I can’t remember a season that saw more ups and downs than this one. Forget week to week, the Colts’ Jekyll and Hyde routine often happens in the very same game, one moment looking like world beaters, the next seemingly unable to tie their cleats. It’s been nearly remarkable.
So what’s the cause? Why have the vicissitudes of this particular season proven so fantastically dramatic? Here’s what I think.
As we are all aware, this 2012 Colts team is young in all the wrong places, especially on offense. At the skill positions you have players whose collective game experience can be measured on one hand. T. Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener, Vick Ballard, and Dwayne Allen are all taking on significant roles now in this offense captained by another rookie in Andrew Luck. Even Donnie Avery, the elder statesman of this gaggle of smurfs, has really only played two full seasons since entering the league in 2008.
Reggie Wayne has done his best to make up for the inconsistencies of this young contingency of talented but inexperienced youngsters, but even he is trying to learn a new position in a new system, playing at a variety of different locations on the field for the first time in his career, going so far as to say he "felt like a rookie again" during training camp. As well as he's played it's still not unexpected that he's going to have the occasional off game (5 catches on 10 targets and 2 drops this week against the Jets while only netting 8 yards after catch).
Andrew Luck has done a remarkable job of grasping this new offense and had been improving noticeably each week coming into this showdown with the Jets. We need to remember, however, that those previous three games had all been at home and playing a desperate team on the road is a challenge that he hadn't yet faced (the shellacking in Chicago not withstanding). Luck’s performance against the Jets certainly left something to be desired, but despite the continued insistence by many in the know that he’s well beyond his years, Luck is still a rookie and it’s unfair to expect consistency at this stage of his career.
With an offense made up almost entirely of rookies as they adjust to the NFL, inconsistency is unfortunately going to be an inevitable part of the growing process.
The well-publicized purge of 2011 was an important step forward for the franchise, but it also marked the implementation of a brand new team philosophy across nearly every facet of the organization. Offense, defense, and special teams all saw major coaching changes, even the strength and conditioning coach was shown the door.
As important as this change may be for the long term health of the team, it's also a transition that is going to take time to germinate and blossom (forgive the horticultural metaphor). The term "growing pains" comes conspicuously to mind.
It's almost unbelievable just how inconsistent the Colts have been. On offense they saw three consecutive games where their first halves ranged from competent (14-24 in a competitive first half against Chicago) to downright dominant (a better than it looks 17-6 first half against Minnesota), followed by three second halves that had many fans breaking into cold sweats and fearing another 2-14 season (being outscored 50-16 in those three games). Then against Green Bay they completely flipped the script, getting outscored 21-3 in the first half before making an epic comeback and outscoring the Packers 27-6 in the second half. Doesn't get much more topsy-turvy than that.
Defensively it seems like the Colts are either generating three and outs, or giving up 15 plays drives, it's been uncanny. Major mental mistakes cost the team a victory against Jacksonville, giving up 2 TDs on long plays while keeping them otherwise in check. These are the things you expect to see when a team is trying to learn a new scheme, their instincts and their brain in constant battle as they struggle to do what they think and not what they feel. Once the brain and the instinct become allies and not enemies we should see improvements in consistency of execution. Unfortunately that process can't be faked or hurried, the human mind needs repetition to form habit, and repetition takes time.
Following the awful news that their coach had been diagnosed with a potentially fatal condition, the Colts came out and showed the heart of a champion in beating a great Green Bay team under difficult circumstances. This week? Not so much.
Sure these guys are professional athletes, they’ve spent their entire lives training for this, but they are also human beings and as human beings we understand that emotions are a double edge sword, having the ability to both lift us up and bring us down. Last week the Colts thrived on the former half of that equation, but, as we all learn at some point in our lives, it was, regrettably, unsustainable.
The human mind is not designed to be in a constant state of emotional agitation. Over time the diminishing returns take their toll and instead of feeling energized and lifted up by the strength of feeling, it becomes an obstacle that must be overcome. I believe the Colts hit that wall this week against the Jets, the height of their emotional win leaving their tanks on empty as they prepared for a difficult road test against New York. The ramifications evident on the field, their will to stop the run nearly non-existent as the Jets ran the same handful of plays over and over to the tune of 252 yards on the ground.
If the 2012 New Orleans Saints have taught us anything it’s that coaching matters. A perennial playoff team and Super Bowl contender has looked downright abysmal this season as they fight to overcome the loss of their head coach.
I’m not suggesting here that Bruce Arians is doing a bad job, in fact whatever adjustments he made in the second half of that Green Bay game led to one of the most enjoyable moments I’ve ever had as a Colts’ fan. What I am saying is that Bruce Arians is not Chuck Pagano, and whether that’s good or bad is irrelevant, what’s undeniable is that it presents yet another transition in a season that has already been full of them.
Continuity is a crucial part of success in the NFL (as fans of the Colts, one of the most unaltered franchises in NFL history the past 12 or so years, we know that better than most). Losing a head coach 4 weeks into the season is going to have an impact, there’s no way around it. Arians may be continuing the message that Chuck put in place, but he’d be a fool to simply imitate Pagano, he’s his own man with his own style of coaching, something the Colts will need to adjust to; just one more variable in the consistency equation.
Speaking of continuity. I started to list all the injuries the Colts have already sustained this season but stopped after the list doubled the length of this article. In all seriousness though, injuries are a part of the NFL, every team has them and every team must play in spite of them, but what the Colts have faced this year (on a team that is already thin) has been nothing short of tragic.
There’s hardly a position on the field that hasn’t seen some kind of injury: CB, RB, WR, DT, DE, LB, LG, RG, C, RT, and on and on. The Colts had an early bye week and yet somehow managed to come out of it MORE injured than they were going in, I know, amazing right? The offensive and defensive lines have been the source of much consternation, and why not, they’ve also been the most injured.
Consider that the O-line, a unit that requires continuity and communication to succeed perhaps more than any other, has yet to see all five starters on the field, and in three of the four games were down two or more. Olsen, Satele, Justice, Essex, Castonzo, Linkenbach, Hills, McGlynn, and Shipley have all seen action this year and at a variety of positions along the line. It should really come as little surprise that they’ve failed to impress so far in 2012.
When you take into account how most of us thought this season might go, even healthy (4, maybe 5 wins), it’s honestly impressive that the Colts have even managed to stay competitive. Hopefully (please God) the Colts will have better luck with injuries going forward which should in turn help establish some degree of consistency, after all, how can you expect to be consistent when your players change every week.
@bradicus18 I want to make some kind of witty smurf joke here to piggy back on your cleverness, but since I have never actually seen the show I don't even know where to go with it.
All very valid points.... and I would add, the NFL is just hard.
It is probably the most competitive league in the world right now, and the margin between good teams and bad is just razor thin.
(But that being said, damn the Colts continued bad luck with injuries. I mean are we ever going to have a "lucky" year in this regard.)
@DougEngland You're definitely right about that. It's really amazing how much things change week to week, Green Bay losing to us and then smashing Houston on the road a week later, or San Francisco putting up 600 yards on the Bills before losing 26-3 at home to the Giants - those same Bills then upsetting the Cardinals. It's really hard to predict what's going to happen.
I'm sure if I followed all those teams as closely as I do the Colts, reasons would emerge for why they win or lose each week, but as an outside observer is seems bizarre to say the least. The NFL really has done a remarkable job of maintaining competitive balance (which makes the continued ineptitude of the Browns sort of mind-blowing in itself, imagine being a Brown's fan).
@DougEngland I think this is certainly true, regarding the level of competition, this year. No team has proven to be clearly dominant and all the teams at the bottom have proven capable of being competitive at any level.
Regarding injuries, sometimes it does feel like the Colts have the worst luck. A quick look at ESPN's injury reports from last weekend reveals that many teams have lengthy text boxes on that page. Outside of Chicago, Jacksonville, and a few others, most of the NFL has been banged up. I'm sure lots of teams are feeling unlucky right now.
But foosball is the devil, Bobby Boucher! Collisions are nastier and dudes are bigger and faster every decade. Tackling, now, is little more than launching yourself as a projectile at the ball carrier. You can even see defenders taking aim at the legs in many cases. I don't see this changing.
@bradicus18 @DougEngland That's a tough one to argue with, I admittedly did not do a meta-analysis of injuries across the NFL, so what you say could be completely accurate. I know that Football Outsiders has an injury metric but I couldn't find it for this season (maybe it's only a yearly review). The Colts have ranked near or at the bottom for the past few seasons though, which is kind of a crazy anomaly since injuries should seemingly be random. It's no coincidence that the Colts released so many injury plagued players this offseason, but now the injury bug has been hitting guys who traditionally haven't missed a ton of time (Angerer, Mathis, Freeney, etc.)
@Colt_Following I have not done any serious research on the issue. I do remember the 2010 season as being one of the worst. I also remember that the Packers were in pretty bad shape that year. Look at how that worked out for them. The Ravens are in really bad shape this year. The Packers have been hurting at key positions. I just see it as being bad for all teams going forward.