The Indianapolis Colts season was not one to be remembered by most, but it is still good to sit back and reflect on what went down over the 2022 campaign.
The offseason is a chance for the franchise to review what went right and what went wrong in a year they had expectations to still be playing football at the end of January.
Whether it was good or bad, Indy had its moments in the past season. Here are the five biggest surprises of 2022:
Hiring Jeff Saturday as the interim head coach
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I could mention the firing of Frank Reich as a surprise for the Colts but there was a level of thought by most that if the season didn’t go as expected then he could be let go. The timing of his termination was somewhat surprising but it was the move that followed that turned the NFL upside down on a Monday afternoon in November.
Jim Irsay elected to offer the former center of his team the interim head coaching job. The pitchforks came out for Irsay when this was announced. People ridiculed the hire because of Saturday’s lack of coaching experience and that it was a slap into the face for coaches that are still fighting for a shot to lead a team.
Despite having Gus Bradley and Bubba Ventrone on staff that should’ve gotten the gig with their resumes, it was Saturday, a man who Irsay stated that he had the belief that he could be the long-term answer as the head coach of his franchise.
For one small moment of the season, Irsay looked smart as Indianapolis would beat the Las Vegas Raiders in his coaching debut. But that was short-lived with the Colts going on to lose seven straight games to close out the year while blowing several fourth-quarter leads, including giving up the largest comeback in NFL history.
Now we are in the waiting moment to see if Irsay sticks with Saturday or hires an up-and-coming coach in the coming weeks.
Benching of Matt Ryan
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One of the reasons that most thought the Colts could finally end the drought of not winning the AFC South was that they brought in some stability at the quarterback decisions. That ended up being a complete 180 with Matt Ryan having one of the worst stretches of his long NFL career.
Jim Irsay appeared to have enough of his new quarterback after getting swept by the divisional rivals, Tennessee Titans. The reasons for the move were understandable even though the owner overstepped his head coach to pull Ryan out of the starting lineup.
At that point of the season, Ryan led the league with the most giveaways. He fumbled the ball 11 times and had nine interceptions in seven games. The offense was also only averaging 16.1 points per game. Even with the struggles from Ryan, the Colts were 3-3-1 at that point of the year and still in the thick of things to potentially turn things around.
But with the owner wanting to see what he had in Sam Ehlinger, Ryan was headed to the sidelines. The problem was, the offensive issues weren’t all on the veteran quarterback. The offensive line was putrid and Jonathan Taylor was dealing with his ankle injury. This is why it didn’t get any better with Ehlinger as the starter.
Ryan would get his job back just weeks later when Jeff Saturday took over the team but would end up getting benched for the final three weeks of the year once the team was officially out of the playoff race. The Matt Ryan era was short-lived for Indianapolis.
Linebackers step up without Shaquille Leonard
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Let’s take a look at something positive that was surprising for the Colts. One thing was the play of the linebacker group without their leader in the unit. There was a slight worry about how the middle of the defense would be without Shaquille Leonard not in the lineup but Zaire Franklin, Bobby Okereke, and E.J. Speed stepped up for the team and delivered throughout the season.
Franklin put together the best season of his five-year career. The most tackles he had in a season prior to 2022 was 40. With Leonard out of the lineup, he finished with 167 tackles which broke Leonard’s franchise record. He also had 12 TFLs, six QB hits, three sacks, six pass deflections, and forced two fumbles.
He wasn’t the only one that put together the best season of his career. Okereke also had his best performance as a pro in his fourth year in the NFL. He finished with a career-high in tackles with 151 (99 solo). Okereke also had six tackles for loss, five pass deflections, two fumble recoveries, and forced two fumbles.
While Franklin and Okereke got their recognition, Speed was also doing his unsung work for the defense. He also had his best season in his four-year career. Speed finished with 63 tackles (37 solo), seven TFLs, one QB hit, one sack, two pass deflections, and forced two fumbles.
Okereke and Speed are set to hit free agency so with the Colts having money invested in Leonard and Franklin, this was likely the last time this group was together. The trio of linebackers should be proud of their individual efforts in 2022.
Rodney McLeod & Rodney Thomas II as a safety tandem
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Way back in the preseason, there was some hype surrounding the rookie safety, Nick Cross, and he ended up beating out Rodney McLeod for the safety spot alongside Julian Blackmon. That only lasted for a game and a half with McLeod getting more playing time in Week 2 and then taking over as the starter for the rest of the season for Cross.
The veteran safety was a cog in the Colts’ defense that helped hold the unit together throughout the season. McLeod always seemed to be around the ball making plays for the team. His 96 tackles (59 solo) were the most in his 11-year career and also had a high with eight tackles for loss. McLeod also finished the year with eight pass deflections, two interceptions, and a fumble recovery.
Then there was the surprise contributor of the season, Rodney Thomas II. The final selection for the Colts in the 2022 NFL draft in the seventh round ended up being a vital piece of the secondary. The rookie safety was thought to play as a special teamer in a backup role took advantage of his opportunity when Julian Blackmon suffered an injury.
Thomas II impressed the coaching staff so much that when Blackmon returned, the two safeties split snaps throughout the games. Thomas II ended up starting in 10 games in his first year as a pro. He finished with 52 tackles (34 solo), six pass deflections, and led the team with four interceptions.
McLeod is set to hit free agency so there is a question if the front office will attempt to bring him back but they appear to have found something in Thomas II. Chris Ballard may elect to just roll with the young trio of Thomas II, Blackmon, and Cross for the 2023 season.
League Worst Turnover Differential
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As I alluded to with the Matt Ryan benching, one of the issues that plagued the Colts in 2022 was their inability to protect the ball. The offense had 34 giveaways this season compared to the 19 giveaways in 2021. 20 of the 34 were interceptions and the offense lost 14 fumbles.
After having the second most forced turnovers (33) in 2021, the Indy defense finished with 21 takeaways in 2022. That is the eighth-lowest mark across the NFL. That could be in part due to not having the turnover king in the lineup with Shaquille Leonard basically missing the entire year.
The -13 turnover differential was the worst in the league. This is an issue that can be quickly fixed with a good offseason for the Colts. In 2021, the Jacksonville Jaguars had the league worse, with a -20 turnover differential, and just one year later they won the AFC South and found themselves playing in the divisional round.
There are a number of things that Indianapolis will need to address with their offense in the leadup to the 2023 season but protecting the ball has to be high on their list as they build up for the next year’s opening game.