Credit Where It Is Due
The Colts finished last season 8-8, interrupting a 3-year string of 11-5 seasons and playoffs since the arrival of Head Coach Chuck Pagano and QB Andrew Luck. Despite the perfectly average record, finishing .500 has to be considered a remarkable feat given the team's statistical crappiness on both offense and defense.
The latest incarnation of the Colts appears to be a case of deja vue all over again. A team that has a lot of holes on the roster outside of the passing game having those holes covered by a superb QB. (The same could be said of a team that we are all know well.) Once the league figured out that Luck's shoulder really was messed up last season and defended accordingly, 2015 went downhill quicker than Lindsey Vonn at Aspen. Luck ending up on IR with a lacerated kidney was simply the capper on a buffet of mediocre.
The Colts finished in the lower quartile of both points scored (24th) and points allowed (25th). Amid rumors of acrimony last season between Pagano and GM Ryan Grigson, it looked as though things might get explosive around Lucas Oil Field Stadium in the offseason. Cooler heads (rumor has it that the primary cooler head belonged to Jim Irsay) prevailed and that is probably good for the Colts.
The season point differential of -75 suggests a 5-11 or 6-10 record, which means that the team actually overachieved. The acrimony between coach and GM was somehow resolved with Pagano getting a 4 year extension and Grigson getting re-upped for 3. The Andre Johnson experiment was ended. Greg Manusky was shown the door and Ted Monachino was brought in as DC. The "interim" tag was dropped from Rob Chudzinski (Pep Hamilton was fired from his OC job halfway through the 2015 season).
Coaching and front office in order, the team tried to put some pieces around Luck for 2016. That was a mixed bag.
Free Agency didn't work out too well for the Colts. They lost a starting Safety (Dwight Lowery), and one of their TE's (Coby Fleener). The worst FA loss was Jerrell Freeman, an excellent run-stuffing ILB. They gained a starting CB (Patrick Robinson) and 2 fill-in RB's (Robert Turbin and Jordan Todman). Overall, free agency probably hurt the team more than it helped. The loss of Freeman in particular could be bad news to a team that has had issues stopping a rushing offense for what seems like forever.
The draft did provide some help though. A new starting center (Ryan Kelly, Alabama) was taken in the first round, followed by Safety TJ Green and Right Tackle Le'Raven Clark. The team also picked up some DL beef in the 4th round with Hassan Ridgeway and turned their other 4th rounder into LB Antonio Morrison.
Luck has a new starting Center to look forward to and perhaps a new RT if Clark can beat out Joe Reitz and Denzelle Good. Morrison may work his way past Nate Irving and (DJ Fluker victim) Sio Moore to play next to D'Qwell Jackson at inside backer. TJ Green will also get a shot and Ridgeway will join a defensive line rotation that is actually pretty good and getting better.
Luck returns from his shoulder and kidney damage to an AFC South that seems to be improving. Although Luck is skilled (and quite wealthy after signing his extension in June), his supporting cast is shaky.
The receivers go from the excellent (and always double covered) TY Hilton to an average Dante Moncrief, to an unproven Phillip Dorsett. The running game does not offer much (gee, that sounds familiar), considering that Frank Gore is two years past the NFL RB expiration date of 30 years old and the other members of the committee (Turbin and Todman) are career back-ups. His line will be quite young and with the reputation of being a finesse unit and not a group of powerful mashers.
Defensively, they have some nice young talent on the D-line, good corners, and questions at safety (hmmm, that sounds familiar). Their LB's though... They may be the worst group in pro football. Jackson is getting old, Irving has never been that good, and the outside backers of Erik Walden and Trent Cole may provide the worst pass rush ability in the league.
With the improvement in their division and finishing second in the AFC south last year, their schedule looks fairly tough. They have the NFC North, AFC West, their division games, plus games against the Steelers and Jets. Predictions for their 2016 campaign range from 6-11 (probably too low) to 12-4 (probably too high). Until the team can show some balance in the offense, get a better pass rush, and have a receiving threat other than Hilton, this looks like a 9-7 team, even with a healthy Andrew Luck.
Outlook Against The Chargers
This will be the 2nd week in a row that the Chargers will face a fairly potent offense and a defense with questions (if not outright holes) in several sub-units. Again, Verrett's matchup, this one against Hilton, should be worth the price of admission right there. Luck is athletic, smart, accurate, and a good tactician. If healthy, he can will his own team to victory when little else is going the Colts way. Until his injury marred 2015, he has also owned Lucas Oil Stadium. The pass rush and containing Luck (who can run effectively) will be the key to winning this game.
Defensively, they will present opportunities for the Bolts offense to have a great day. The Colt front 3 is decent, but there is not much in the LB corps and the safety position looks really shaky. Harry Anderson, a pleasant surprise as a rookie, had off-season knee surgery and may still be trying to get into game shape for this contest. This should be a game in which Gates, Henry, Woodhead and whomever is playing slot WR for the Bolts can get opportunities. If the Chargers rediscover running outside the tackles in training camp, there may be opportunity there, too.
The Chargers did catch a break on the schedule. Despite the eastern time zone for Indiana, the game will start at 1:25 pm San Diego time, so the team will not have to battle their own internal clocks in addition to the home team. (That situation happens more than once in 2016.)
Prediction: Drawing the Colts at home, even with the late afternoon start, was unfortunate. Andrew Luck has been difficult to beat at home when he is healthy. Indianapolis should be beatable, but I see this match up and conclude that it will be a game squandered by a bad coaching decision, defensive lapse, or an ill-timed turnover. With the teams so evenly matched and having many of the same questions about their roster, it could come down to coaching ability. Pagano's is greater than McCoy's. Colts win in what should be another fun game to watch, but I think this loss will be by less than a TD.