The AFC South is shaping up to be one of the more intriguing divisions in the NFL. Matt Danely begins a four-part series breaking down each team to explain how that team has been developing and their expected impact on the division. Next up is the 2016 Indianapolis Colts. Read his 1st article in the series on the Houston Texas here.
The current state of the AFC South is the topic of much conversation, and for good reason: All four teams in the division have their quarterback; the roster-wide talent gap is shrinking; and none of the coaching staffs should reasonably feel as if their jobs are safe. Each team has built their rosters differently over the past five years, each paving a different road to their present-day status in the division.
The AFC South is considered by some to be heading toward becoming one of the more competitive divisions in the league, though others are taking a more measured approach to the recent influx of talent, seeing the teams as a year or two away heading into the 2016 season. Compared to where the division was just a handful of years ago, however, there’s reason to believe that a massive improvement across the board is a very real possibility.
With that in mind, let’s dig-in to how this team has built their roster, and how that has, in turn, affected the coaching staff. Together – through this series – we’ll see if we can find which team used the best approach, which of them have set themselves up for failure, and who is still missing some key pieces in their quest to build a perennial division champion. We’ve done the Texans; now we get into the Indianapolis Colts.
How the Indianapolis Colts Got Here
For the vast majority of the division’s existence, the Indianapolis Colts have dominated the AFC South, both in terms of league-wide success as well as through a host of one-sided affairs within the division. In the division’s first 14 seasons, the Colts won it nine times along with three additional wild card entries. Aside from the divisional realignments, 2002 was a difference making offseason for the Colts’ coaching staff as they scooped up a new head coach in Tony Dungy a week after he was let go by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while retaining Tom Moore as the offensive coordinator from the previous regime.
Before the Dungy hire, the Colts had been known to struggle defensively, but were making real leaps offensively with Peyton Manning entering the prime of his career. Keeping Moore, for my money, is still one of the smartest moves in the organization’s recent history, regardless of who the new head coach was to become. Dungy and Moore already possessed a rapport from their days together in Minnesota and Pittsburgh; the importance of this arrangement for the team’s future cannot be overstated.
Until the 2005 season, the Colts defense failed to break from its forgettable past of hovering around the middle of the league in DVOA. The offense, however, was rolling like never before, on pace to become a perennial top-five NFL unit. Finally, in 2005, the defense began to match the offense’s eminence once the previous three draft classes came into their own. Monster selections like Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, and Bob Sanders were augmented by secondary help from the first two rounds of that year’s draft in Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden.
After the 2005 season, the Colts would only field a top-ten defense once while remaining in the top-six on offense during Manning’s tenure in Indianapolis, and go to two Super Bowls (’06, ’09), winning one.
When Manning required multiple neck surgeries leading to his release in early 2012, the Colts cleaned house. The overhaul didn’t exclude long-time general manager Bill Polian, his son Chris, or head coach Jim Caldwell. Enter Ryan Grigson and new head coach Chuck Pagano, as the Colts proceeded to restock the shelves with offensive talent through the draft while also dropping millions out of Jim Irsay’s plane on the defense – and marginal complementary assets – in consecutive offseason free agent spending sprees.
2012’s number one overall pick Andrew Luck seemingly picked up right where Manning left off, carrying a roster nearly devoid of talent to the playoffs with three straight 11-5 seasons until last year’s injury-laden season saw them fall to 8-8. Luck is one of the few successful Colts draft picks in recent history, as several picks have flamed out quickly or failed to even make the regular season roster.
However, a handful of good selections over the past two drafts have begun to help in bolstering the roster, with the likes of Henry Anderson, Clayton Geathers, and David Parry having quality rookie years in 2015. A couple of additional selections in the 2016 draft (Hassan Ridgeway, Antonio Morrison, and Trevor Bates) should theoretically add some depth in areas of need on the defense to go along with two offseasons of adding quality offensive line help to stabilize another problem area for the team.
Meanwhile, following an offseason in which Grigson and Pagano both were nearly sent packing, the dynamic of their relationship will be essential to lightening the atmosphere around the organization, as well as alleviating the unspoken lack of trust that had become evident despite statements to the contrary.
Where are they struggling?
Look, it’s no secret that the Colts defense (especially against the run) has been putrid ever since the Grigson/Pagano era kicked off. In fact, their run defense has yet to break into the top half of the league in rush yards allowed per game, and has been 25th in the league or worse three of those four seasons. Additionally, they’ve allowed 14 rushing touchdowns each of the past four seasons and on average allow 15 20+ yard runs per season under Pagano, which is consistently landing them in the bottom half of the league.
Oh and the bleeding hasn’t been limited to stopping the run either. In coverage, the Colts have been very ordinary in yards allowed per game when considering the basic law of averages. The secondary had progressively improved over the first three seasons, but hit a predictable wall last season dropping back into the bottom-third of the league.
Whatsmore, the Colts secondary has grown more susceptible to the explosive play, an area where they have gone consistently downhill since the 2012 season. This may come as somewhat of a surprise, given that Pagano is considered to be a secondary specialist, but big plays both on the ground as well as through the air are a recipe for a bottom feeding defense.
Especially against opposing tight ends, as I mentioned in a previous piece, the Colts have been pretty pathetic to say the least. Last season alone they allowed 80+ catches for nearly 1,000 yards and gave up 9 touchdowns to tight ends. Without a much improved defensive unit, Andrew Luck’s job won’t be getting any easier. Needing to score a touchdown on every possession and coming from behind at an alarming rate simply isn’t a model for success.
Is Pagano Capable of Leading the Colts to the Super Bowl?
Chuck Pagano was absolutely the right choice for the Indianapolis Colts in 2012 as they transitioned into the new post-Manning era. Though we can agree that Pagano hasn’t taken the NFL by storm, he still compares favorably to the other head coaching options at the time. Most of them were successful coordinators, like Pagano at the time, but were not cut out for the lead gig.
Romeo Crennel, Mike Mularkey, Jeff Fisher, Joe Philbin, Dennis Allen, and Greg Schiano were 74/140 (.528%) previous to Pagano getting his new deal, and only Fisher remains in the job to this day. Shocker.
Pagano had largely been forced to run with free agents in the first few seasons with very little talent coming through the draft. Despite Jim Irsay emphatically stating that he would not settle for the offense being forced to pull the train under the new staff, that’s exactly what has been happening. Now with some free agents carrying their own weight and the recent selections from the 2015 draft, the defense is made up more of “Pagano’s guys” than it has been in any of the previous years.
Additionally, with both Pagano and Ryan Grigson’s careers in Indianapolis reinvigorated after hanging by the thinnest of strings, it is plain to see that Pagano had a bigger voice in the draft process. Moreover, Grigson realizes, now more than ever, that his success is directly tied to Pagano’s. This does not, however, make Pagano a better theoretical coach. What just might, though, is the supporting cast that fills out his staff.
Rob Chudzinski, who was a one-time head coach and twice an assistant/associate head coach, is his offensive coordinator and specializes in tight ends. Joe Philbin, who was deplorable as head coach of the Miami Dolphins the past three-plus seasons is getting back to his bread and butter of coaching the offensive line.
Brian Schottenheimer is coming in as Andrew Luck’s quarterback coach after time with Washington, San Diego, New York (Jets), and St. Louis as QB coach or offensive coordinator since 2001. Schottenheimer isn’t a former head coach, but is very highly regarded and fills a key hole with the departure of Clyde Christensen who had been with the Colts since 2002.
Other important additions are Ted Monachino, who has a familiarity with Pagano from his days in Baltimore. Lee Hull will be coaching the wide receivers and is a former college head coach, and Jim Hermann is coming in to give the linebackers a fresh voice which may be one of the most important areas of need.
Despite receiving the four-year extension, Pagano’s career in Indianapolis is ultimately more of a two-year deal. I don’t think Pagano is the best coach in the division, but it’s quite plausible that the Colts’ staff in its entirety may be the best of the four organizations attempting to gain a stranglehold on the AFC South.
If Pagano doesn’t pull it all together and show great improvement on each side of the ball to make a true run in the playoffs – or, at a minimum, string together a few great regular seasons – his time with the Colts won’t last the entirety of his contract. I can see the Colts going to the Super Bowl with Andrew Luck under center, but I just can’t see Chuck Pagano being the head coach when it eventually happens.