In 2011 the great Peyton Manning underwent neck surgery and missed the entire season. The result was a mixture of Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky, and Kerry Collins under center, a 0-13 start to the season and eventual 2-14 record.
From that disaster came Andrew Luck and a sense of hope. In the five years since the Stanford man joined the Colts, they have made the playoffs three times, won the AFC South twice, and have an overall record of 49-31. That sounds pretty good, but underneath that surface is a lot of poor play and mismanagement.
Let’s start with the biggest problem. While Luck’s knack for big plays and timely throws kept the team winning games, especially against the consistently poor AFC South, the defense stopped them ever competing at the top of the conference. New England would come to town and run them over on the ground, the Pittsburgh Steelers would throw all over them.
Not many teams can cope with those sides, but when your head coach came in with a defensive pedigree, the expectation is that you can at least put up a good unit occasionally right? Well, in the five years Chuck Pagano has been in charge the Colts have fielded a below average defense.
They have been in the bottom five in DVOA twice and not broken into the top ten, with an average position of 20th. That is far from the return you would want from a defense, and while a lot of it down to poor personnel decisions, there has to be an expectation that a coach can improve the players he works with, and Pagano has simply not been able to create a consistently good defense to compliment Luck’s talents.
The other anchor weighing Luck and the passing attack down is a lack of consistent ground game. Much like the defense, it has been so incredibly up and down that it’s impossible to lean on it with any regularity. They average 19th in rushing DVOA since Luck arrived, including a tenth place finish and a 30th place finish. For as good a player as Frank Gore has been, the poor blocking has lead to a team that has averaged just 3.9 yards a carry in the last five years.
2017, or 2011?
What these two factors show is that outside of Luck there isn’t really a lot to get excited about for the Colts, which is why 2017 could be a horrible year for Indianapolis. Andrew Luck hasn’t thrown a ball in anger since he had shoulder surgery eight months ago to correct an issue that had been lingering since 2015, leading to some very sketchy preseason performances and a lot of trepidation as Week 1 approaches. Today owner Jim Irsay, per the Indy Star, said:
I would say, again, the odds are most likely he probably won’t open up against the Rams. But let me be clear about it — in our minds, it’s something that we haven’t ruled out. We’re going to see where he’s at. It would be awesome [if he can play]. We’re not talking Willis Reed or something like that. [Luck] is a young guy, 12 to 14 to 16, maybe 18 years, I don’t know, going forward [with the Colts]. The longer the better, in my opinion.
Cutting through to the crux of the matter, Luck’s status for the regular season is very much unknown. The Colts are not a favorite for the Super Bowl even if Luck were 100%, so rushing him back from a serious surgical procedure to his throwing shoulder just a year after he signed a six-year contract extension and only 11 days before his 28th birthday, would be extremely short-sighted.
Luck is a player that the Colts want to build success around for the next 15+ years, and risking him in a game against a Wade Phillips defense when your own pass protection is incredibly shaky is the height of stupidity.
But what awaits for the Colts should Luck not play is a redux of 2011, with a team that is founded on its signal caller and liable to crumble if he is not there.
While Chris Ballard has come in to replace Ryan Grigson and immediately invested in the likes of Johnathan Hankins, Jabaal Sheard, and John Simon to beef up the defense, there are still a lot of holes across this roster.
Their draft class focused on the secondary, as they took Malik Hooker and Quincy Wilson with their first two picks, but rookie secondary players are notoriously tough to integrate into a team. The offensive line remains a big question mark as well, especially with Ryan Kelly out for 5-7 weeks after foot surgery.
With Luck potentially on the sideline then, this Colts team immediately plummets to the foot of the league. Scott Tolzien is not Curtis Painter, but he might as well be in this case.
The Jets are already presumed to have the #1 pick in the bag for 2018, but with a pretty dependable quarterback in Josh McCown and an incredibly talented defensive line they have the potential to steal a few games. If you put their rosters side by side I really want only TY Hilton ahead of Muhammad Wilkerson, Leonard Williams, and Sheldon Richardson, and if I don’t have Luck then Hilton is suddenly a lot let interesting.
In 2011 it was “Suck for Luck”, in 2017 Colts fans may just have to “Fold for Darnold”.
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