It wasn’t very long ago that running backs just as mediocre as Shonn Greene were having ridiculous outbursts just as uncharacteristic as Greene did this Sunday almost every single week (161 yards and three touchdowns), and for a fanbase that’s suffered through more atrocious defensive performances over the last 10 years than any franchise this side of Detroit, it was very troubling to watch.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that with a new coach who’s dedicated his life to antagonizing quarterbacks (and whose safe return they’re all praying comes as soon as possible) and welcome changes looming for the roster and the scheme, the path toward an elite defense is at least on the horizon, and whether or not it ever gets here, Colts fans can at least take comfort knowing things won’t get any worse.
Before that process progresses too far, however, it’s important to remember just why it’s happening in the first place, not to simply dwell on past mistakes but to ensure they aren’t repeated.
Join us as we do just that with one last look at the Colts defense of yesteryear and the legacy, for better or for worse, they left upon the world.
Five years from now, after all, Colts fans may have suppressed these memories so fully no one remembers what really happened (or at least that’s what they hope).
Better just get it out of the way now.
When Colts fans say Bob Sanders is a legend, they mean it literally: His reputation is greatly exaggerated and 10 years from now, people may not be sure if the guy really even existed.
We won’t get into all the other terms Hoosiers use to describe their former "starting" safety, but we will say this: There was a time when Colts fans adored Bob Sanders, and for as little as he gave them in return, it’s amazing they supported him as long as they did.
It’s not that Sanders wasn’t a good safety. He was exceptional, one of the game’s premier players, in fact, and a worthy recipient of the 2007 Defensive Player of the Year award.
It’s that being a great player doesn’t amount to squat if you never, you know, actually play the sport you’re so good at, and in the case of Bob Sanders, perennial injuries made simply appearing in the game he received roughly $40 million to participate in a career-defining challenge.
You know why they called Bob Sanders “The Eraser?” Because as soon as the schedule came out every year, Bob Sanders erased 10 games right off it.
That’s right: While a Colt, Sanders played in 48 regular-season games out of a possible 112, he missed at least 10 games in all but two of his seven seasons and although he did help secure Indianapolis its first Super Bowl title in 2007, he missed the entire playoffs on three separate occasions, all during the prime of Peyton Manning’s career (as if you forgot).
That’s how Bob Sanders will be remembered, not as the impenetrable gridiron warrior that he sometimes was but as the overpaid bench warmer who disappointed Colts fans year after year and who very well could have been the difference between a dominant Colts team and a bona fide NFL dynasty if only he could have stayed healthy.
This one’s for you, Bob.
There’s a pretty good chance you’re the first person in history to ever overstay his welcome by not being present, and unless Colts fans suddenly decide they’re never going to reminisce about the Peyton Manning era of Indianapolis football ever again, your legend is sure to live on.
When your defense is as bad as the Colts’ was for as long as the Colts’ was, it can be tough to identify just when the low point struck.
To some extent, you could say Indy’s entire 2011 season was rock bottom, and not just because the team went 2-14 either: Last year, which represented our first chance to see just how bad this defense really was without quarterback Peyton Manning there to distract us with his greatness, Indy allowed 430 points, the fourth most in franchise history, and gave up 5,935 total yards, the second most in almost 60 years of play.
If you had to narrow the Colts’ laundry list of epic collapses down to just one game, however, Week 14 from 2006 has to be the cream of the crap.
If watching grown men embarrass themselves playing a kids’ game is your idea of a good time, this was the matchup for you. The carnage began when running back Fred Taylor broke free for a 76-yard run on the Jaguars’ very first play of the game and it didn’t let up until Jacksonville had secured a 44-17 victory and dominated Indianapolis so mercilessly you’d swear the Colts defense had missed the trip entirely.
The Jaguars put together five touchdown drives of at least 74 yards that day, accumulating 12 runs of more than 10 yards and 375 rushing yards altogether, the second highest single game total since the 1970 merger with the AFL.
After the game, Jaguars defensive end Bobby McCray quipped that had he been allowed to run against the non-existent Colts defense that day, he “probably could have had 78 or so on two carries.”
To this day, there’s still not a Colts fan in the world who thinks he’s wrong.
No matter how miserably the previous era of Colts defense will be remembered, even its harshest critics must admit there were times, however infrequent, when everything just seemed to click.
Perhaps no single game captured that potential for the Colts defense to surprise everyone by putting up a fight every once and a while (rather than, you know, just shutting up and taking it) quite like their meeting with the Baltimore Ravens in January 2010, and the fact this showdown took place during the playoffs and against one of the AFC’s most elite teams only highlights its prominence on their otherwise spotty resume.
After demoralizing the New England Patriots 33-14 just one week prior, it’s hard to imagine Baltimore’s offense coming into that Divisional Round game with any more confidence than what they did and yet, when it came time to actually play the game, it’s hard to imagine an offense being overwhelmed any more convincingly than what the Ravens experienced.
87 rushing yards (vs. 234 the week prior). 183 passing yards. Two fumbles, two interceptions and, the only stat that really matters, just three lousy points.
That’s all the Ravens could muster that day, even though they’d averaged over 24 points per game during the regular season and even though the defense they were lining up against was still little more than a punch line to anyone that follows the league.
Now the Colts may not have won the Super Bowl they advanced to later that season, and when we look back at the magical 14-2 run they put together that year a decade from now, we all know virtually none of the credit for it is going to fall on the inconsistent defense.
But that shouldn’t diminish the fact that for at least that one fateful Saturday, Colts D was king, and for a group history will likely define as a liability rather than asset, that’s a moment worth remembering.
We all know what they say about broken clocks, right?
Indianapolis may have a long history of turning undrafted players into quality contributors, but one name that list doesn’t include, even though he too was one of those under-the-radar acquisitions Bill Polian’s name became synonymous with, was Jacob Lacey.
The undrafted cornerback out of Oklahoma State joined the team in 2009 and, to his credit, Lacey’s career did have a promising start: In his rookie season he started nine games, snagging three interceptions and notching an impressive 69 tackles along the way.
Needless to say, that success was short-lived, however, as by 2010 Lacey was giving up 9.5 yards per completion on average (ninth worst among NFL cornerbacks that year according to Football Outsiders) and by 2011 he was getting burned so regularly opposing quarterbacks ended up averaging a 103.9 QB rating against the Colts, the second worst average in the NFL that year and the fourth highest any team has allowed since 1983.
We’re probably splitting hairs here, as the distance between Lacey and other hopeless former Colts defenders like Jason David and Rocky Boiman really isn’t all that great, but if for some strange reason you were forced to decide which defensive dud let his team down most consistently, Lacey and the eight yards he practically gift-wrapped every receiver he ever lined up against are pretty tough to top.
That’s not to say any player deserves all the blame for Indy’s defensive debacles, nor is it to diminish the contributions of an ambitious kid who obviously overcame huge obstacles to get where he is and who always gave his best, whether it was sufficient or not.
What it is to say, however, is that if the new regime in Indianapolis ever forgets just how terrible things were before they arrived, they need only think of Lacey, who even in an age where leading NFL cornerbacks are rendered irrelevant on a regular basis still managed to make Colts fans throw their arms up in disgust and scream at their television screens any time he played.
Jacob Lacey’s futility embodied an entire era of mortifying Colts defense.
Even with all the lousy defenders Indy fielded last decade, are there really any others you could say that about?
If you’re a Colts fan and you haven’t written your mandatory thank-you letter to Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis yet, go ahead and do it now.
Don’t just tell the veteran defensive ends how great you think they are, however (although it certainly won’t hurt to mention it considering Mathis has forced 40 fumbles since 2003, the most in the NFL, and Freeney has produced 33, the second most), put some heart into it. Make it personal.
Tell them how comforting it was knowing they were out there all these years ensuring your team’s defense commanded at least some level of respect, and how you used to stay up at night worrying that something would happen to them and suddenly you wouldn’t have any defensive players to cheer for.
Tell Freeney how his trademark spin move helped ease the pain of watching lesser players miss tackle after tackle in game after game, and tell Mathis how his Terminator-eqsue demeanor sent chills down your spine even at a time when the defense as a whole was about as intimidating as a '90s boy band.
The old Colts defense may have had their struggles, but no matter how many 100-yard rushers they allowed or early leads they blew, none of their failures could belittle the efforts of Freeney and Mathis, who somehow escaped that shameful era with their talent unquestioned and their legacies unscathed.
For a defense mainly consisting of players who’d probably prefer to be forgotten, that’s no small feat.
If you want a linebacker who strikes fear into the hearts of opposing running backs, go to Baltimore.
If, however, you want a linebacker who knows a thing or two about showmanship, choreography and jumping really high for no apparent reason any time he makes a tackle, Cato June is the defender you seek.
Cato June made the most of his time in Indianapolis, earning All-Pro honors in 2005 and helping the Colts win a championship the following season, but it’s not for winning awards or even being a reliable defender that June’s four-year stint will be remembered.
Any time Cato June was involved in a play, that play was promptly followed by an over-the-top celebration ritual, often when the play in question was largely insignificant and often when the Colts defense was playing so poorly at the time that the last thing they had any right to be doing was celebrating.
There’s nothing wrong with getting amped up when you make a play in the NFL, and to some extent there must be a level of excitement a player experiences during a game that can’t simply be turned off when it’s convenient.
But if you’re somehow under the impression one hard hit in the fourth quarter of a game you’ve otherwise barely competed in is really going to make up for the other three quarters you let slip away, you’re sorely mistaken and the fanbase that pays good money to see you play like a professional for 60 full minutes each week won’t be very happy about it, either.
Conventional wisdom says if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
Cato June wisdom?
Why that says you just go right ahead and flaunt it, case closed!
Gary Brackett is perhaps the biggest success story of the old Colts defense, and not because his talent was anything special, either.
Brackett won Colts fans over because he showed up and he worked hard, plain and simple.
Not that showing up and working hard count as notable accomplishments or anything (for people who earn millions of dollars to play a game for a living they ought to just be a given, in fact) but by doing them consistently on a team that habitually struggled with them, Brackett was able to draw a sharp contrast between himself and his peers, and every single Colts fan eventually took notice.
From joining the team as an undrafted free agent in 2003 until his release this past offseason, Brackett appeared in 116 games, the most of any defensive Colt not named Dwight Freeney or Robert Mathis and almost twice as many as Rob Morris, the next closest linebacker, who appeared in just 62.
Thanks to Brackett’s dedication, persistence and remarkable ability to play entire seasons without having to reconstruct a body part or two at some point (at least until 2011, when we found out even Brackett was susceptible to the infamous injury bug that haunted Indianapolis for much of last decade) the veteran earned “Defensive Captain” honors in 2006 and a $33 million contract with the team in 2010.
Even though he was released just two years into that deal, the fact he ever even landed it is pretty amazing in its own right, and even though Brackett’s efforts never converted into any awards or national recognition, his value to the franchise that took a chance on him when no one else would was indisputable.
That value may not have been enough to keep any running back in the league from having the game of their career any time they played the Colts, but hey, sometimes you have to take what you can get.
As bad as the Indianapolis defense was over the last decade, there were two ways Colts fans could try to justify their wretched play.
Option No. 1: Accept that on a team led by Peyton Manning, an emphasis will always be placed on offense and the defense will suffer as a result.
Option No. 2: Recognize that the defense is built around Manning’s play style and although that may mean facing significant mismatches in the running game, it should ensure your team can close the deal when it matters most.
To some extent, both were true, and to some degree, they really did justify what was happening. An NFL team only has so much cash to distribute, after all, and even if the defense was getting outperformed by most of its opponents, it’s not like the Colts were losing those games. Indy won more games in the 2000’s than any team in any decade ever. What difference does it make how many yards they allowed?
Just because those justifications made sense doesn’t mean they excused the behavior, however, and for option No. 2 specifically, the notion that the defense buckled so often because it simply wasn’t built to play that way came as no consolation whatsoever.
“Indy’s defense is built for speed.” That’s what Colts fans were told, over and over again. “They were built to play with a lead.” Well, how convenient.
So that must be why opposing ball carriers broke three tackles before they went down on every play back then, and why receivers used to find open space at will.
Not because the team was using a dated defensive strategy or struggled to execute even basic football fundamentals, no, it’s because the team wasn’t designed to defend that style of play.
No successful NFL defense plans for one specific scenario, and whether your team’s underlining philosophy is to stop your opponents with speed, or size or whatever else, it doesn’t really matter if you fail to actually stop them.
This year, it’s time for Colts fans to finally say farewell to the notorious “speed defense” of the past.
How long it will be before they have a defense they can not only tolerate but trust, however, that still remains to be seen.
Colts fans were constantly conflicted over the roster choices their team’s front office made last decade, but none seem more peculiar looking back than Indy’s strange reluctance to consider free agents.
Not that anyone can fault the team for investing in Peyton Manning and his supporting cast, of course, but in an age where the missing pieces that separate great NFL teams from championship teams can usually be had if the price is right, it’s very surprising the Colts never tried splurging their way over the top like so many teams in similar situations often do.
Of the few exceptions to that unofficial team policy, the worst came in 2005, when to try and shore up a defensive line largely responsible for Indy allowing 4.6 yards per carry the year prior (tied for second worst in the league), the Colts brought in Corey Simon, a 300-pound former Pro Bowler who at the time was fresh off his first Super Bowl appearance with Philadelphia and who so far had missed just two of 80 games in his five-year career.
That was the Corey Simon Indianapolis signed (for five years and $30 million), but the one who showed up in Circle City later that year was someone completely different.
Corey Simon the Colt was overweight, ineffective and (surprise, surprise) notoriously unreliable. He missed three games in 2005 (plus the playoffs), posting career lows in tackles and sacks in the process, then he missed all of 2006 with a knee issue and some other mysterious injury neither Indianapolis or Simon himself ever attempted to define.
Then he was gone.
When asked specifically about the Colts’ limited free agent acquisitions in 2007, former Colts General Manager Bill Polian even referenced Simon as the primary example of why Indy was so hesitant to engage:
"(It’s) mainly because we've made some big mistakes in the past, Corey Simon being the most obvious one." Polian said. "We're not good at it, so we stay away from things we're not good at."
Say what you will about Polian, at least the guy is honest.
Besides Simon, the previous era of Colts football did include one more free agent acquisition worth mentioning, and not because of the way the move panned out, either: The player was a veteran defensive tackle Indy signed in 2006, and his name was Booger McFarland.
Okay, so there is a rumor going around that the guy’s name is actually Anthony, but as far as players, coaches and fans are concerned, the versatile 34-year-old is known solely as “Booger” and with that information alone, you probably guess that at some point last decade, this guy suited up for the Colts.
Of course the Colts were interested in signing a player named Booger. Why wouldn’t they be?
With a name like Booger, after all, there’s no question this was someone who’d fit right in with a defense already accustomed to being the butt of others’ jokes, and with all the moronic plays this defense made a habit of producing over the years, it’s a wonder they didn’t end up with a whole locker room full of “Boogers” and “Dingleberries” and other derogatory nicknames before this thing was over.
McFarland was only with the Colts for one season and, the funny thing is, it actually ended up being a very successful one. Big ol’ Booger appeared in 15 games that year, including the playoffs, and he contributed four sacks and one fumble recovery on the way to Super Bowl XLI, which Indianapolis won over Chicago 29-17.
Even though Booger’s brief stint in Indianapolis went better than anyone could have imagined, however, what stands out most about it looking back now is not how well he played, it’s how perfectly his juvenile moniker captured the essence of an entire era of subpar, self-defeating Colts defense.
Let’s face it: In the history of Indianapolis Colts defense, 2003-2011 is the proverbial “booger” that Colts fans have been yearning for someone to come in and finally dislodge ever since they first heard the name “Maurice Jones-Drew.”
All Colts fans really want to know about you, then, new Coach Chuck Pagano, is simple:
Are you that finger?