning, then, worth about ten wins to his team? Certainly, the market doesn't value quarterbacks that way. Consider that the NFL's salary cap is $120 million, which each team needs to split amongst 53 players. Those players make a minimum of $375,000 each, so after building that in, teams have just over $100 million to spend on players in whatever way they like. When Manning signed his new contract with the Colts in July, he got the largest average annual value for any player through the first three years of his deal, but that was just $23 million. That suggests that the market has come to value quarterback play — even dominant, otherworldly quarterback play — as being worth about 23 percent of a team's contributions towards winning.
This is a horrible, horrible argument.
First, league minimum salaries are fixed. Those players are actually making MORE than they are worth. Second, the presence of the franchise tag and salary cap help to tamp down top earners. In a completely free market, Manning WOULD make twice what he makes now, or at least the league minimum would be much, much less than it is now. Arguing that salary structure means Manning isn't a 10 win player makes no sense in a non-free market that uses price control mechanisms to artificially set player values.
That's just a massive fail by Barnwell. The whole paragraph is beneath him.
Argument #4: Indy hasn't been competitive in games.
Barnwell says the Colts are horrible and the games haven't been close.
Colts fans can take this as comforting or discomforting. On one hand, even if they had enjoyed 16 games of Peyton Manning, it seems likely that Indianapolis would have struggled to make the playoffs. Manning makes everyone else better, but there are just too many holes to sand over on either side of the ball, thanks to the absence of those star players. Only four of the Colts' 13 losses have come by a touchdown or less, so while they've been unlucky to go 2-12 (the record predicted by their point differential) as opposed to 0-14, they really just haven't been in very many of their games this season. With 16 games of Manning, the Colts would have likely been a 6-10 or 7-9 team. By failing so catastrophically, they'll get to draft Andrew Luck and begin the process of turning the franchise around.
This is just a classic failure to have watched games. It's true that 4 of 13 losses have been by 7 points or less. The following things are also true:
1. Indy had the ball with a chance to win in the 4th quarter of games 7 times.
2. Indy lost by 14 points or less 9 times. Wait for the next point before processing that number.
3. The Indy offense (which has better players than in 2010 when Blair White and Charlie Johnson were playing) has better players on it, but has lost THIRTEEN POINTS A GAME. Wrap your mind around that. Indy's offense is down 13 points a game and the only significant change for the worse has been Peyton Manning. The defense, if you take out the New Orleans debacle, is about 2.5 points a game worse. Given the offense's lack of production, I'd say you have a reasonably close replica of the 2010 defense. This Colts team would be 10-3 right now with Manning. They'd be 6-10 with an average QB.
In conclusion, Barnwell's points don't hold up to scrutiny. He's a fine writer, but his arguments about Manning's value being less than 10 wins simply don't jive with what really happened on the field.