This post is brought to you by Blue Blood: Tales of Glory of the Indianapolis Colts
With all the hubbub over Peyton Manning's neck surgery, many have lost sight of the true story. Peyton is getting old. The neck surgery doesn't concern me as much as the D.o.B. on his driver's license. One way or another it is completely inevitable that Manning will be having surgeries every year. If it's not his neck, it's his knee or elbow, or shoulder, or foot. He's a 35-year old football player. The story isn't about specific bangs and bruises or the individual procedures. We didn't learn anything about Peyton last week that we didn't already know: he's getting old.
The good news is that that sad fact doesn't have to derail the Colts' hopes for victory. In fact, the most dominant Colts team in memory, the 2005 Colts, relied less on Manning than any other edition did. Peyton threw a career low 453 times in 2005. I grant you that he played sparingly in the final two games, but even averaging out his throws over 14.25 games (roughly what he played), it still marked the fewest attempts per game of his career.
Manning's 2005 season was a great follow-up to his record destroying 2004. While his volume totals were low (he failed to throw for 4,000 yards for the only time in his career and didn't hit 30 touchdowns), most of his rate statistics (YPA, Passer rating, TD %, ANY/A) were better than an in other year of his career outside of 2004. Additionally, the one thing Peyton did in 2005 was absorb more sacks than normal.
The Colts have proven they can win with a formula built around a less prolific, more controlled, even less mobile version of Peyton Manning. The key to adapting to Manning's age is two fold:
1. Rebuild an elite pass rush.
The 2005 Colts are often remembered as having the best defense of the Manning era (along with the 2007 pre-Freeney injury Colts). The 2005 Colts fielded a credible run defense (16th in the NFL in DVOA), but truly excelled at pass defense. They had the second best DVOA in football that year at defending the pass. This was bolstered by a hellacious pass rush, which was also second in the NFL in adjusted sack percentage. The Colts played were not overly outstanding at defending any one kind of receiver, but were solid across the board in coverage. The Colts had five linemen with at least three sacks, most notably picking up 4 from Larry Tripplett and 5.5 from Monte Reagor at the defensive tackle position. Freeney and Mathis had their typical outstanding years, and Raheem Brock had 6.5 sacks as well.
How can the Colts get back to putting that kind of pressure on quarterbacks? Freeney and Mathis are still elite rushers, but the Colts simply have to get breakout seasons from Jerry Hughes. A third pass rusher off the edge is not a luxury, but a necessity. If Hughes develops into a credible threat, Freeney and Mathis will be able to more rest during games.
Secondly, the defensive tackles simply have to get more pressure. The Colts tackles had 9.5 sacks that year, and from 2006-2010, they've had 14.5 total (not counting Raheem Brock who sometimes played tackle, but had no business doing so). Of those 14.5 sacks from the tackles, 2.5 came from Booger McFarland who only played 11 games in an Indy uniform.
The 2005 Colts were mediocre across the board against the run. They weren't awful, but they weren't good either. What they did do was get after the passer better than any team in recent franchise history. A strong pass rush means fewer 'shootout' style games where Manning has to throw 40 times. Additionally, the 2005 Colts started their average drive at the 31.24 yard line (14th in the league). The 2010 Colts started back at the 27.51 (30th). Nearly four yards a drive adds up over the course of a season. Sacks mean field position. They also mean turnovers.
2. Stop negative plays in the run game.
As much as everyone harps on the Colts' failures on 3rd and short, the 2005 Colts were down right awful at it. They were 29th in the NFL in power situations, while leading the league in Adjusted Line Yards. So how did the Colts manage to not run the ball well in short yardage situations, while still having the 'best' run blocking line in the league? The answer is that the line rarely gave up negative plays. ALY penalizes lines heavily for giving up 'stuffs', runs that lose yardage. The Colts were 4th in the league for fewest negative runs. Negative runs lead to second and third and long situations, which require more dependency on the quarterback.
Here's Indy's trend in "Stuffed" Rank starting in 2005: 4th, 13th, 4th, 27th, 27th, 20th
The Indy line is simply failing far too often. It's hard to have an efficient offense that doesn't require 600 throws a year if the offensive line is collapsing on better than 20% of all run plays. The Colts have clearly taken this to heart with the selections of Castonzo and Ijalana. The offensive line doesn't have to be a super-elite run blocking line to see a sharp uptick in the Indy offense. It just has to have massive fails less often. The 2005 unit wasn't a group of maulers (as shown by their awful short yardage performance), but they rarely screwed up. The Colts have to get back that.
When you look at the offense in 2010 compared to 2005, it's not dramatically worse, despite the incredible instability. It was still mostly a top 3 to 5 offense in the league despite everything that happened. It should be possible to see the offense hum while limiting Manning to closer to 32 throws a game instead of the 42 he had last year.
The 2005 season ended in disaster for the Colts, but frankly that had nothing to do with the construction of the team. The tragic events a few weeks before the Pittsburgh loss deeply affected that squad. The next year, we saw what they could accomplish when healthy mentally and physically. That formula carried the team into 2007 before injuries to Freeney, Mathis, and Brock left the Colts unable to put pressure on Phil Rivers in the playoffs.
The Colts recent drafts have clearly addressed this formula. They've taken Moala, Castonzo, Hughes, Ijalana, and Drake Nevis. That's five players taken in the first three rounds of the last three drafts aimed at addressing these needs. If those players develop, the Colts will be well prepared to deal with the consequences of an older quarterback.
All it takes is a little pressure on the pocket and a line that doesn't blow blocks, and Peyton Manning can have a nice efficient end to his career. I love Peyton Manning as much as anyone, but I hope to see him throw at least 5-8 times a game fewer than in 2010.