What Should We Think Of Colts Now?
Phillip B. Wilson
When quarterback Andrew Luck retired unexpectedly in August, Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard advised everyone, “Don’t write this team off.”
For those who didn’t, what are we to make of the Colts now, after two rather demoralizing losses to fall to 5-4?
If looking at the big picture and the bottom line, the Colts are on the outside looking in for an AFC playoff spot. They’re one game behind the Houston Texans in the AFC South Division after Sunday’s unfathomably inept 16-12 home loss to the Miami Dolphins.
It would be easy now, after Sunday and considering the mounting injuries, to write the Colts off. And nobody should be blamed for doing so.
What’s most disconcerting about this team is that the Colts could be in such a stronger position. We could play the “if” game and rationalize that if kicker Adam Vinatieri made more of his kicks — he’s missed in all four of the losses — the Colts could be 8-1 or 7-2.
But as the old adage goes, the record is 5-4 and that’s what the Colts are. Maybe they are what we should have thought they would be, a franchise that Ballard is building into a successful operation, but still in need of some key pieces.
The trend of playing nine consecutive one-score games has been maddening. Trying to comprehend how the Colts could lose to the previously 1-7 Dolphins defies logic. But then again, how the Colts as 10-point underdogs upset the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium last month was most unexpected as well.
So we’ve seen the Colts at their best and their worst, and this much seems to be obvious. This team will be in every game. Lest anyone forget last season, when the Colts rebounded from a 1-5 start to finish 10-6 and advance to the second round of the playoffs.
But what’s realistic this season? Seriously, is it reasonable to consider the Colts as legitimate playoff contenders?
After writing them off in that trip to Kansas City, let’s resist the temptation to surmise the Colts can’t make the playoffs. They still can, although that probability seems unlikely with wide receiver T.Y. Hilton hurt — if they can’t snap that 0-7 skid without Hilton in the lineup on Sunday at home against Jacksonville, then we’ll be more resigned to this team’s fate.
The great thing about fans is they are smarter than people give them credit for and they usually have hope. That’s why they keep watching, hoping for the best, knowing they could be disappointed, but still cheering their hearts out anyway.
Perhaps the greatest sin in this rollercoaster ride is we lost sight of the big picture. In all honesty, how good did we expect the Colts to be after Luck retired? It’s beyond disappointing to suggest that this would have been the best team surrounding No. 12 in his career, and the Colts would have overcome many of these hurdles if he were still around.
That’s not a knock on quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who has played reasonably well before getting hurt at Pittsburgh and missing Sunday’s game. There’s a lot to like about Brissett, but he’s not Luck, nor will he ever be.
When Luck retired, it was the hardest sell to suggest the Colts could still contend for a playoff spot. They’ve been better than many thought, and that’s why we can’t help but be disappointed now. The Colts gave everyone reason to hope.
This team has made its share of mistakes. The unwavering loyalty to Vinatieri stands out as the most egregious misstep, although it seems pretty obvious now that he’s not 100 percent. A sideline photo from Sunday’s game showed a trainer working on his right leg. He would never use an injury as an excuse, but it’s more plausible to conclude that the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history isn’t right because his 46-year-old body isn’t 100 percent.
That said, the Colts have erred in standing by him this long. As much as that loyalty is admirable, this is a bottom-line business. Eleven missed kicks would mean a pink slip for anyone else, and before nine games played.
But blaming Vinatieri for everything would be a mistake.
Ballard was smart to sign a seasoned backup quarterback when Luck retired, but as Sunday showed, Brian Hoyer isn't worthy of the three-year, $12-million contract he received. He was a turnover machine in the most important game of his career with the Houston Texans in 2016, a 30-0 home playoff loss in which he had four interceptions and a lost fumble. In the last two games with the Colts, he's thrown four interceptions, three of which couldn't have been worse decisions. There's a reason he's lost his last 10 games as a starter. Ballard needs to find a better backup.
Second-year head coach Frank Reich is a smart coach who knows how to get his locker room to buy into the team approach, but he’s still learning, too. Reich was too conservative in settling for three running plays before sending out Vinatieri to kick potential game-winning field goals against Denver and Pittsburgh. It worked the first time, and didn’t the second. But Reich learns from his mistakes and will be the wiser.
As the Colts try to rebound and make something of this season, take a moment to think about where you realistically thought this team would be after Luck retired. Even if they don’t make the playoffs, they’ve been in every game and fight their butts off.
Nobody personifies that effort more than linebacker Darius Leonard, who has had a couple of lousy games this season and been hard on himself. Leonard played like the “Maniac” on Sunday with 13 tackles, one interception, one sack and one forced fumble.
It wasn’t enough, but alas, the NFL often reminds us that great efforts often come up short.
The Colts have hung around up to this point and don’t expect anything less the rest of the way. If or when they don’t make the playoffs, we shouldn’t write off the season as a waste of time. Remember, oddsmakers didn’t expect this team to finish .500 after Luck retired.
The Colts have shown enough, despite losing so many key players, to reassure the franchise is still headed in a positive direction with the necessary character in that locker room and coaching staff.
That’s hard to see after such a bad loss on Sunday, but hopefully by season’s end, that realization will be more obvious.