Chris Brown, author of the must buy The Essential Smart Football, recently broke down coach's tape of the 2006 Indianapolis offense.
Brown's work is exemplary, as always, and his primary take-away is worth noting:
The Colts’ offense was, structurally at least, among the simplest in the league for the entire time Manning was there. They used only a handful of formations — and almost always lined up Marvin Harrison (and later Pierre Garçon) split wide to the right and Reggie Wayne split wide to the left — ten or so core pass plays and just a couple of core runs. I know that sounds a little silly, especially since we’re constantly told that NFL playbooks are incredibly dense and huge and so on, but the Colts killed people with like fifteen, maybe twenty plays, and they did it for a decade.
How? It’s an obvious but true answer to say: with execution. Part of that execution was having great, veteran players who were very good at their jobs. Part of that was having a quarterback who could, because the formations were simple, identify weak spots in the defense and check into the right plays.
I want to build on Brown's analysis and draw some additional conclusions about the era.
1. The Indianapolis Offense was Simple, but It Only Worked for Manning.
In a nutshell, this is what did in the 2011 Colts. At the time, I called the Colts "Starship Indy". No one should have been surprised that the whole system collapsed offensively without Peyton. Many analysts foolishly blamed a 'lack of talent' for the terrible results. That wasn't the problem.
The problem was that Indy's offense was built entirely on preceision and 'telepathy' based on years of mutual experience in practice and games. It requrired an intellect and skill set that Kerry Collins, Curtis Paitner, and Dan Orlovskly simply never possessed. The Colts should have immediately scrapped the 'Manning offense', and gone to something the quarterbacks had a prayer of executing.
Of course, it was later revealed that the coaching staff beleived Manning was coming back right up until it was too late. That's why they are mostly working for other teams now (except for Cyle Christensen).
The Colts committed to making the offense in the Manning era the absolutely perfect offense for him. They surrounded him with the perfect kinds of players to accentuate his skills. They built him something that was masterful, but unique to him.
They did not 'waste' Manning's career surrounding him with substandard talent as some have said. They built the entire thing around him, and when he was gone, none of it worked. I think the results bear out what a brilliant decision it was. Indianapolis had a decade of incredible success because of it.
2. This is Why the Offense Collapsed in 2010
When the Colts endured a raft of injuries in 2010, Peyton Manning went through a stretch where he threw bucketloads of interceptions. Missing Addai, Clark, Collie, and Gonzalez left Manning throwing and working with too many new players all at the same time. He was running post-practice turoring sessions just to get everyone up to speed. Once players learned their jobs, Manning was magnificent down the stretch and the Colts still made the playoffs.
3. This is How Tracy Porter Jumped the Route
When Manning threw the pick-six in the 2009 Super Bowl, the blame fell largely on him. Porter claimed he had seen the route on tape and jumped it. The problem is that the stumble by Reggie Wayne disrupted the timing of the play. Had Wayne not tripped, it wouldn't have mattered if Porter knew the route.
Teams knew the Colts' routes lots of times. They weren't designed to confuse. They were designed to be easy to execute. Wayne had the responsibility to get inside position on the play, meaning that Porter couldn't have made a play on the ball without going through him.
There was nothing wrong with the call, the decision, or the throw. It was the unfortunate result of Wayne's stumble (perhaps caused by his bad ankle suffered the day before), that lead to the interception. People sometimes question why I beleive luck is such a powerful force in football.
Plays like that are why. Porter made a great play and studied hard to make it, but if Wayne's feet don't tangle, he gives up a first down, and no one remembers his name.
4. Even If Peyton is Peyton, Denver Might Not Be the Colts
Brown brings this out in his piece, but it absolutely bears repeating:
Yet, while Manning hasn’t forgotten any football during his year away from the game, he won’t be surrounded by a bunch of veterans of the same system, all on the same page. And Tom Moore won’t be on the Broncos sideline either. The Broncos coaches are fine, but they still have to develop a rhythm and relationship with Manning’s modus operandi all while figuring out who, if any, of the players on their roster can be consistent playmakers. Assuming Manning stays healthy, however, it will be fun to watch.
Yes, Manning is a gifted quarterback, but he was also placed in an absolutley perfect incubator to foster and protect his success. He was given an offense and players to maximize his abilities and force other teams to play chess with him. Manning has good skills, but what made him special was his mind and his work ethic. It remains to be seen if the Broncos have the kind of players that are willing to work as hard as Manning at being great.
I envy your mindset to attribute the Colts playoff losses to "bad luck". I only wish I felt the same way. Unfortunately, I suffer from an unending disappointment and frustration about many of the playoff losses. In my tortured mind, Peyton should have at least 3 SB wins, simply because he is the greatest QB I have ever seen. I can't help but feel let down by winning just one SB while with the Colts. I mean this in all sincerity, I wish I had your peace of mind and sense of satisfaction with the Peyton Manning era of Colts football.
I just don't see any other way to look at it.
Is it disappointing? Hell yes. Does that mean there is someone to blame or something that could have been done about it? No.
If Nick Harper's wife doesn't stab him, if Hank Basket stays down. If Kenton Keith catches a ball that hits him in the hands. If Freeney doesn't turn an ankle, if Scifres doesn't spin 3 punts out inside the five....
It's all just a string of tough breaks.
I believe the most immature part of American culture is the need to recriminate and blame when bad things happen. It's why everyone sues. We can't just accept that stuff doesn't go our way and leave it at that. We have a compulsion to point the finger.
@Nate Dunlevy Well, if Kenton Keith hangs on to the ball then we probably get beat pretty handily by New England the next game (SD kept it close because their rush got to Brady a lot more than the Colts could've hoped their rush to perform).
To me, there are four giant "What If's?" for the Colts
1.) What if they get that one yard against NE in 2003? The game might be played in Indy (although would the Colts have won a tiebreak over KC and NE for the #1 seed?).
2.) What if Tony Dungy doesn't punt on 4th and 1 right after halftime against NE in 2004 (the Colts were trailing 6-3 at the time - NE went for a TD, forced a punt and then got another TD and that was all she wrote).
3.) What if Nick Harper doesn't cut the wrong way?
4.) The triple set of "What If's?" from 2009 with Freeney getting hurt, Frenchy dropping the ball and Garcon fielding an onside kick with his face.
I would include Scifres but I don't think the Colts would have beaten Pittsburgh the next week. They were extremely lucky to win their in the regular season, but that was a really good Pittsburgh team.
I always loved your "Starship Indy" analogy, as it was more than the offense was geared to Manning, but that it was almost like it was synched to his DNA and no one else could even start it, much less run it.
When the Colts had a HoF wide reciever (Harrison), a HoF talent at running back (Edge), a HoF talent at left tackle (Glenn) plus Reggie, Dallas and Stockley the Offense was virtually unstoppable.
But if you look at what Peyton did down the stretch of 2010, you find the real answer to if the Colts wisely built the offense and team around Manning or if #18 just excerted his will and took Coach Moore's concepts to place no one else could take them. A hobbled Wayne, undrafted rookie free agent Blair White, an inconsistent Garcon, Tamme, an injury riddled backfield and a shambles of an offensive line (Charlie Johnson at left tackle!!!) and they were still potent enough down the stretch to make the playoffs and then we all know what happened in the playoffs to the Jets.
If Manning is healthy, he will dominate in Denver. He's just that good... but more importantly he is just that assertive.