Oh Fortuna, you sly nimble little nymph! How your wheel spins sometimes, clicking until it stops, bringing love and joy or pain and disaster. Injuring Peyton Manning's neck and forcing him to miss all of 2011, allowing Houston to make the playoffs for the first time without contest was really something. Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky, and Kerry Collins leading the Colts to 2-14 was hilarious. Then, you spun the wheel back in Indianapolis' favor by handing them Andrew Luck and giving them every break necessary for them to reach the playoffs. You always take me by surprise, you silly rascal.
Everyone here knows the story as they watched the ChuckStrong Colts set fire to everyone's expectations and finished with a record of 11-5 in 2012. They beat up on a weak schedule, played through Pagano's cancer diagnosis and received every break possible along the way. The Colts had a magical run last year filled with hocus pocus and enough witchcraft and wizardry to melt Alakazam's spoons. If any team in professional sports' logos is the most fitting, it is the Colts with their lucky horseshoe.
This year, however, the horseshoe will do a 180 and vomit all of luck it accumulated last year onto the floor like a homeless man on his birthday who unwisely mixed The Bomb gas station burritos with the liquid gasoline of a High Gravity.
Four Leaf Clovers and Rabbits' Feet
Out there in the mythical world of football statistical analysis, they have found stats that prove actually how good a team really is and stats that teams have no control over, the latter of which measure luck. There are stacks of evidence proving the Colts outperformed their actual record last year. It's an amount that exceeds the piles Hank has been scouring over lately in a vain attempt to convict Heisenburg (please, no spoilers). Measures like fumble recovery rate, opponent field kicker accuracy, and record in one score games show how fortunate a team has been. How much a team exceeded their performance can be measured by looking at Pythagorean wins and projection systems that actually make good predictions. Read Bill Barnwell's The NFL's Cloudy Crystal Ball to better learn the methods and terminology. I won't get into it because A.) I did not come up with material and research and B.) I can't do it at the same level. So first we will dive into the performance and then the karma of it all.
In 2012, the Colts had a point differential of -30, yet still won 11 games. Very rarely does a team give up more points than it scores and finish at .500, let alone win 11 games. Pythagorean Wins uses point differential to compute how many wins a team should have. It is equal to Points For2.37 / (Points For2.37 + Points Against2.37). Last year, the Colts had 7.2 Pythagorean Wins, but they ended up winning four more games. On average, teams that surpass their expected win total by 2-3 wins decline by an average of 2.5 wins the following year.
Football Outsiders built on the Pythagorean Projection by using DVOA to estimate wins. Last season the Colts were projected to 6.2 wins, equaling a difference of 4.8 wins between their actual and predicted records. This gap is the largest measured by Football Outsiders in the twenty-three years of NFL seasons they have calculated. What does this mean? It means the Colts were a much worse team than their record indicates and won more games than they actually should have. They played at a mediocre level, but won games due to having the easiest schedule in the NFL and some bounces that went their way.
Last season, Indy's opponents had an average DVOA of -7.4%, which was last in the league and a total W-L record of 118-154; that amounts to their opponents having an average record of 7-9 (6.36-9.63). Indy took advantage of their cupcake schedule. The opponents they did beat had an average record of 6-10 (6.36-9.63). In losses, the other team's record was 8-8, but if you remove Jacksonville, the number jumps to 9-7. Indy's ability to beat crappy teams can be seen from Week Seven to Week Sixteen of the 2012 season. After losing to the Sanchize 35-9, the Colts proceeded to go 8-2 by beating sub-.500 Cleveland, Tennessee twice, Miami, Jacksonville, Buffalo, Detroit, and Kansas City while sandwiching in losses to Houston and New England. This ten week run allowed the Colts to mask their ineptitude and hideousness like a woman who wears three pounds of powder, lipstick, mascara, and eye shadow, coming back from the 2-3 record they started the season with. Indy made the playoffs because they went 8-1 against teams who were below the .500 mark, not because they were playing great football.
Additionally, when the Colts won, they did so meekly. Most advanced stats come down to the basic principle that great teams crush poor opponents and beat good teams occasionally by a lesser margin. The Colts did the opposite of this. In victory, the Colts won at an average margin of 6.18 points, which is equal to a one possession football game. Keep in mind the schedule the Colts were playing that was discussed earlier. They not only failed to beat up on bad teams; they squeaked by those bad teams. Indy beat: the Browns 17-13, the Titans 19-13 & 27-23, the Dolphins 23-20, the Lions 35-33, and the Bills 20-13. All of these teams were below .500 last season. The only one score game they lost was to the Jaguars in Week Three by a score of 17-22. One possession wins are another one of those stats that have no correlation from one year to another. The mantra that some teams "just win" really means some teams just win for that season. Teams that go 9-1 in these situations, like Indy did, tend to lose a basketful more the following season. This is because anything can happen in one possession during a football game, and if your games come down to one last possession, there is a higher chance of something weird happening. It also goes back to the same idea--good teams beat up on bad teams. When they consistently do the opposite, they regress to their true level the next season.
The Colts actually did beat some exceptional opponents--Minnesota, Houston and Green Bay--but two of these came under special circumstances. I'm not a cold-hearted shell of a person who only looks at digits when analyzing teams. I do watch the games and I understand that team chemistry, personalities, and other intangibles play a vital role in who wins and who loses. Weird things happen in sports when tragedy strikes a team and a community, and it happened to the Colts last season. Prior to Week Five, when head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with Leukemia and coached from the hospital bed instead of the sideline, the Colts were a different team. During Week Five, the Colts beat the Packers 30-27. In that game, Luck led the Colts back from a 27-22 deficit with 4:30 remaining, converting three 3rd and longs and scoring what would be the game-winning touchdown with 39 seconds left. In Week 17, Pagano came back to the sideline to coach his team; the Colts rode the emotional wave to a 28-16 win against Houston. If Indy's roster last year played Green Bay or Houston ten times, I believe they would have won three out of ten of these matchups. In both these teams, Indy played above their ability because of intangible benefits that can't be measured or described. Strange things happen, man, and those two games are an example of it.
Not only did the Colts out perform their talent level, they also were lucky. Fumble recovery stats are a way to show how lucky a team is. Stripping the football is a skill, but picking up a the cone shaped ball that bounces weird ways isn't. On offense, the Colts recovered 11 out of 18 fumbles (61%) and 7 out of 10 (70%) on the other side of the ball. Both of these numbers tend to change from year to year, and their high recovery rate is not sustainable.
Andrew Luck also sold his soul to the devil with regard to turnovers. FO has another cool stat called adjusted interception rate. They add dropped interceptions to the season total and subtract INT that occurred because the ball was tipped at the line or picks that were the result of the ball being flung as far as possible at the end of a half. Last season, Andrew Luck led the league with 14 dropped interceptions. When removing the other interceptions, he had an adjusted interception total of 30. Add this information to the Colts' already terrible -12 turnover differential and viola! You have a team that turned the ball over less than it should have and could even be worse next season when they should be less fortunate.
All of this information points to two truths: The 2012 Colts had an army of Sprites from Heroes of Might and Magic on the sideline who bathed the players in good fortune instead of Gatorade. And that Indy is going to win less football teams this year than they did last season. Their W-L record is different than their on-field play indicated and the team shined in facets of the game where they had no control over the outcome. As a result, their play will falter in 2013.
Offseason & Draft
For the Colts to somehow circumvent their inevitable decline, they needed an incredible offseason. Their moves this summer are below.
Additions: QB Matt Hasselbeck, FB Stanley Havili, WR Darrius Heyward-bey, OT Gosder Cherilus, G Donald Thomas, DE/DT Ricky Jean-Francois, NT Aubrayo Franklin, DE/OLB Erik Walden, ILB Kelvin Sheppard, CB Greg Toler, S LaRon Landry.
Losses: QB Drew Stanton, WR Donnie Avery, WR Austin Collie, OT Winston Justice, G Seth Olsen, C A.Q. Shipley, DE Clifton Geathers, DT Antonio Johnson, DE/OLB Dwight Freeney, DE/OLB Jerry Hughes, ILB Moise Fokou, CB Jerraud Powers, S Tom Zbikowski
Draft: 1st-Bjoern Werner, DE 3rd-Hugh Thornton, G 4th-Khaled Holmes, C 5th-Montori Hughes, DT 6th-John Boyett, SS 7th-Kerwynn Williams, RB 7th-Justice Cunningham, TE
The Colts had a high amount of turnover this offseason, which is usually surprising for a playoff team. They had to do so because of the poor defense they had last season (which had to add different personnel for the 3-4 they started running last year) and their atrocious offensive line play. The problem with their offseason was not who they added this offseason, but the egregious contracts they gave out to marginal players. Let's look at some of these contracts: LaRon Landry: 4 years, $24 million, Gosder Cherilus: 5 years, $34.5 million, Ricky Jean-Francois: 4 years, $22 million. Erik Walden: 4 years, $16 million. Indy entered the offseason with $42.7 million in spending money and suffocated their flexibility by handing out money like candy on Halloween night. They would have been better off if they hung back, waited and found players who can deliver the same amount of performance for cheaper. Instead, they went all out during the first few days of free agency when the market is at its most expensive level.
Their draft was very Texans-like. They took a defensive lineman in the first round and then went to plug their biggest need, offensive line, by drafting Hugh Thornton and Khaled Holmes. Both of those offensive linemen will have a chance to get playing time this upcoming season. I liked the Werner pick, but it will be interesting to see how long it will take for him to get used to playing standing up as he moves from DE in college to a 3-4 OLB. The technique is different and sometimes it is tough for guys to readjust. They'll need Werner to bring it right when Week One starts since the Colts only had 32 sacks last season (good for 23rd in the league).
For the Colts to slam the brakes, turn the car around and maneuver out of the grips of regression, they will need much better offensive line play. Last season, Luck was sacked 41 times (28th in the league) and was knocked down 83 times. Yet he was still able to escape injury and play every snap for the Colts last season. Part of it is Luck's fault for holding the ball too long (something rookie QBs are known to do) and the ridiculous amount of times they threw the ball (628 times, 6th most in the NFL). This also plays in to the 24 interceptions Luck threw that averaged out to an interception rate of 2.87%.
On the running side of the equation, Indy averaged 3.8 yards a carry (26th in the league). The small number was a result of their inability to run up the middle. The Colts averaged 3.54 yards when running behind the guard and center, which ranked 30th in the league. If the Colts' offensive line is able to improve this season thanks to Anthony Costanzo finding truth in the desert and the acquisitions of Cherilus, the rookies, and Donald Thomas, the Luck-led offense that was the 18th ranked scoring offense (387 points scored) will be even better this year.
The Colts' offseason was spent throwing all of their money at needs. At first glance, they did a decent job of doing that. However, they executed poorly and killed their cap room by paying too much money for marginal players. For Indy to stop the impending downfall, they would have had to have an incredible offseason. They did not. They covered their needs with average players they paid too much for.
Last year was a tense, bust-out-every-superstition-you-have-so-the-Colts-win-this-close-game for the poor, depressed fan base in Indy after they finally had a terrible season of football to watch in 2011. Now everyone loves football again as their new Great Leader, Andrew Luck, will win hundreds of games and have legendary playoff performances in the future.
All that is great, but it is not happening this year. 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.
All stats provided by the FOA (just buy it before the season starts; Rivers needs a new pair of shoes) and Pro Football Reference.