That the Indianapolis Colts won last night against the Jacksonville Jaguars isn't surprising. How they did it is. This young team continues to defy the limited expectations that were placed upon them. At 6-3, the Colts have tripled their win output from 2011. I optimistically said that they would win seven games this season when the schedule came out. I was called a "homer" and accused of looking through blue and white lenses. Now seven wins would be a disappointment.
How has this happened? Yes, the schedule has been relatively easy because of last year's 2-14 finish and the AFC is perceptibly down this year in quality. Yet the Bills, Browns and Chiefs are all playing last place schedules too. The Colts have as many wins as those three combined. It's more than just the schedule. The Colts have bucked several trends that were supposed to limit them in their recovery:
Jim Irsay fired a future Hall of Famer in Bill Polian and replaced him with Ryan Grigson, who was more worried about pimples than personnel while Polian was assembling the great Bills teams in Buffalo. Grigson has responded with one of the most amazing successful roster overhauls in NFL history.
Irsay and Grigson decided on Chuck Pagano to lead this ragtag collection of young might-be's and older outcasts from other NFL teams. Pagano had never been a head coach at any level before, pro, high school or college. Of course, Pagano is now battling something far more serious than football and Bruce Arians is at the helm. But Arians head coaching experience prior to being thrown into the NFL fire was only slightly better than Pagano's, having guided Temple to a 21-45 record nearly 30 years ago.
Seven other NFL teams began 2012 with new coaches. None of them have winning records at this point.
Rookies in key positions
In the NFL, experience means a lot. The learning curve from the college game to the pro game is steep and fast. For that reason, teams that start rookies at key positions usually don't fare too well. Sure, you can get away with it if you're stocked with veterans around a rookie, like Pittsburgh did in Ben Roethlisberger's rookie year when they went 15-1. But Bruce Arians, who was on the staff of that Steelers team, was quick to point out that the Steelers' veteran experience everywhere else put Ben in a position where all he had to do was hand off most of the time. Even in the Super Bowl, the game was never placed on Big Ben's shoulders. Those burdens were carried by Jerome Bettis running behind a veteran offensive line and an All-Pro defense.
Andrew Luck hasn't had that luxury. Outside of Reggie Wayne, he's had no veteran help with the offense. With Austin Collie lost for the season and Donald Brown limited because of injury, most of the time Luck has taken the field alongside fellow rookies Vick Ballard at running back, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen at tight end and TY Hilton and LaVonn Brazill at wide receiver. Throw in an offensive line that included four new starters (with Joe Reitz injured most of the first half of the season) and you've got a recipe for disaster, not offensive firepower.
Peyton Manning had Marshall Faulk, Marvin Harrison and an experienced offensive line in front of him his rookie season. He won three games.
Lack of quality depth
When the Colts decided to gut their roster, it wasn't just the loss of Manning, Garcon, Addai and Clark that needed to be addressed. It was the loss of Gary Brackett, Ernie Sims, and the other 28 members of the 53 man Colts' roster who were let go after 2011 that needed to be replaced.
NFL players don't grow on trees. It takes years of solid drafting and shrewd salary cap management to build a winning NFL football team. Ryan Grigson created a now 6-3 football team in one draft and one off season in which he had almost no salary cap space.
Grigson and the Colts' scouts hit a home run in their first draft. Of the 10 players selected, five are starting now, LaVonn Brazill is a key reserve and special teams player and Josh Chapman may be starting before the season is out if reports on his injury recovery are to be believed.
Additionally, Grigson assembled some serviceable players out of waiver wire cast-offs and low-budget free agents. You think the Eagles wouldn't want to have Winston Justice back on their offensive line about now? He plucked Jerrell Freeman out of the CFL and got Mike McGlynn and his valuable versatility for a song after the Bengals cut him.
The Colts shouldn't be where they are right now. Even the most optimistic fan didn't see them at 6-3 heading into next week's showdown in New England. Perhaps we should just remain quiet and let these young Colts continue to believe that they're better than they really are. It seems to be working so far.
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