The date is September 8, 2011. Peyton Manning is officially ruled out of Week 1 with his now-infamous neck injury, and the Colts go on to fall 34-7 to the Texans. We thought Kerry Collins was going to be needed for just one or two games, that Manning would return and save our season. But as we now know, Manning would miss the entire 2011 season and Indianapolis would lose their first 13 games en route to a 2-14 record and the 1st overall pick, which they would use on Andrew Luck. They would also wait the entire season to before firing head coach Jim Caldwell and blowing up the program.
Fast forward six years. Andrew Luck may miss Week 1 versus the Rams (read: Luck is going to miss Week 1 versus the Rams). Head coach Chuck Pagano has been on the hot seat seemingly since arriving in Indy, but the dial has been cranked up to 10 the past 18 months. They are in a division getting better by the year while they seem to be standing still, and in the NFL if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. But is Indianapolis repeating 2011? Obviously, the Colts have already accepted a new era with the firing of Ryan Grigson, and it is apparently unlikely Luck’s shoulder costs him more than three games (knock on wood), but let’s look at this from a few angles.
1. Chuck Pagano Was Brought Back
According to FootballPerspective.com, a little more than half the time a new GM is hired they bring in a new head coach of their choosing. So Chris Ballard coming in and having to work with Chuck Pagano is not exactly unheard of. However what is odd is that Irsay, who was known to favor Ryan Grigson over Pagano despite fans and players vocally calling for the opposite (when they weren’t calling for both their heads on a pike), fired Grigson but not Pagano. By now we know what Chuck Pagano is, and more importantly, we know what he isn’t. He is a players’ coach, guys love playing for him and he gives interesting soundbites (“chopping wood!”), but he can’t gameplan or make tough calls for crap and the Colts often look undisciplined.
At the end of the day, coaches that players love to play under (Rex Ryan) don’t win rings while the ones who may yell and scream and/or cut you for muffing one punt (Bill Belichick) win a half dozen. It makes sense that if Irsay and Ballard knew this season was a wash they would let it ride out under Pagano because it will keep a little bit of familiarity in the building and ease everyone into 2018 when they truly want to start contending. Plus they knew Luck was going to likely miss time; no use implementing a new coach and system with you star QB not running it.
2. No Backup QBs Signed
Either Scott Tolzien or Stephen Morris will be under center next Sunday in Los Angeles if Luck can’t play (and, again, Luck isn’t playing). Those two have a combined nine career games played, two TDs and 7 INTs (and all those stats belong to Tolzien, Morris has never thrown an NFL pass). Normally, as with 2011, a team will bring in an experienced QB to fill the void and try to ease the pain when a starter goes down early in the year. The Colts have stuck with a guy who has proven he is not anything more than an average backup and an untested rookie. The IndyStar’s Gregg Doyel called Pagano everything short of a liar after Chuck said he has yet to see Andrew Luck throw a football this offseason and he tries to “stay in his lane.”
Trigger Warning: I am about to bring up Kaepernick
I don’t buy into the “Kaepernick is the 17th best-rated passer in the league and only threw a handful of picks last season” because the tape doesn’t lie: the man rapidly declined once teams figured him out. But still. A situation like the Colts seems perfect for both parties. He can come in and possibly save a season and winning cures all. Even in a red state like Indiana, most fans would get over their initial angry Twitter rants and threats to boycotts if Kaepernick was brought in and won even two out of four games in Luck’s absence. Then we know we have a solid backup if Luck does go down later on. But Irsay listened to his season ticket holders (Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report mentioned that the Colts had briefly flirted with the idea of kicking the tires on Kaep) and decided he wasn’t worth the press/social media headache. Also, Kaep gives the Colts a better chance to win than Scott Tolzien, and if they are considering this season lost, then that’s something Irsay and Ballard couldn’t tolerate.
3. Strong 2018 Draft Class
Winning the meaningless game in Week 17 against the Jags last season cost the Colts about four spots in the 2017 NFL Draft. Best believe Ballard knows that. The Colts obviously aren’t going to contend for a Top five pick but the 2018 draft class has a lot of great defensive and OL talent, and the more the Colts lose in 2017 the more they’ll win in 2018, ‘19 and ‘20. Names like Tarvarus McFadden (CB, Florida State), Tyquan Lewis (DE, Ohio State) and Mike McGlinchey (OL, Notre Dame) probably all keep Chris Ballard and his perfectly-chiseled chin up at night with giddiness and the less competitive Indianapolis is in 2017, the better his chance of getting one of these guys becomes.
The Colts aren’t tanking in the sense that they are going to start bad players and intentionally throw games; these aren’t the “Major League” Indians, the 2010-2017 “Trust the Process” Philadelphia 76ers or the 2011 Colts. But it is hard to believe that based on some of the free agent signings, and lack of movement in the quarterback department despite Luck’s clear injury, that Ballard is not using this season to scout both current talent on the roster and potential young head coach candidates for 2018. Unless the Colts somehow start 1-6, Chuck Pagano should last the entire season before promptly being fired on Black Monday, and if I were a betting man I would say Andrew Luck starts 12 games this year and throws for around 3,100 yards and 25 TDs. But this season is all about seeing if the likes of Vontae Davis are worth being kept around and giving rookies like Marlon Mack and Hooker time to develop behind veterans.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Luck pulls a Brady, returns from his mini-vacation and leads the Colts to the playoffs. Perhaps Chuck Pagano creates master game plans and finally beats the Steelers instead of losing by 30, and Mack turns into the next great late-round RB steal while Hooker morphs into the reincarnation of Ed Reed.
Or maybe I’ll take out my Madden disc, turn off my Xbox and let reality hit me like the #ColtsForged train that it is.