With training camps starting very soon, it's time to start our team-by-team season previews, and we're getting a little geekier this year with help from our friends at Football Outsiders, whose FO Almanac is required reading for all hardcore football fans. Most of the advanced stats in our previews come from FO, and we thank them kindly.
We start our previews with the Indianapolis Colts, who ... well, let's just say that things didn't go well in 2011. Peyton Manning was first lost for the entire year, and then gone to Denver. That wasn't the primary problem, though, because first-overall pick Andrew Luck should be a star in the NFL barring something really weird happening. No, the real trouble in Indy is that a series of bad drafts and general front office malaise leaves this formerly great franchise in the throes of perhaps the biggest rebuild in the NFL in 2012 and beyond. How did things get so bad, and where do the Colts go from here?
Here are five things to know about the 2012 Indianapolis Colts.
2011 Team Efficiency: 26th in offense, 27th in defense, 31st in special teams
2011 Offensive Efficiency: 27th in passing, 22nd in rushing
2011 Defensive Efficiency: 27th against the pass, 23rd against the run
1. For the first time in years, formation diversity is the order of the day.
Through the era of Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy (and, sure ... Jim Caldwell), the Colts were the least formation-diverse team in the NFL. Each year, they led the league, or came close to doing so, in three-wide/single-back offensive sets, and 4-3 alignments that allowed them to play different variations of Dungy's favored cover-2 and Tampa-2 defenses. That is about to change in a major way on both sides of the ball. If you're wondering what Andrew Luck will look like in the "Colts offense," fear not. The only place the Colts offense you're used to will exist is in Denver, where Peyton Manning will use it as a basic shell in which to pour his football brilliance. New offensive coordinator Bruce Arians comes from Pittsburgh, and you can expect to see Steelers Central in the same way the Arizona Cardinals' offense became Steelers West when Ken Whisenhunt headed out to the Valley of the Sun.
Even without Manning on the field in 2011, the Colts stuck with what had worked before, and it sure didn't this time. Their anemic non-Manning offense went with "11" personnel (one tight end and one running back) 62 percent of the time, making them the only NFL team to go with a particular personnel grouping more than 60 percent of the time last year. They also used the standard 4-3-4 formation more than any other team used any other defensive formation, rushed just four defenders 82.4 percent of the time (by far the most in the league), almost never went with a nickel defense, zone-blitzed on just a few plays, and got very few quarterback sacks from linebackers or defensive backs. The offense almost never went with four or more receivers, or with an empty backfield ... and all these things are about to change.
The offense Luck will be running features certain spread concepts -- heavy shotgun, three-step drops, X-iso concepts against slanted coverage, and slip screens -- along with as many trips and bunch formations as any team in the NFL. The Steelers also ran out of bunch more than any other team as a matter of course under Arians (and did so pretty effectively), so expect to see that as well. Arians loves formations in which at least two tight ends are on the field, which explains why the Colts selected two tight ends in the draft with the two picks after Luck -- Luck's teammate Coby Fleener in the second round, and Clemson's Dwayne Allen in the third. Expect to see interesting contrasts between five wide receiver formations, and old-school smashmouth ideas with interesting tighter personnel packages.
On defense, you can throw out all that stodgy stuff. New head coach Chuck Pagano comes from the Baltimore Ravens, who run hybrid concepts as well as anyone. Like most defenses these days, the Ravens aren't tied to a particular personnel package, and the lines between 3-4 and 4-3 fronts are blurring more and more every year. Expect to see a lot of hybrid fronts, far more blitzing (traditional and zone), and much more creativity with the back seven. In other words, welcome to the new millennium, guys!
2. They'll pay the price for Bill Polian's decline.
Look -- we understand that Polian is one of the greatest executives in NFL history, as he'd be the first to say. In his time, Polian pointed three different franchises to glory -- the K-Gun Buffalo Bills, the expansion Carolina Panthers, and these Colts more than a decade ago. But the Colts didn't go 2-14 in 2012 because Peyton Manning wasn't there -- when the Patriots can go 11-5 without Tom Brady as they did in 2008, the loss of your perfect quarterback is no longer an acceptable excuse for abject failure. Over the last five seasons, Polian either lost his fastball, or let son Chris make too many personnel decisions, or was reading Twilight books when he should have been watching linebacker cut-ups, but the results have not been pretty. Polian (or whoever) gained precious little in the way of elite starting talent in the last five drafts, didn't spackle well enough in free agency, and allowed far too many positions to atrophy.
As a result, the Colts team Andrew Luck is taking over in 2012 looks a lot like the one Peyton Manning took over in 1998 -- a lot of young players and a whole bunch of uncertainty. Per Football Outsiders, the Colts go into this season with as many as 13 players under the age of 27 with projected significant or starting roles. They had 12 such players in Manning's first year, but that group included Manning, Marshall Faulk, Marvin Harrison, Marcus Pollard and Bertrand Berry. The new kids, outside of Luck and Fleener, are tougher to project.
3. Last year, the offense was far away, and without a clue.
In 2011, the Colts finished first (or, should we say, last) in two very important offensive categories: Starting field position (they started their average drives 76.3 yards away from the end zone), and percentage of three-and-outs (they failed to advance in an astonishing 32.8 percent of their drives). So, yeah ... nowhere to go but up. It will help to get safety Joe LeFeged out as the return man -- he averaged 18.6 yards per kick return, 3 yards lower than any other qualifying NFL player.
4. Andrew Luck is more athletic than you think ... and he'll need to be.
The common perception of Luck is that he's a pocket passer, and while he excels in that department, he's also a tremendous athlete -- functionally mobile in rollout, boot-action and designed runs. He'll need to be elusive behind an offensive line that is still putting things together. Arians' offense in Pittsburgh featured a lot of rollouts for Ben Roethlisberger, both as designed parts of the playbook and out of necessity when protections broke down.
5. The "build from the studs" process will take some time.
As we mentioned before, Bill Polian had a huge percentage of unspectacular picks -- or outright whiffs -- in his last five drafts from 2007 through 2011. No NFL team can rebound from that right away, and though the Colts now have a dynamic group of personnel people from general manager Ryan Grigson on down, the relative lack of young, elite players will hurt for a while. You should have more than Jerraud Powers and a bunch of "maybes" after half a decade, even if your won-loss records dictate that you'll be drafting late in every first round.
In a way, Polian did the Colts the ultimate favor in his departure with the worst record needed for the Luck pick, just as he was gifted when he showed up in Indy in 1997, and was able to get Peyton Manning with the first-overall selection a year later. The best the Colts can hope for in the first year of a new regime is probably what happened to the Carolina Panthers last season -- the first-overall pick providing the worst offense in the game with a supercharged upgrade, and everyone on the roster responding in kind. Wins will be hard to come by for a while, but as long as they're set at the most important position, improvement should happen soon enough.