The Collapse of the Colts Has Been Years in the Making

AP Photo/Elise Amendola Vince Wilfork

Don’t believe what you read. The 0-13 season endured by this year’s dreadful Indianapolis Colts team didn’t start with a 27-point loss to the Texans in Week 1. It didn’t start with their 20-point loss to the Rams in the opening week of the NFL preseason in August. It didn’t start when Peyton Manning underwent neck fusion surgery, or when he was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list, or even when he first started feeling neck pain all the way back in February. No; this disastrous waste of the disposable income of the fine people of Indianapolis dates back much further than all that. In fact, it started all the way back in April of 2007, while the Colts were basking in the glow of their first Super Bowl win since 1970.

When Roger Goodell stepped up to the podium in Radio City Music Hall to announce who the Colts had selected with the final pick of the first round of the 2007 NFL draft, there was little reason to believe that the Colts would fail to nab a winner. Indianapolis represented one of the finest drafting-and-development factories in the NFL. Of the 22 players they had started in their Super Bowl win over the Bears three months earlier, 21 had spent their entire professional career in Colts uniforms. The organization had successfully identified and developed a simple draft philosophy that emphasized speed, even at the expense of size. The championship-winning team had gotten significant contributions from rookies on either side of the ball, with halfback Joseph Addai accruing 143 yards from scrimmage in the Super Bowl, while Antoine Bethea stepped straight into the starting lineup at strong safety and started 14 games.

The name Goodell announced made sense for the Colts by the end of his sentence: Ohio State wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez, one of three Buckeyes wide receivers taken in the first round of that year’s draft, was a perfect fit for the Colts. Indianapolis was about to lose slot receiver Brandon Stokley in free agency, and Gonzalez could step in immediately while developing into the long-term replacement for future Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison, who would turn 35 in the ensuing season. And then, early in the second round, they decided to fill another hole. Indianapolis sent San Francisco a fourth-round pick and their 2008 first-round pick for the 42nd selection before selecting tackle Tony Ugoh, who immediately became the long-term replacement at left tackle for veteran lineman Tarik Glenn. Glenn had been rumored to be considering retirement, and indeed, he would go on to retire in July without taking another snap in anger. The Colts finished up Day One by adding Cal cornerback Dante Hughes and Ohio State defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock at the end of the third round.

They didn’t know it, but by the end of that weekend, the Colts had already started slipping off the top of the mountain. The members of that draft class almost uniformly failed to pan out. Gonzalez suffered a bevy of knee injuries and failed to launch; after 94 catches through his first two seasons, he has just five receptions in the past three years. Ugoh struggled for two seasons before losing his job in 2009, and the Colts cut him at the beginning of the 2010 season. Hughes was released after two years, but the saddest story belongs to Pitcock. Suffering from depression and addicted to video games, Pitcock retired after his rookie season with the team. He has attempted comebacks since then, but he’s yet to play in another NFL game. The only starter the Colts found in that year’s draft was linebacker Clint Session, whom the team drafted in the fourth round, but Session now plays in Jacksonville. Four and a half years after that draft, not a single member of that draft class starts for the Colts. It was the first draft under general manager Bill Polian that failed to produce a Colts starter five seasons later.

It was like the Colts forgot how to draft overnight. Their 2008 selections were slightly better, as they grabbed linebacker Philip Wheeler in the third round and wideout Pierre Garcon in the sixth, but they still failed at the top of the draft. Indy traded their first-round pick away to select Ugoh, and they used their second-round pick on erratic lineman Mike Pollak, who has lost his starting job in each of the past two seasons.

In 2009, they spent their first-round pick on UConn running back Donald Brown, who couldn’t pass block and never learned, which has prevented him from getting on the field and will end his Colts career after this season. His impact is best remembered in the infamous “Goddamnit, Donald!” clip. The year after, their first-round pick was spent on defensive end Jerry Hughes, who was designed to spell star ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis before eventually taking over as a starter. Hughes has just one career sack in 21 games, was a healthy scratch at times this year, and was on the block during this year’s trade deadline, just a year after his selection.

Indianapolis did find some role players in the middle rounds, as players like Austin Collie and Jerraud Powers have been competent contributors to the Colts’ playoff teams under Manning. But how did a team that seemed to take perennial Pro Bowlers with their first selection in the draft every year suddenly turn into Millen lite? The falloff is staggering:

Even without considering Manning, just look at that run: James, Wayne, Freeney, Clark, and Sanders. Those guys combined to make 18 Pro Bowls as members of the Colts, and you can probably make the case that every single one of them besides Clark was the best player in football at his position at one point or another during the past decade. Those guys are now past their prime and/or out of the league. If the Colts had kept up a steady string of drafting stars at the top of the draft, they might have been able to fade a Peyton Manning injury for one season and play competitive football. Instead, they’ve drafted four clear failures and Castonzo, on whom the jury is still out. Players like Gonzalez, Ugoh, Pollak, and Brown should be in their prime and the stars on this Colts team. Hughes should be their Jason Pierre-Paul, the devastating pass rusher everyone is afraid to see when he steps on the field. Instead, the Colts are left with an overmatched, injury-riddled team that lacks playmakers on either side of the ball.

Of course, it’s naive to suggest that the Colts would be 0-13 if Manning were healthy; going from Peyton Manning to a solution that primarily consisted of Curtis Painter was one of the biggest talent tradeoffs a team has ever made in the history of the NFL. We know that Manning makes virtually the entire team better. He makes the running game more effective by reading defenses and audible-ing to the right play. His receivers catch more passes and go for more yards after they catch them. His offensive line doesn’t need to pass protect for quite as long, his kicker gets to kick shorter field goals, and his punter gets paid to sit on the sidelines. Manning even helps on defense, where Indianapolis normally faces much longer fields. Indy’s defense has had to defend the second-shortest average field in football this season, with 68.8 yards to go for a touchdown. They were rarely outside of the top ten in best starting field position on defense during Peyton’s heyday.

As valuable as the quarterback can be to a team, though, this sort of disastrous decline is close to unprecedented. When Tom Brady went down for the Patriots in the opening week of the 2008 season, New England went from 16-0 to 11-5 with Matt Cassel at the helm. That’s just a five-game swing. When Dan Marino tore his Achilles tendon in 1993, the Dolphins went from starting the season 4-1 with him to 5-6 with Scott Mitchell and Bernie Kosar under center. The only recent example of a team falling off so obviously without their star quarterback was when the 49ers lost Steve Young to his career-ending concussion three weeks into the 1999 season. The Niners were coming off of a 12-4 season and had started the year 2-1 with Young at center; afterwards, they went 2-11. Those Niners are another team where the top-level draft picks fell apart before the team did. From 1995-1999, the Niners took J.J. Stokes, Israel Ifeanyi, Jim Druckenmiller, R.W. McQuarters, and Reggie McGrew with their first picks in each NFL Draft. All but Ifeanyi were first-rounders, and none of them turned into valuable pros. The Niners recovered in 2000 and 2001, but then they took Mike Rumph, Kwame Harris, and Rashaun Woods in the first rounds of consecutive drafts from 2002-2004. If you want to figure out why a great team has suddenly gone bad, the first place to look is at their draft picks from four years ago. We don’t have a large enough sample to calculate many additional games a team “should” lose without having their star quarterback available, but it seems unlikely that the answer would be ten wins.

It’s hard to figure that the difference between a 10-6 season and an 0-13 one could be entirely up to the absence of Manning. Is Peyton Manning, then, worth about ten wins to his team? Certainly, the market doesn’t value quarterbacks that way. Consider that the NFL’s salary cap is $120 million, which each team needs to split amongst 53 players. Those players make a minimum of $375,000 each, so after building that in, teams have just over $100 million to spend on players in whatever way they like. When Manning signed his new contract with the Colts in July, he got the largest average annual value for any player through the first three years of his deal, but that was just $23 million. That suggests that the market has come to value quarterback play — even dominant, otherworldly quarterback play — as being worth about 23 percent of a team’s contributions towards winning. Even if you note that teams aren’t spending up to the full extent of their cap, the league’s best quarterbacks simply aren’t getting valued at a level similar to somebody who would be worth ten wins, or eight wins, or even perhaps six wins versus a replacement-level player. You could also argue that the league’s best quarterbacks are underpaid, which we would concur with, but the salaries of elite players like Manning would need to more than double to justify valuing them and their absence as being worth 8-10 wins. Manning’s absence has hurt the Colts greatly, but the difference between the 2007-10 Colts and this disaster of a 2011 team should be chalked up to more than Peyton’s absence.

Colts fans can take this as comforting or discomforting. On one hand, even if they had enjoyed 16 games of Peyton Manning, it seems likely that Indianapolis would have struggled to make the playoffs. Manning makes everyone else better, but there are just too many holes to sand over on either side of the ball, thanks to the absence of those star players. Only four of the Colts’ 13 losses have come by a touchdown or less, so while they’ve been unlucky to go 2-12 (the record predicted by their point differential) as opposed to 0-14, they really just haven’t been in very many of their games this season. With 16 games of Manning, the Colts would have likely been a 6-10 or 7-9 team. By failing so catastrophically, they’ll get to draft Andrew Luck and begin the process of turning the franchise around.

On the other hand, Colts fans who want to believe that a team led by Luck or Manning will instantly return to the playoffs next year are naive. The problems with Indianapolis go far deeper than the quarterback position, and even if they end up drafting Luck or trading the first overall pick for additional first-rounders, there’s no guarantee that the current regime under Polian and his son, Chris, are going to return to the days when they were finding stars in the early rounds of the draft. The Colts weren’t an elite team before Peyton Manning got injured; they were a middling team propped up by the greatest quarterback in league history. The Old Colts are dead, and neither Andrew Luck nor Peyton Manning can bring them back.

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Previously from Bill Barnwell:

The Possible Destinations For One Peyton Manning
The Randomness of the NBA’s 66-Game Season
The Fabulous and The Flops of NFL Week 14

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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