James won Rookie of the Year in 1999
This week, Advanced Stat of the Week will look at some of the great teams in the history of the franchises that make up the AFC South.
The Colts burst onto the scene with a shocking 10-win improvement over 1998. They went 13-3 and won the AFC East, securing the second seed in the conference. They fell in the second round of the playoffs to the Titans 19-17. In some ways, the '99 Colts created unrealistic expectations for where the franchise really was. Advanced stats help to tell the story.
First, the '99 Colts probably weren't a 13-win team in terms of talent. Pythagorean wins puts them closer to 10 wins. The Colts were greatly helped by six fourth-quarter comeback wins led by Peyton Manning. Manning's brilliant play covered a lot of flaws for the rest of the team.
DVOA didn't think much of the Colts either. They were just the 17th best team in the league. They were fifth on offense but were a bottom five defense. It actually is worse than that. They had the fourth best passing offense and the 18th best run game. Essentially, the Colts were a team built entirely around Manning.
Manning helped the Colts to 7.3 NY/A, which was second in the NFL. He managed to take just 14 sacks in 547 drop-backs. He got Pro Bowl help from Marvin Harrison, but E.G. Green and Jerome Pathon both put up catch rates below 50 percent.
The third member of "The Triplets," Edgerrin James, put up spectacular volume totals and was named an All-Pro, but the Colts didn't use him very efficiently. James had a success rate of just 44 percent, one of the lowest marks of his career.
When you take a team with a suspect defense, an inefficient run game and a one-dimensional passing offense, you create a recipe for a playoff disappointment. Peyton Manning ended up taking the blame for the Colts' loss to the Titans in the playoffs, but in reality it was an almost inevitable loss.
The Colts were simply not a great team. The key to the playoff loss was the Titans' domination of the ground game. The Colts ran for 3.5 yards per carry, and the Titans put up 6.0 YPC. The Colts' number was boosted by two carries for 22 yards and a touchdown by Manning himself. James only managed 56 yards on 20 carries.
The Titans had a good run defense and a good run game. The Colts had a bad run defense and a mediocre rushing attack. The two passing offenses played themselves to a stand-still in what was a hard-hitting affair. In the end, the Titans were dominant enough on the ground to keep the ball away from Manning.
The 13-3 record was a great start to the incredible run the Colts would have, but it was clear they were still a team in the building phase. The truly dominant Colts were still four years away.