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The Peyton Manningless Colts of Indianapolis

Posted by Chase Stuart on September 9, 2011

No one knows how the Colts will look without Peyton Manning. And we're about to find out much sooner than anyone in Indianapolis ever expected. Yesterday, Manning went under his third neck surgery in 19 months, and is expected to miss most, if not all, of the season. If Manning is indeed out for the year, what should we expect?

  • A few years ago, Doug noted that the average starting quarterback is worth 2.3 points, or about a win per season. A useful starting point, but no one has ever confused Manning with an 'average starting quarterback.'
  • Brian Burke says that the entire Colts passing offense -- of which Manning is the central figure -- is worth about 3.8 wins per season.

I'm less optimistic than most. I'm not going out on a limb if I tell you that the Colts are going to implode, but I think that's what's going to happen. If Manning is gone for 16 games, I would probably take the "under" even at 6 wins.

Let's start with a few differences between the 2011 Colts and some other teams missing their franchise quarterback:

  • For starters, Don Shula, Bill Walsh, Jimmy Johnson, and George Seifert aren't coaching the Colts. At this point, we've seen more from Bill Belichick's hoodie than from Jim Caldwell. Caldwell went 26-63 as head coach at Wake Forest. He was handpicked to replace Tony Dungy because of his ability to seamlessly guide the ship. He did so admirably in year one, bringing the Colts to the Super Bowl. But his assignment now isn't to guide the ship, it's to build it. He's going from being a 'game manager' to being the captain. And we've seen nothing from Caldwell to suggest that he's capable of doing that. Or that he's awake.
  • To the point, the Colts lose more than a Hall of Fame quarterback. Manning was an offensive coordinator and a coach on the field. Making matters worse, Tony Dungy and Tom Moore are gone, and along with Peyton Manning, the core of what's made the Colts "the Colts" over the past decade won't be around in 2011.
  • If the Colts struggled early, I doubt they keep their motivation late. In '98, Steve Young had a monster season and San Francisco made the playoffs for the 15th time in 16 years. When Young went down in week three of the '99 season, the 49ers were 2-1. But they ended the season 4-12. Once a team so accustomed to playing meaningful games has their hopes dashed by week 9, will they have the motivation to play at a high level? The Colts play Pittsburgh and Atlanta, in addition to road trips to Houston, Tampa Bay and New Orleans, in the first 9 weeks. Even a split among the easier games -- home for Cleveland, Jacksonville and Kansas City, along with traveling to Cincinnati, might only give them a 3-6 record. Dwight Freeney, Reggie Wayne and Jeff Saturday aren't used to 'playing out the string' and may not play up to their talent levels if the wheels fall off in Indy.

There are lots of reasons to be down on the Colts; are there any to be optimistic? Here's the problem in Indianapolis. For years, the Colts have been building around Manning. They've drafted pass catching tight ends and pass blocking lineman, while failing to improve the rushing attack. They spent money on great pass rushers but didn't have the cap space for strong cornerbacks. Essentially, the Colts team was built on Peyton Manning passing for a lot of yards and scoring a lot of points. Now what?

The Colts aren't suddenly going to turn into a ground-and-pound offense. Even with new LT Anthony Costanzo, the Colts still sport one of the league's worst run blocking lines.The Colts ranked last in rushing yards and 30th in YPC in '09, "rising" to 29th and 27th in those categories last year. Joseph Addai and Donald Brown can't carry an offense, and Delone Carter isn't going to step in and be Jim Brown, Larry Csonka, Floyd Little, Jim Nance or Joe Morris. If the Colts are lucky, he'll be better than James Mungro. But either way, don't expect the Colts to turn into a run-first team.

Can the Colts turn Collins into a game manager and expect to win games with their defense? Do you know who the Colts' defensive tackles are? Fili Moala and Antonio Johnson. Know the names of the starting cornerbacks? Jacob Lacey and Jerraud Powers. You'd be hard pressed to find a worse pair of duos that anchor a team's rushing and passing defense. The Colts were 0-5 in games where they trailed after the first quarter and 7-0 in games where they led after the first quarter. In the other four games, Indianapolis was winning by halftime in three, and won all of them, but lost the fourth game. The Colts model is to pass early and often, gain a lead, and play to the defense's strengths: namely, rushing the passer. But if the Colts are forced to have their run defense take center stage, and can't help the cornerbacks by playing in obvious passing downs, the defense is going to look much, much worse in 2011.

Which brings me to the point: the Colts aren't now going to try to win with defense, because the defense isn't built that way. Indianapolis won't try to win by running, because the offense isn't built that way. The Colts are going to try to plug and play, essentially keeping the high-octane, aerial attack that tries to get leads early, but by deploying Kerry Collins in lieu of Peyton Manning. That is a recipe for disaster.

In 2009, the Colts set a record for the largest disparity between passing and rushing first downs. Last year, they actually passed for 12 more first downs than they did the year before. Indianapolis is built around a lethal passing attack; Kerry Collins is going to kill the passing attack. Building a team around an almost 39-year-old recently retired quarterback who has two weeks of training is a train wreck waiting to happen. I'd be shocked if he doesn't miss at least a few games this season, and the Colts will be even worse when he's out.

The Colts won't pass effectively. They won't run effectively. When those things happen, the defense will be more exposed than ever. And after an ugly start, I think the most talented veterans on the team will lose their motivation. The Colts could very well bottom out to 3-13. It's not about how good Peyton Manning is, or how valuable he is; it's about how the team was built around him. Peyton Manning isn't the straw that stirs the drinks. He's the glass that holds the drink. Without him, Indy is going to be a wet mess.