It’s hard to imagine a scenario where a three-game winning streak to close out the regular season is considered a bad thing but here we are, three days away from the finale of the worst Indianapolis Colts season in at least 13 years with the notion of a third straight win looming ominously above the city like the Ghost of Football Future.
Colts fans have been giddy about the prospect of a No. 1 draft pick ever since quarterback Peyton Manning was sidelined back in September and, for 14 consecutive weeks thereafter, all evidence seemed to suggest that dream would be realized with ease.
And then something strange happened.
The barely competitive 0-13 Colts suddenly started winning games—two in a row, in fact—and in doing so very nearly negated all the humiliating leverage they’d accumulated toward receiving that franchise-saving top overall pick all season long.
As the 16th and final game of the 2011 season approaches, Colts fans everywhere are now sweating that very question, knowing full well that what may initially appear as little more than just a meaningless winter matchup between two familiar opponents whose seasons are already over is actually a defining moment for this franchise, its future and many of its best-known personalities.
Here’s a look at how Sunday’s outcome could steer the fate of Indianapolis for years to come and, more importantly, what to expect if it does.
All the interest surrounding Sunday’s game will be focused on a single player who isn’t even attending.
As a matter of fact, he isn’t even in the NFL yet.
His name is Andrew Luck, and he’s the grand prize waiting for which team earns the distinction of being the worst in the league this season.
If you’ve been living on the moon for the last year-and-a-half, you might not have heard that Luck, the junior quarterback out of Stanford who finished second in voting for the Heisman trophy in 2010 and 2011, is the most hyped NFL prospect in at least a decade.
After a stellar 2010 season in which he completed over 70 percent of his passes and threw for over 3,300 yards and 32 touchdowns (the latter of which broke a school record previously held by John Elway), Luck was widely expected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft as a sophomore.
Being the scholarly pupil that he is, however (a former co-valedictorian, Luck majored in both architectural design and engineering), Luck decided to stay another year in order to finish his degree and now, one year and several more all-time Stanford records later, he’s again considered the consensus No. 1 pick for the NFL draft heading into this offseason.
There are no sure things when it comes to drafting college football players into the NFL, but if there were, Andrew Luck would be exhibit A.
From strength and intelligence to size, versatility and experience, Luck just seems to have it all. To all the scouts and analysts who’ve been watching him like hawks for virtually a whole year straight now, they’ve never seen anything quite like him (at one point, for example, USC coach Lane Kiffin practically called Luck the best college quarterback, well, ever).
Peyton Manning is getting old, and the transition to a new era of Colts football will have to start soon.
If the Colts lose on Sunday, Luck is theirs to draft and the future becomes crystal clear.
If they win, however, Luck will either be joining some other team or would only come to Indianapolis at a much steeper cost, and their journey back to elite status will only become that much harder to envision.
Put it all together and you have to figure the direction of this franchise for the entire next decade or so will probably be decided in some fashion by late afternoon this Sunday.
How’s that for spicing up an otherwise insignificant Week 17 meeting between two non-playoff teams who both have double-digit losses this season and practically nothing to play for?
If the Colts beat the Jags, chances are they’ll be drafting No. 2 at best next spring, and with such a steep drop off between Andrew Luck and the rest of the 2012 class, that’s not a position they want to be in.
If Luck falls to another team, the Colts organization has expressed no interest in any other quarterback prospects so far. While that could obviously change very easily between now and April, at this point it doesn’t look like it’d be worth cashing in a pick that high for any quarterback not named Andrew Luck, especially not if Peyton Manning can return next season like he’s expected to do.
If the Colts don’t get Luck, their best bet is to stockpile as much talent as they can to try and win now, hoping that the veteran All-Pro quarterback some people seem to have completely forgotten is still on their roster is still as good as he used to be when the 2012 season kicks off.
It’s more a testament to Luck than anything else, as the young quarterback is such a rare prospect he’s worth accelerating Indy’s inevitable rebuilding process if it's able to snag him now, but if he isn’t available, the Colts will probably delay that process as least one more season while the quarterback of the present is still on their roster and still capable of winning games for them right now.
While that strategy may pay off in the short term, it still leaves plenty of questions about the future of this team unanswered, and while that might not make much of a difference now, it definitely will when Manning finally hangs up his cleats and this team is forced to find his replacement, ready or not.
Sunday’s outcome very well may end determining whether that rebuilding process begins next season or at some point thereafter, then, and it’s therefore pretty safe to assume that everyone from Manning to Luck and everyone in between will be watching very closely with that very thought in mind.
Sunday’s game against the Jaguars will be the last opportunity for Colts players to showcase their skills before the offseason begins and, based on the way this season has unfolded, every last one of them would be wise to take advantage of it if they want to stay on this team moving forward.
Major offseason changes are definitely in the works after the Colts lost 13 consecutive games earlier this year, and if the team’s current roster was evaluated solely on its performance over the last 16 weeks, there’s a good chance none of these guys would be asked to return next season.
It’s an especially important game for several key veterans on this team, too, including but not limited to Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis and Jeff Saturday, each of whom have been standout contributors to this team for several years and each of whom are set to become unrestricted free agents in 2012.
All three of them are former Pro Bowlers (Wayne and Saturday have both been All-Pros, too), all three are Super Bowl champions and all three of them are now over the age of 30, which could spell trouble for a franchise so clearly in need of a fresh start after hitting rock bottom this season.
Sunday’s contest could go a long way in gauging the value of all three of them, which should in turn determine if and for how long they all remain in Indianapolis beyond this year.
Will their efforts be convincing enough to secure a new deal?
Or perhaps so convincing another team decides to try and lure them away?
We all should have a better idea come Sunday.
Indianapolis hasn’t had a reliable rushing attack since Edgerrin James took the money and ran back in 2006.
Their search for a viable replacement has so far brought in Joseph Addai (a first-round pick in 2006), Donald Brown (first-rounder in ’09) and Delone Carter (fourth-rounder in ’11) but has yet to provide any evidence the backfield is more stable today than it was when Edge first split.
James averaged 96 yards per game and 1,300 yards per season as the Colts’ feature back from 1999 to 2005.
None of the Florida native’s successors have sustained production anywhere near that level, with Addai’s respective averages of 57.6 and 739 the closest they’ve come so far.
Sunday could prove to be a turning point in that process, however, as Indy’s confidence is quickly shifting away from Addai and toward Brown with every passing week.
Brown exploded for over 160 yards and the game-winning touchdown on Dec. 18 against the Titans (the only game-winning touchdown Indy had scored all season until that point) and has been outplaying Addai virtually all season long. The third-year back out of Connecticut has more yards, carries, touchdowns and a higher yards-per-carry average than Addai, who was just re-signed to a three-year deal with the Colts back in July and has hardly lived up his starting role ever since.
Could one more solid performance be the one that finally wrangles that starting job away from the habitually injured Addai moving forward?
If Brown’s Week 17 goes anything like his Week 15 did, the Colts would be hard-pressed to deny him that promotion.
Perhaps no Hoosier will be pulling for a win this weekend any harder than Jim Caldwell, the third-year Colts coach who’s been under fire by pretty much everyone but his own immediate superiors all season long.
The Jaguars game is more than just an afterthought on a lost 2011 season for Caldwell, and it’s more than just a position with Indianapolis that’s at stake for the embattled, often-overwhelmed coach from Wisconsin.
Caldwell has done little in his three years to convince other teams he’s worth taking a look at should Indy decide to part ways with him this offseason. The Colts do have a Super Bowl appearance under Caldwell’s tenure (during his rookie season to boot), but any credit he may have received from that deep playoff run has since been absorbed directly by quarterback Peyton Manning, without whom Caldwell has won just two of 15 games so far.
If Caldwell gets canned, he might just disappear off the face of the earth entirely (not that anyone ever paid much attention to the guy in the first place, sadly enough).
He has neither the record nor the popularity necessary to snag another head coaching position, and considering how poorly the Colts have performed this season when they needed his leadership more than ever, Caldwell will be lucky to wind up as the next Romeo Crennel if the Colts decide not to retain his services another year.
Even though Colts management has been supportive of Caldwell all year, history tells us Sunday will be a crucial moment in determining his fate, too: Since 1999, 10 teams have finished with a 2-14 record and all but three of them made a coaching change at some point before the following season.
Of the nine teams who’ve finished 3-13 during that same span, however, four of them stuck with their coaches for at least one more season afterward, which means if Caldwell can simply get his team to win one more game this season against a disappointing 4-11 Jaguars team that averages a league-worst 259 total yards per game, he can theoretically boost his chances of staying employed another year by nearly 15 percent.
Will Caldwell be given the chance to redeem himself after the embarrassment that was his 2011 season?
Come Sunday, like so many other burning questions about the next generation of Colts football, we just may find out.