After two disappointing years, the Indianapolis Colts have the feel of a team simultaneously ready to ascend and waiting to implode.
Indianapolis has enjoyed a rare gift over the past 20 years. While most NFL teams have wondered like Exodus in the desert for a franchise quarterback, the Colts have seen two fall into their lap. First, it was Peyton Manning going No. 1 overall in 1998, leading to a pair of Super Bowl appearances and a championship in 2006. After Manning missed the 2011 campaign with a neck injury, Indianapolis went 2-14 and had the first-overall selection in the upcoming draft. It took Andrew Luck, who was widely regarded as the best quarterback prospect since … Manning.
With Luck, it appears a matter of time before the next Super Bowl trip. The Colts ransacked the rest of the AFC South, winning three consecutive division titles in Luck’s first three seasons. Each year, Indianapolis advanced one round further in the playoffs, culminating in a crushing 45-7 defeat against the New England Patriots in the 2015 AFC Championship Game.
Most everyone assumed the Colts would take the next step in 2016. Instead, they have been a faltering mess.
The reasons for Indianapolis’ struggles are many. Former general manager Ryan Grigson arguably had this decade’s worst four-year run of drafting from 2013-16. Despite selecting 28 players over that span, Grigson’s classes failed to produce a single All-Pro or Pro Bowler.
This spectacular failure was buttressed by more misses in free agency. Grigson signed Ricky Jean-Francois, LaRon Landry, Trent Cole, Gosder Cherilus, Greg Toler, Arthur Jones and others. All of them range from disappointing to disaster.
Of course, nothing tops the 2013 trade that sent a first-round choice to then Cleveland Browns for Trent Richardson. Richardson played 29 games for the Colts and rushed 977 yards on 3.1 yards per carry before being released.
For a time, Luck and the remnants of Bill Polian’s roster was able to cover for Grigson’s mistakes. Once Robert Mathis, Dwight Freeney, Reggie Wayne and other stalwarts moved on, Grigson’s imports had to become key figures instead of role players. At that juncture, the Colts went south.
After compiling a 33-15 mark over Luck’s first three years, Indianapolis has gone 16-16 during the following two. Some will suggest that a .500 mark doesn’t qualify as a mess, but it certainly does when the NFL revolves around the quarterback, and you have a generational talent at the position.
Going into this offseason, it was expected that owner Jim Irsay would clean house. Instead, he cleaned half the dwelling, ousting Grigson while retaining head coach Chuck Pagano. Pagano, 56, enters his sixth season with more questions surrounding him than ever before.
Irsay did well in replacing Grigson with Chris Ballard, a bright mind from Kansas City. Ballard should be applauded for his first few months of work, landing quality free agents on reasonable contracts in Sean Spence, Jabaal Sheard and John Simon. In the draft, Ballard nabbed Ohio State safety Malik Hooker before taking corner Quincy Wilson from the University of Florida. Both were taken well below their projected spots.
The roster still has a bevy of holes on both sides of the ball, but Ballard appears to have gotten off to a good start. After focusing almost solely on the defense this spring, Ballard will be hoping that Luck can both survive this season and hide offensive flaws.
The rushing attack has been more myth than weapon throughout Luck’s tenure. Indianapolis has seen four different backs lead the team in rushing yardage since 2012, with Frank Gore being the only repeater. Gore has been solid for the Colts, but his game is tailing off. In two years with Indianapolis, the 34-year-old has averaged 3.9 and 3.7 yards per carry. In his 10 seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, Gore never dipped below the 4.0 mark, showing both age and a lackluster line in front of him.
Speaking of the line, the pass blocking has been cringe-worthy over the past five years. The Colts have allowed 183 sacks over last five years, leading to a shoulder surgery that is still healing into training camp. Jack Mewhort and Ryan Kelly are quality options on the interior, but the right side and left tackle spots remain significant questions.
All told, Indianapolis finds itself at an interesting intersection. The AFC South is weak but improving, and the same could be said about the Colts’ roster. However, two paramount questions remain: Can Luck stay healthy into the future with so many aforementioned problems working against him, and can Ballard give him the pieces to succeed?
Time will tell, but at least there is renewed hope in Indianapolis.
Top 10 training camp battles to watch
1. Deshaun Watson vs. Tom Savage – Houston Texans
2. Paxton Lynch vs. Trevor Siemian – Denver Broncos
3. Nelson Agholor vs. Jordan Matthews/Torrey Smith – Philadelphia Eagles
4. Joe Mixon vs. Giovani Bernard/Jeremy Hill – Cincinnati Bengals
5. Mitchell Trubisky vs. Mike Glennon – Chicago Bears
6. Ty Montgomery vs. Jamaal Williams – Green Bay Packers
7. Chidobe Awuzie vs. Nolan Carroll – Dallas Cowboys
8. DeShone Kizer vs. Brock Osweiler – Cleveland Browns
9. Jeremy Maclin vs. Breshad Perriman – Baltimore Ravens
10. Cooper Kupp vs. Tavon Austin – Los Angeles Rams
“I think I’m on the back nine of my career,” Rodgers said. “But I think I’m just kind of starting the back nine. This will be my 10th year starting, I got to sit for three years. So I’m not the typical 13-year pro, having the opportunity to sit for three years and not take the wear and tear to learn the game.”
– Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on how long he can play
Rodgers is 33 years old, but he has shown no signs of slowing down. Last year, the California native was the runner-up in MVP voting, throwing for 4,428 yards and 40 touchdowns. With the rules slanted toward protecting quarterbacks, there is reason to believe Rodgers can play well into his 30s, much in the way Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees have.
In our latest episode, I spoke with Marcus Mosher of Bleacher Report and Niner Noise expert Peter Panacy about the tough NFC East, San Francisco’s rebuild and more. Also, I go in-depth on what to expect at the franchise tag deadline, why the Raiders might be overhyped, and three teams that could surprise this season.
This Monday, check iTunes for the latest episode. I look at where Kirk Cousins will be in 2018, including a pair of sleepers. We also have former agent and current cap expert Joel Corry of CBS Sports breaking down contracts across the league. Plus, Ray Rivard stops by to tell us where the Packers stand. Finally, the Steelers and Giants are talented, but are they quietly on thin ice?
The 1991 Washington Redskins have the greatest regular-season margin of victory for any Super Bowl champion. That year, Washington won by an average of 16.3 points per game. The Redskins lost twice by a combined five points. In the postseason, Washington trounced the Falcons, Lions and Bills by an aggregate score of 102-41.
Info learned this week
1. Bruce Arians deemed cancer-free after kidney issues
Last week, Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians revealed that he had renal cell carcinoma in 2016, forcing him to have part of his kidney removed. The 64-year-old has since been declared cancer-free. Despite his relatively average age for an NFL head coach, Arians wrote that he’s “ready for at least one more season.”
With Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald perhaps playing their final seasons, one must wonder if Arians is thinking retirement. Arizona has no long-term solution at quarterback behind Palmer, making it even more daunting to stick around for the long haul.
2. Marcus Peters has strong words for Marshawn Lynch
The Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs were once great rivals in the 1960s and 70s. It seems that after years of cooling, that hatred is beginning to heat up again. Kansas City’s All-Pro corner Marcus Peters told the Bay Area News Group that he looks forward to playing against close friend Marshawn Lynch, whom he and the Chiefs will “beat the dogs**T out of.”
Oakland and Kansas City both went 12-4 last season, with the Chiefs winning the AFC West via head-to-head tiebreaker. The Raiders are yet to beat Kansas City under Jack Del Rio, sporting an 0-4 record. For the Raiders to hurdle the Chiefs, that will need to change.
3. Fred Taylor believes he’s Hall of Famer
It’s not often you see a former player rail about not being in the Hall of Fame. Most times, a worthy candidate ends up with a bust in Canton. In the case of Fred Taylor, the former Jacksonville Jaguars running back believes he is being short-changed.
Taylor played 13 seasons and rushed for 11,695 yards, good enough for 17th all-time. However, The Florida native was never an All-Pro, had 1,400+ yards once, and no Super Bowl appearances. There have been 17 Hall of Fame running backs to play the majority of their careers after the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Of them, only six have less rushing yards than Taylor. All of those players were All-Pros, and three (Terrell Davis, Earl Campbell and O.J. Simpson) were MVPs.
Taylor was an excellent player, but he doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame.
4. Le’Veon Bell tag looming
The Pittsburgh Steelers placed the franchise tag on star running back Le’Veon Bell this offseason, hoping to eventually get a deal done with their 25-year-old star. Time is running out, with the deadline being Monday at 4 p.m. ET. If the two sides don’t agree on a long-term contract, Bell can either sign the tag and play for $12 million this year, or hold out.
Bell won’t be missing those fat paychecks, so assume he’ll be in pads come Week 1. However, he might opt to miss some time in training camp, something we saw Eric Berry do last year with the Chiefs.
As for Kirk Cousins and Trumaine Johnson — the other two tagged players — they won’t be signing deals despite this being their second year on the tag. Both will play it out and likely become free agents next March. So far, the only long-term pact we’ve seen this offseason from a tagged player came courtesy of Melvin Ingram and the Los Angeles Chargers, signing for four years and $66 million.
5. Christian McCaffrey talking up Cam Newton
No team was more disappointing in 2016 than the Carolina Panthers, who went from 15-1 and a Super Bowl appearance to 6-10 and last in the NFC South. To turn it around, Cam Newton must revert back to his 2015 MVP form. Christian McCaffrey isn’t concerned about that, telling ESPN that Newton will “adjust real quickly” to the reshaped offense.
Newton has to be great, but he needs help. The offensive line was ravaged by injuries last year, while the receivers were slow and plodding. In the offseason, general manager Dave Gettleman attempted to fix the former problem by signing Matt Kalil, and the latter by drafting McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel.
If Carolina can get back on track, led by Newton and his surgically repaired shoulder, it could fight for the NFC South crown. The Falcons are still loaded with talent and the Buccaneers are brimming with potential, but the Panthers could be right in the mix.
In 1983, all four current AFC East teams selected first-round quarterbacks. The Dolphins took Dan Marino, the Jets chose Ken O’Brien, the Bills went with Jim Kelly and the Patriots tabbed Tony Eason. The only one to never appear in the Super Bowl was O’Brien. The other combined for six trips, only to lose each time.
The Seahawks are a great team, but they might be nearing the end of their championship window with this roster. Seattle has some tough decisions ahead with both Kam Chancellor and corner Richard Sherman potentially playing their final season in the Emerald City.
Chancellor is a free agent after this season and at 29 years old, presents a tough decision. The Chiefs set the safety market by signing Eric Berry to a six-year, $78 million deal in March. Chancellor is likely to want similar — if not more — money. Sherman has two years left on his deal, but the Seahawks were actively shopping him this winter and would save $11 million by releasing him prior to the 2018 season.
With Jimmy Graham also hitting free agency after this campaign, general manager John Schneider has plenty to keep him busy. It’ll be fascinating to see whether he tries to make one more push with the current group, or start reshaping the roster for another run in a few years.