Time To Face Reality: These Colts Can Only Go So Far
There’s no sense trying to spin the Indianapolis Colts’ situation as anything less than somewhat bleak for the rest of this season.
That’s not to suggest with a defeatist mentality that the playoffs are unattainable.
Head coach Frank Reich reinforced the company line to his players — “We’re not out of this thing” — after Thursday night’s discouraging 20-17 loss at Houston.
That’s true. At 6-5, the Colts are one game behind the Houston Texans in the AFC South Division with five to play, although tiebreakers won’t be in their favor and the most likely postseason berth would be as a wild-card entry.
But what’s said in the locker room to keep players believing anything is possible is one thing. From the outside, let’s be honest about what this team has done and what can be accomplished.
Despite the loss of leading rusher Marlon Mack on Sunday to a fractured hand, the Colts have proven their offseason goal of becoming a top-five NFL rushing team wasn’t unrealistic. They improved to No. 3 in rushing at 144.2 yards per game after amassing 175 against the Texans.
But therein lies the real problem with the Colts as they approach the home stretch. Perhaps it’s because of injuries, either to Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, other pass catchers or quarterback Jacoby Brissett, but the offense is now one-dimensional and too reliant on ground and pound.
Brissett’s inability to find targets down the field was beyond alarming against the Texans. It’s not the first time he’s seen zone coverage. It’s not the first time he’s looked tentative and unsure of himself, thus electing to play it safe, throw it short or tuck and run for whatever he can.
That he finished with 129 yards passing was unacceptable to say the least. He didn’t spot open receivers early on. He misfired on a few throws, too, which doesn’t seem so serious but pass catchers can’t gain yards after the catch if they’re diving to catch poorly thrown balls. It’s also fair to point out the Colts dropped some passes, too, which has been a reoccurring trend that dates back to last year.
When the Colts pounded the Jacksonville Jaguars 33-13 at home with 264 yards rushing on Sunday, the focus wasn’t on Brissett returning from missing a game and a half with a sprained left MCL. But wearing a bulky brace and looking so unsure of himself at Houston, he wasn’t the same.
That Hilton played after missing three games with a calf strain was admirable, but the guy who kills the Texans had two bad drops by his own admission, contested catches but ones he’s paid to make. Consider also that others didn’t step up enough, either. It seemed as if wide receiver Zach Pascal, whose 364 receiving yards and four TDs are second on the team behind Hilton, suddenly entered witness protection. He was targeted only once and didn’t have a catch.
Aside from tight ends Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle making a few plays, there really wasn’t much else in the passing game. And when a team is playing so much zone, is it really that difficult to find the soft spots and connect to move the chains? No team in the NFL has more games with less than 200 passing yards than the Colts with eight.
While an argument could be made that the Colts defense made its share of mistakes in not protecting a 17-13 lead in the fourth quarter, the Texans still managed 20 points because they clicked on some chunk plays and saved their season. Four passes of 30-plus yards is uncommon for the Colts, but defenders were beaten one-on-one or didn’t communicate properly. In other words, they made enough mistakes to give the Texans those shots.
But again, let’s be serious about the Texans, too. They have enough obvious flaws that they’re not going anywhere if or when they make the playoffs.
Neither would the Colts, even if they bounce back as they did last year and make the playoffs. Blame it on whatever you want, but the fact is this team still has too many holes. As hard as general manager Chris Ballard has tried, the guys paid to catch passes aren’t getting it done. It’s also not really his fault that too many important players got hurt — nobody’s depth is limitless. Wide receiver Devin Funchess could have been a key addition, but broke his collarbone in the season opener. If he can return in the next two weeks and make some plays, that would help, but it’s doubtful that could elevate this team into the upper tier.
The Colts have some important decisions to make after this season ends. Ballard has drafted some promising defensive players and his signing of defensive end Justin Houston paid off with eight sacks in 11 games. Expect that trend to continue, especially in a secondary that still needs more guys who can cover. Doesn’t everybody? It’s one of the NFL’s hardest positions.
So, too, is quarterback. Well, to be honest, it’s the most important position.
Brissett has proven at times to be a reliable and capable passer who can lead a team. But is he talented enough to take this team to the Super Bowl one day? He’s still young at 26, so estimating that ceiling is a bit of an educated guess.
The hunch is he’s good enough to get the Colts to the playoffs, but unless all the other pieces are in place and executing well, he’s not going to carry an offense to the promised land.
That’s not the Colts’ company line, of course. They’ve sold him since preseason, when Reich reaffirmed Brissett was a “top-20 quarterback,” because it’s in the team’s best interest to want people to believe the successor to a retired Andrew Luck is every bit as capable. But that’s simply not true.
There’s talent, and then there’s greatness. And greatness is rare. On Luck’s worst day, he didn’t shy away from taking his shots. Only on Brissett’s best day does he do so.
The Colts have talent, but not enough to achieve greatness. This much is clear after Thursday night. That they’ve played 10 one-score games and are 6-5 is an obvious indicator that sometimes this team makes plays when it counts most, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Great teams opponents away when in position to close. Letting a team off the hook as the Colts did the Texans on Thursday happens sometimes, but not often, and certainly not when seemingly everything is on the line. It’s one thing to lose when playing well against a superior team that plays better. It’s another to squander opportunities for four months.
At worst, the Colts should be 8-3 right now and sitting pretty in the AFC South Division. But they’re 5-5 in those one-score games. That’s not good enough to make the playoffs or do anything should they hit a hot streak and qualify.
As the Colts attempt to salvage their goal of making the playoffs in these final five games, forgive some of us who are already looking ahead to what happens in the offseason.
Can Ballard further address need positions such as wide receiver and the secondary and bring in the right kind of players on offense and defense to ensure this team will take that next step? That also includes whether, with an eye for the future, he’ll invest a high draft pick in another quarterback or wait another year.
Beyond that, we’ll watch the rest of this season play out and wonder what might have been.
We gave this team a chance and didn’t write the guys off, as Ballard asked when Luck retired in August. It’s actually a credit to this team’s character that they were able to be respectable after losing a franchise cornerstone.
But the Colts still have a ways to go before anyone can realistically suggest they belong in the Super Bowl conversation.