Ahhhh, how naive we were as we ran amok through fields of daises kissed by the buzzing honey bees' lips in the joys of August's blind preseason optimism. Some thought Ed Reed would be the missing piece to a championship puzzle and his presence would frighten Tom Brady or Peyton Manning into defeat. Some thought Matt Schaub was injured last season and he would be back to his old self after an off season full of rest and recovery. Some thought Derek Newton would improve this season- oh, wait no one in the history of mankind thought that would occur. Some thought that Andrew Luck and the Colts would regress to the mean and have the luck accumulated in their horse shoe flip over and vomit its mirth all over a dung riddled stable. Most thought Houston would sleep through an easy division and their playoff placement would depend on how they played against Seattle, San Francisco, Baltimore, New England and Denver. No one thought Houston would be 2-5 coming out of the bye with Case Keenum starting at quarterback.
This season the Colts have improved on offense, defense and Andrew Luck has already started to evolve the Colts into another version of an AFC South dynasty. Poor Colts' fans had one poor year and they are already back to shaking in delight as they glare into their crystal ball that's showcasing years of playoff berths, wins, and Super Bowl appearances. The Colts are the Regina George of the NFL, the character from Mean Girls, not the Nigerian sprinter. Their entire life has been nothing but glamor, popularity, and leisure except for one small rough patch of a few extra pounds, her friends turning on her, and being hit by a bus. Regina George found field hockey to help her change into a better person and the Colts found Andrew Luck to help them turn back into a better team. Houston went from David Carr to Matt Schaub to Case Keenum and the Colts went from Peyton Manning to Curtis Painter/Kerry Collins to Andrew Luck (~credit to BFD for that one, he came up with it on last week's Battle Red Radio, which you should listen to). The universe has gone back to it's natural order and the Texans are licking empty tuna cans for nourishment in an alley while the Colts have gone from 2-12 to possible title contender in the span of three years.
On Sunday, 2-5 Houston plays at home, with the roof open while rocking the Battle Red on Sunday Night Football against the 5-2 Colts. A loss would toss the last shovelful of dirt on top of the Texans's grave officially suffocating any hope or optimism the fan base might have left for this season. A win could make things interesting with games against Arizona, Oakland, Jacksonville, a beatable New England team and Jacksonville again. A win is unlikely however, for various reasons.
Before the season started, I wrote 1,500 words or so about why the Colts would regress, why their lucky ways were unsustainable and how the off-season moves they made didn't bring in enough talent to stop them from the 7-9 they were marching towards. The entire post is funny to reread simply for the comments and it can be summarized by the following:
The numbers last season point to Indy coming back down to the little blue marble where the rest of us mortals reside. Even when watching them play last year, I shook my head in disbelief and exclaimed, "HOLY CRAP! HOW ARE THEY THIS LUCKY?". Luck will have another good year as he continues to develop into one of Ron Jaworski's "elite QBs," but the Colts will still prove to be the mediocre football team they really are. The manna is drained. Indy will go 7-9 in 2013, and Fortuna will dance in revelry while beaming with pride, applauding her wicked ways.
So what changed from last year to this? First the Colts aren't a fortunate football team this year, they are actually a very good one. They come into every game prepared, execute their game plan to perfection, and no quarterback has ever been as composed in the pocket as Andrew Luck in their first two seasons of play. Nothing fazes this team and week in and week out they come in and take care of business.
That's enough of the subjective newspaper talk and let's look at the numbers from last year to this year that look at the Indy's luck and performance.
|Pt Differential||-30 (21st)||+56 (7th)|
|Pythagorean Wins||7.2 (Won 10)||4.9|
|Opponent Avg DVOA||-7.4% (32nd)||.3% (15th)|
|OPP W-L||118-154 (.433%)||31-23 (.574)|
|One Possession Wins||9-1||3-1|
|Avg Win Margin||6.18||14|
|TO Differential||-12 (26th)||+7 (15th)|
|DVOA||-16% (25th)||26.1% (3rd)|
|OFF DVOA||-2.9% (18th)||17.1% (5th)|
|DEF DVOA||14% (31st)||-4.4% (9th)|
|ST DVOA||.9% (12th)||4.6% (9th)|
What changed from last year to this year? First, their turnovers have greatly improved from last season to this one. Last year the Colts had turned the ball over 27 times and that number was even lower than it should have been. Luck led the league with fourteen dropped interceptions and they recovered fumbles at an unsustainable rate of 64.29%. Turnovers occurred because most of the pressure was put on Luck's arm. He threw the ball 627 times (5th in the NFL) behind a porous offensive line. Luck was sacked 41 times (11th) and consistently made passing attempts off his back foot into double coverage because he had to throw the ball every down for them to win.
This season, Bruce Arians took his "throw the ball 40 times a game offense" and moved it to the parched desert of Arizona. He was replaced by Pep Hamilton who made it a focus to create an effective running game that would run the ball more than fifteen times a game. In 2012 the Colts have found a nice run-pass balance and have handed the ball off 199 times (13th) compared to the 440 attempts they had last season (22nd). Not only that, but they have done so effectively in their new power run scheme. This season the Colts have a run DVOA of 16.4% (2nd), which is astronomically better than the -4.3% (18th) they had last season. In 2013 Luck has been able to play off the run game and has not been forced to do every thing himself. He may not have the gaudy numbers he had last season, but this year Luck is playing within the offense and at a higher level than last year.
Additionally, the Colts have improved in every facet of the game. They are better on offense, defense, and special teams and are not winning because of luck. Their average wins are by a margin of 14 points, they have a point differential of +56, and are 3-1 in one possession games. Unlike last season, the Colts aren't feasting on the easiest schedule in the league that had an average DVOA of -7.4%. They are beating up on teams and beating Superbowl Contenders along the way. Indy has beat the 6-2 49ers by 20, the 7-1 Seahawks by 6 and the 7-1 Broncos by 6 in Peyton Manning's homecoming game from hell. Last season they outplayed their performance due to winning close games against crappy teams. This season they are one of the best teams in the league with a DVOA of 26.1% (3rd), offensive DVOA of 17.1% (5th), and a defensive DVOA of -4.4% (9th). It would be reasonable to assume that the Colts would be a better team than last season, but no one could imagine an improvement like this.
The Colts have been able to fight off the regression monster that was destined to devour their entrails and turn their bones into glitter because of improved pass protection, an offense that runs the ball well and Andrew Luck making an enormous leap from year one to year two. This is not a lucky team with a quarterback with the last name Luck with a horse shoe for a logo. It's a very good football team who is poised to make a playoff run and sit at the top of the division year after year.
There are some things everyone has an opinion about: the Affordable Health Care Act, compensation for college athletes, Coke or Pepsi, the new Arcade Fire album and most importantly, the Trent Richardson trade. In every other professional sports league this trade would have occurred and people would have talked about if for a day until the next day's news cycle began. However, this trade happened a month and a half ago and people are still discussing it. I've never seen a trade with such a small effect on the game been evaluated as much as this one has. There is one simple reason for it-NOBODY TRADES IN THE NFL. Teams mostly trade during the draft, here and there in the off-season and rarely does it happen mid season. The easiest job in the world might be covering the NFL trade deadline. You put on an episode of Goosebumps on Netflix, sit and wait for the phone not to ring until 3 PM and then you carry on with your life. One trade was made before this year's deadline when Isaac Sopoaga was traded from Philadelphia to New England for a sixth round pick, yawn. This is because professional football is a complicated game. It takes months for an offense to flourish, for players to learn the playbook and for chemistry to develop. It's nearly impossible for a quarterback to practice for two weeks and have success, see Josh Freeman's 37.7 completion percentage. However, teams should trade running backs, defensive lineman, and kickers more often where the learning curve is shorter and they can succeed quicker.
The Colts thought a running back could come in and quickly learn the offense after Vick Ballard went down with a torn ACL. They sent a first round pick for Trent Richardson in the first major trade to occur in season since the Lions traded Roy Williams's alligator arms to the Cowboys and we all saw how that one worked out. In 2011 the Browns traded up to the third pick to take the running back from Alabama and so far his career has been filled with sighs that groan the word meh. When he played for Cleveland the thought was his number's were pedestrian because of his inexperience and his offensive line. He usually had to run through a tackle or two right when he received the ball; he might have run for only three yards, but he fought hard for them. Now it seems the problem is the exact opposite. He had to run through defenders because he lacked vision, burst and elusiveness to find the right spot to attack. Richardson has zero burst, slogs to the line of scrimmage and better resembles a pillowcase filled with bricks than a NFL running back. By the time he hits the line of scrimmage the hole is filled because of his lack of speed and indecisiveness.
Richardson's career numbers are this:
His numbers with the Browns are a little bit better than his season with the Colts, and the Colts have an even better offensive line. This season the Colts rank 7th in adjusted line years with 4.13, which measures the affect the offensive line has on the running game. Trent Richardson is averaging only three yards a carry in spite of this. Last season the Browns were 20th in this same metric with a value of 4.03. The ranking may seem low, but teams thirteen to twenty were separated by only .06 so you can say that he Browns were a mediocre run blocking team and not the abysmal they were claimed to be. Even then, Richardson averaged 3.6 yards a carry.
Now that Richardson has played for two teams we can look at how running backs on both of them have played while running behind the same offensive lines.
Every player who has run the ball behind the Colt's offensive line has played better than Trent Richardson. Even Ahmad Bradshaw who no one thought had anything left in the tank ran the ball fairly well before having season ending neck surgery. The Colts have a run DVOA of 16.4%, which is second in the league. Every running back who's played for the Colts has run for at least 4.5 yards a carry and has a DVOA of greater than 15. Richardson has averaged 3.0 Y/C and has a DVOA of -15.5%. When we look at the Browns numbers, Willis McGahee's corpse has run the ball at nearly the exact same level as Richardson did behind the same offensive line. Most of the blame for Richardson ineffectiveness can be attributed to the fact that he's probably not that good of a football player. We won't know for sure until next season when Richardson has spent a year playing under the same offense, but as of right now it's looking like the Colts would have been better off plucking someone off a practice squad or making Donald Brown the full time back than trading for Trent 3P0.
Before we get ahead of ourselves let's move onto the next section.
Last season Houston played five games with Cushing at inside linebacker and this season they managed to get seven out of him before he fell victim to another excruciatingly gruesome cut block. The defense suffered without him mostly in the passing game as we squirmed in horror watching Tim Dobbins and Barrett Ruud doing something that resembles running in pass coverage. Again this season Houston has to adjust their defense to him not being in their lineup. For the rest of the season we will likely see Darryl Sharpton until one of his body parts made of glass shatters and Joe Mays in the middle of the field. These two won't be as noxious as the Ruud/Dobbins, but they will still be an enormous downgrade. The past two seasons Houston's defense has the following numbers with and without Cushing.
|Stat||2012 W/ Cushing||2012 W/o Cushing||2013 W/ Cushing|
|Plays per Drive||4.9||5.4||5.5|
|Yds per Drive||22.3||28.7||27.1|
|Stuffs (Runs <2yds||44||160||104 (10th)|
What we see is that last year's defense suffered dramatically once Cushing tore his ACL. They gave up scores at a higher rate, forced fewer punts, allowed more yards, and the opponent's drives lasted longer. This season the numbers look similar to last year's without Cushing but as I've wrote again and again the defense's numbers are inflated because of the poor field position they had to play against because of turnovers and the points scored are more than they should be because of penalties and touchdowns allowed when the defense wasn't on the field. The run game should suffer maybe .05 yards a carry with Cushing missing. This is because Mays and Reed are very good at stopping the run and J.J Watt and Antonio Smith still play defensive end for Houston. I don't believe Richardson is going to be able to get much on the ground and will be spending most of the game running three yards and falling down.
However, what worries me when looking at the numbers is the increase in yards per attempt. Cushing is not only a great run stopper, but he's also great at rushing the passer and is above average in pass coverage. Last season, Dobbins and Ruud were abysmal in pass coverage and the Sharpton/Mays combo should be better than those two decrepit logs, but there will be a huge downturn in production. Wade is going to lose creativity in blitz schemes with him missing and there will be greater pressure Shiloh Keo, Ed Reed, D.J Swearinger, Brice McCain, and Brandon Harris to cover the middle of the field. None of these players has played at an adequate level this season and I'd rather spend a night in room 237 than watch this horrific crew the rest of the year.
In 2013 Luck has thrown 24 passes that went for more than 20 yards and 13 of them carried further than 15 yards in the air. The Colts have done an incredible job picking their chances to go deep after lulling teams to sleep with the run game and intermediate passes. I can just see it now. TY Hilton lined up in the slot going against man on man coverage against Brice McCain and Ed Reed helping over the top. Hilton beats McCain on a double move and Ed Reed's hip explodes running to catch Hilton because he misdiagnosed the play. I think this game will come down to, which team can make the most big plays because moving the ball slowly down the field will be extremely difficult against these two defenses.
It just feels like we are seeing another new Colts dynasty in the making. Since Houston has been a franchise and the AFC South became a division we have seen the same cycle repeat itself. The Colts would win 10-14 games every year and one other team fights for scraps for a year or two before falling off the map. For Example, look at the division standings from 2004-2008.
Now it feels as if Houston had their nice two year run and we may be in store for a few years of crap before another chance at a two year window. I think the opportunity is there for a Kansas City type quick change where they improve at QB and coach and make a run because of the talent they have, but these are the toughest positions to fill and if it was that easy every team would have a good quarterback and head coach. Additionally, the team has big questions surrounding the roster. What if a foot injury isn't why Duane Brown is playing poorly? When will Andre Johnson start to slip? How much more can they get out of Arian Foster? Can Rick Smith evaluate quarterback talent since the only one he has drafted is T.J Yates? What if Watt leaves Houston once his rookie contract goes up? How is Cushing going to come back form another year of rehabilitation?
All of these questions are real causes for concern and this Sunday they symbolically get to face the new division belt holder that has their hands around Houston's throat. I believe Watt has a monster game shutting down the run game and terrorizes Luck on third down. However, I think Luck makes a few throws over thirty yards and takes advantage of the Texans having to play without Cushing patrolling the middle of the field. I didn't write about the offense because there's too many question marks: we have no idea what to expect from Case Keenum, Foster may or may not play, and Tate has cracked ribs. The offense will look similar to the Kansas City game where they can't move the ball on the ground, but Keenum will make some big plays here and there to keep the game competitive. However, Keenum will be running for his life all Sunday as Robert Mathis terrorizes Derek Newton from the first play to the last. It will be a fun game to watch, unlike the prime time blowouts we are used to seeing.
Indy tosses the last mound of dirt onto Houston's 2013 season-
Colts win 23-13