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Breaking down Indyís latest failure

 

By Adam Hoff

 

It is an odd thing we are doing.  Four teams are heading into conference championship games this weekend to battle for a trip to the Super Bowl.  The Seahawks won a playoff game for the first time in 22 years and have a star running back with something to prove.  The Panthers and Steve Smith look unstoppable.  The Broncos suddenly have home field advantage in the AFC.  The Steelers are trying to become the first number six seed to ever reach the big game.  Throw in the fact that we have the most wide-open final four in recent memory and there is a lot going on. 

 

However, for some reason, all anyone can talk about is the Colts and the Patriots.  In case you havenít been paying attention or are a little slow with your deductive skills, neither of those teams are still playing.  New England imploded in Denver and Indianapolis gagged at home against the Steelers, and because one was the two-time defending champ and the other was the overwhelming favorite to win it all, we canít stop talking about it. 

 

Personally, I have no interest in discussing the Patriots.  They were beat up all year and werenít really expected to repeat as champs, so while the loss to Denver was surprising (and horribly officiated), it wasnít shocking.  What happened to the Colts was shocking.  Going 13-0, locking up home field advantage, invoking conversations about being the ďgreatest team ever,Ē and then losing to a 10-6 team in your own building Ö that is shocking. 

 

What happened?  For starters, the Steelers have to be one of the best six seeds of all time.  They went 15-1 last year, upgraded from Deuce Staley to Willy Parker at tailback, got rid of Plaxico ďsure to sabotage your team in the biggest momentsĒ Burress, and rolled into this season as one of the heavy favorites in the NFL.  However, injuries hit early and often and led to a mediocre record, the Bengals were vastly improved, and the Colts juggernaut stole the spotlight.  Nobody noticed that by the time the season ended, the Steelers were healthy and rolling.  So in the interest of fairness, you have to admit that Indy lost to a really good team Ė a team that probably should have been 13-3 and hosting a second round game. 

 

In addition to playing a tough opponent, the Colts also, well, choked.  Despite having one of the five best running backs in the NFL (along with Alexander, Tomlinson, Barber, and Larry Johnson), Indy only handed Edge the ball 13 times in the entire game (despite the fact that he was getting over four yards per carry).  Peyton Manning made numerous mistakes both physical (winging balls all over the yard) and mental (checking out of nearly every play, mismanaging the clock).  Mike Vanderjact, the ďidiot kicker,Ē had one of the worst shanks this side of Kris Brown.  Their offensive line was dominated, the defense on its heels, and the coaching staff was unwilling (or unable, considering that Manning has carte blanche to intercept the plays and waive off the punting team) to change their game plan.  It was a rusty and arrogant performance and a collapse of the highest order. 

 

Of course, what happened on Sunday isnít the most interesting story.  I think what matters here is what this loss means, now and in the future.  Is Indy one of the most tragic franchises in NFL history, destined to lose on the grandest stage ala the Buffalo Bills?  Or are they an overrated bunch of babies that canít win big games?  Are they unlucky?  Are they chokers?  And most importantly, are they finished or is the final test before they start rattling off titles?

 

First things first: are they a tragic story?  I say no.  I think a tragic story is All-Pro kicker Scott Norwood missing a field goal and losing the Super Bowl to a backup quarterback and ninety-year old running back (Jeff Hostettler and Ottis Anderson, respectively).  It is dominating your conference only to get beat down year after year in the actual Super Bowl.  Merely choking in the playoffs doesnít count.  Nobody called Barry Bonds and the Pirates tragic figures when they were getting ousted in the NLCS every year in the early 90ís.  The Ewing-led Knicks werenít tragic.  These are just teams that couldnít get to the next level.  If anything, Iím weary of the Colts.  Tony Dungy (who has admittedly had a rough couple of months and certainly engenders the most sympathy) said something to the effect of ďit is just so hard to keep getting there year after year and getting knocked off.Ē  Getting where?  They havenít even reached a Super Bowl.  This isnít the Eagles reaching four straight NFC title games, only to lose in more excruciating fashion each time, topped off by a tough Super Bowl loss to the Patriots last year.  It isnít the Bills losing four straight on the biggest stage.  In fact, letís take a closer look at the Colts recent run under the Manning/Dungy combo:

 

2002-2003.    10-6 in the regular season, lost 41-0 to the Jets in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.  Thatís not a misprint.  41-to-zero.  If you wonder where the ďManning is a chokerĒ stuff came from, look no further.  On the tragic loss scale (1-10), this gets a 0. 

2003-2004.    The number two offense in the NFL led the way to a 12-4 record.  They crushed the Broncos in the WC round, won a shootout against the Chiefs (the famous game where the Chiefs were actually criticized for not using the onside kick after each score, because their defense was that bad), and then were throttled by the Patriots 24-14.  Tragic loss score of about 6, considering that they werenít one of the top two seeds, they hadnít been there yet (canít complain too much about a first AFC title game loss; that is just supposed to be part of the process of getting to the top), and they were playing a superior team.  This one gets an 11 out of 10 on the ďwhiningĒ scale though, because this is when Polian and Co. went into an uproar about New Englandís physical defensive backs and got all the pass interference rules changed (which came full circle to kill the Pats last weekend when Ashley Lelie was the beneficiary of one of the worst PI calls in the history of the NFL).  Needless to say, this go-round didnít make the Colts terribly endearing.

2004-2005.    Number one offense in the league, another 12-4 regular season, and still no first round bye.  They beat the Broncos in the Wild Card round, only to get destroyed 20-3 by the Patriots in the divisional round.  After the 41-0 Jets game, this was maybe Manningís most egregious performance.  He was defeated by the elements, the formations, and the pressure.  On the tragic loss scale they get a 4, only because it was so sad to see them get beat yet again by the same team.  However, it canít go higher than that because it was only a divisional round game. 

2005-2006.    This year they were 14-2 with the number two offense and defense in the NFL.  They finally got a first round bye Ö and then crapped the bed.  This gets a legit 7, because of the personal tragedy of Dungy and because the Colts fans were really hopeful this time.  But again, it was only a divisional game and it shouldnít have even been that close (21-10, most likely).

 

To recap: in four years, they have won a grand total of three playoff games (the minimum number required to even win a Super Bowl).  They have lost to the Patriots twice.  They lost to a number six seed.  They got beat by scores of 20-3 and 41-0.  In the four losses, their high-powered offense has scored a combined total of 35 points, good for 8.8 per game.  They reached one conference final.  They were one of the top two seeds in the AFC once.  This isnít a case of a team constantly falling ďjust short,Ē it is simply the case of a team just not being as good as everyone thinks they are.

 

Granted, this was a tough year.  They started 13-0 only to lose in embarrassing fashion and that is a bitter pill to swallow.  However, NFL history is littered with regular season wonders that didnít get it done in the playoffs.  The 1999 Vikings went 15-1 only to lose Atlanta in the NFC title game.  Minnesota is one of those cursed franchises, but nobody talks about that Randall Cunningham-led team in hushed tones.  Anyway, thatís my opinion.  The Colts have been an overrated team that canít come through when it matters most.

 

The other question, the bigger question, is what does all this mean for the future?  Are the Colts ready to sink into the abyss ala the Tennessee Titans (another AFC team that had a good run, never managed to win it all, and was saddled with enormous contracts Ö although the comparison isnít quite accurate since the Titans at least made a Super Bowl)?  Or are they more like the Broncos teams that rallied to win consecutive Super Bowls in the late 90ís?  It could go either way, and which road this team takes will ultimately be the only the story that counts.  The loss to Pittsburgh was the crossroads more than it was an end point.  So which way are the Colts going to go?

 

There are two extremes:

 

  1. The ďstick a fork in themĒ option.  Just as the Titans collapsed under the weight of their enormous salaries and the Eagles went down in flames this year, there are those that believe Indy is now finished being a legit title contender. 

 

  1. The ďlate 90ís BroncosĒ option being forwarded by Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star (as seen on PTI earlier this week).  In the 1996-97 playoffs, a 13-3 Denver team hosted Jacksonville in the divisional round.  They were 18-point favorites and looking good in the new navy and orange uniforms.  Unfortunately, the Jags pulled off a huge upset 30-27 and sent Denver fans into a frenzy.  There was talk of breaking up the team and trading John Elway (according to Kravitz), but instead they stayed the course and wound up winning back-to-back titles as Elway cemented his legend.

 

I personally donít think we will see either extreme from the Colts.  Everyone wants closure and finality to everything, they want the defining moment, and they want each game to ďmean something.Ē  It might not happen.  It is entirely possible that Indy could continue to post 11-5 and 13-3 type seasons for the next five seasons and it is equally possible (probably likely) that they wonít rise up and win a Super Bowl over that time.  We might not get the redemptive tale of a Super Bowl title or the convenient closure of a massive flameout.  The latter doesnít seem likely when you consider that they have the number two offense and defense in the NFL.  I donít think anyone really thinks that Indy will be a bad team next year.  Vegas certainly doesnít, as they already have them as the early favorite to win it all.  But are they any more likely to turn it around and suddenly start winning big playoff games?

 

There are a variety of reasons to doubt that theory, starting with the ďleopard doesnít change its spotsĒ saying.  Other factors include an aging Marvin Harrison, defenses figuring out how to attack the Colts offense, and the painfully obvious fact that Peyton is no John Elway.  However, there are two other HUGE reasons to question Indyís ability to replicate the success of the Broncos.

 

First, the Edge Factor.  Edgerrin James is, without question, one of the top backs in the league.  He is big and strong and fast.  He is patient, selfless, and tireless.  He blocks, he catches, he scores touchdowns, he gets first downs, he eats clock.  He does whatever you need him to.  I know that NFL teams think they can just plug in anybody at running back and have success, but that is one of the biggest fallacies in pro sports.  Sure, 20 of the  starting running backs are interchangeable, but the top five guys are special and they canít be replaced with someone like James Mungro.  In fact, I stick to my claim that Edge is the true MVP of the Colts.  He gets 13 carries against Pittsburgh and the Colts score 18 points (should have been 10 if not for the horrendous interception ruling).  Coincidence?  I think not.  During Jamesí seven seasons in the NFL, the Colts have had a winning record and reached the playoffs in six of them, going 71-25.  James played in at least 13 games and had over 1,300 yards from scrimmage in each of those six seasons, while in the lone season that he missed significant time (2001, when he played in only six games because of a knee injury) the Colts went 6-10.  Again, coincidence?  Again, no.  Reports out of Indy are that there is an 80% change heís gone.  If that holds true, good luck replacing him. 

 

So there is the first big difference between Indy and Denver.  When the Broncos lost in January of 1997, Terrell Davis was coming off his second straight 1,000-yard season.  He returned to run for 1,750 yards with 15 TDís in 1997-98 and 2,008 yards with 21 scores in 1998-99.  Safe to say that he was a factor.  The Colts will be losing a guy with back-to-back 1,500-yard seasons and Iím guessing the player filling in wonít be going for 1,700 yards.  Hey, thatís the reality of the salary cap age.  Itís why Tennessee went up in smoke (winning more than 11 games in four of five years before going splat in 2004) and the Eagles ran out of gas.  Itís also why so many people rushed to call the Patriots a dynasty for winning three titles in four years.

 

The second reason that the Colts arenít the new version of that Broncos team is that the league is different.  Specifically, the AFC is different.  In 1997, the Chiefs were the only real rival to the Broncos in that conference and they had the infamous Elvis Grbac at quarterback and some guy named Greg Hill starting at tailback (with a 72-year old Marcus Allen getting the short yardage carries).  In 1998, the Jags and the Jets were the only other AFC teams with more than 10 wins and they were both horribly flawed (the Jets had only four Pro Bowl players while the Jags had a mere two and only the seventeenth ranked defense in the league).  Needless to say, Elway and the gang werenít fighting off terribly imposing teams to reach the Super Bowl during those triumphant years.

 

Contrast that with what the AFC is going to be like next year.  Youíve got the Colts sans James, coming in hungry but with a significant amount of baggage.  You have the Patriots, who will be healthy and equally as hungry.  Either the Steelers or Broncos will be the defending AFC champions, and both teams are young and physical and expected to be terrific next year.  The Chiefs will be bringing 16 games of Larry Johnson.  The Chargers will be good.  Depending on what happens with Carson Palmer, the Bengals will be good.  It is going to be a ridiculously tough conference.  The AFC of 1997-1999 it is not.  Just something to think about.

 

Prediction: The Colts go 11-5 next year, win the AFC South, and lose in the first round to the Chargers.  In other words: more of the same. 

 

Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com.

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