From 2011 through '13, the Jim Harbaugh-led 49ers were perhaps the NFL's most consistent winners. They never won a Super Bowl, coming all too close against the Ravens at the end of the 2012 season. But Harbaugh's teams never lost more than four games in any of those three seasons, and it seemed that as long as management could deal with Harbaugh's eccentricities, long-term success was possible.
Of course, that didn't happen—the 2014 team finished 8–8, undone by injuries, suspensions, roster attrition and a series of questionable drafts that left the 49ers shallow as many positions. Things came to a head at the end of last season, and Harbaugh was out the door, partially of his own volition.
From there, the carnage was unprecedented. Veteran players were retiring at a rapid pace, the roster attrition continued, the entire coaching staff was overhauled, and new coach Jim Tomsula was seen by many as a figurehead for general manager Trent Baalke and CEO Jed York. This season's 2–5 mark, and seeming long-term rebuild around a depleted roster speaks to all those defections, but also to a front office spreading its personnel thin and relying too much on key figures.
And now, the Indianapolis Colts, who finished 11–5 for three straight seasons from 2012 through '14, find themselves in a similar quandary of potentially severe proportions. That former bastion of regular-season consistency has fallen apart in 2015, and the current 3–4 record reflects it. Pagano's team is in first place in the AFC South, but that speaks more to the division's overall weakness than any particular strength the Colts are holding. Last Sunday's 27–21 loss to the Saints was yet another embarrassment; the Colts were down 27–0 before attempting a comeback in the second half.
The problems this season are reflective of the smoke and mirrors by which this team amassed its 2014 success. The Colts relied mostly on the efforts of three players—quarterback Andrew Luck, receiver T.Y. Hilton and cornerback Vontae Davis—and the supporting cast did just enough. Now, with the superstars underperforming, and veterans like running back Frank Gore, receiver Andre Johnson and pass-rusher Trent Cole not living up to preseason hopes, things are falling apart. Luck is the primary scapegoat, and his decision-making has been questionable at best this season. But the offensive line put together by general manager Ryan Grigson has been a relative failure, and consistent defense is a rarely seen ideal.
As much as the team appears to be distancing itself from Pagano, as witnessed by the refusal to give him a long-term extension and reports of tension between head coach and general manager, one could look closer and see Grigson as the real issue. His first draft in 2012 came up trumps, not only for Luck with the first overall pick, but also for the acquisitions of Hilton and tight end Dwayne Allen in the third round. After that, Grigson's draft history has been spotty at best, and that's where NFL rosters go to die.
The 2013 draft provided nothing of value—first-round pick Bjoern Werner has been a bit player at best, and didn't look like the pass-rusher Grigson apparently thought he was, even at Florida State. Only guard Hugh Thornton has seen serious time on the field from that draft class, and his performances have been up-and-down, to be kind.
In 2014, the Colts didn't have a first-round pick because the team traded it to the Browns for running back Trent Richardson, which probably stands as the worst trade of the millennium at this point in time. Between the line issues, injuries to more productive backs and Indianapolis's insistence on trying to validate the trade, the Colts' run game was a disaster. Receiver Donte Moncrief is to date the only player from that class with serious shown potential, and offensive lineman Jack Mewhort is developing, but that's still a questionable haul. Stanford defensive lineman Henry Anderson is the bright spot from the 2015 class so far, but given the history, it's tough to bet on the success rate over time.
The long-term view is sketchy for these Colts. They're going to have to give Luck a contract soon that will likely make him the league's highest-paid player and take a serious chunk of the team's salary cap going forward. The preseason veteran signings were for quick pop anyway, so there are still issues at running back, receiver, offensive line, and edge-rusher. That's a lot to put on any general manager, even one with a far better track record than Grigson's. If Irsay decides to break up with his general manager and/or head coach during or after the 2015 season, the narrative says that there will be a very long line of prospects angling for those jobs, because having a franchise quarterback means the battle is half-won.
But what if Luck isn't that guy? What if he's already leveled out as what he will be—a tremendously smart, mobile, big-armed, gifted player with a frustrating proclivity for mistakes? What if key players like Hilton and Davis decline before the other roster holes are filled in? There could be a harsh reality coming, not unlike the one Grigson and Polian were presented with a few years back when several poor drafts under the Bill Polian regime left the cupboard bare.
The Colts already proved in 2012 that they can engineer a quick turnaround. But sustained success is far tougher to create, and it appears to be this franchise's Achilles' heel at this time, and it could lead to heavy changes sooner than later