The only explanation for the Indianapolis Colts's disastrous performance on Monday Night Football? Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton must be a car show guy.
The Colts are a well-oiled offensive machine, built with top-notch parts like quarterback Andrew Luck, wide receivers Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton, tight end Coby Fleener and running back Trent Richardson.
Yet, like the fussiest of car collectors, Hamilton set the cruise control to five miles-per-hour below the speed limit and tried to outrace the San Diego Chargers without ever opening up the throttle.
A Well-Tuned Engine
Hamilton, understandably, hasn't taken much criticism to date. His Colts came into Monday night with the NFL's fourth-ranked scoring offense, putting up a remarkable 27.8 points per game.
In signing third-down back Ahmad Bradshaw, and trading for the workhorse Richardson, the Colts added a solid running attack to balance out the passing prowess of Luck. This has resulted in an offense that has been incredibly effective at moving the ball efficiently and scoring points in bunches.
It's not just overall output this balance has improved. Luck's performance has taken a huge step forward, too. Over the first five games, his stats are significantly better across the board:
During that stretch, Luck had been asked to throw just 31.2 passes per game, down by a full eight attempts from his 39.2 2012 average. His completion rate, touchdown rate, average yards-per-attempt and NFL passer efficiency rating were all way, way up over his impressive rookie season. Yet, he'd been throwing interceptions less than half as often.
This all dovetails neatly with what Sports Illustrated's Peter King tweeted during the game:
Pep Hamilton when I went to Colts camp in Aug: "We are a power-running team." Not, "We'll TRY to be a power-running team."— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) October 15, 2013
Balance is nice, but are the Colts really a power-running team first, and a downfield-passing team second—with Luck at the wheel?
Against the Chargers, Hamilton tried to prove his point.
Shifting Into "Low"
Hamilton dialed up about as aggressive of a first play as anyone could imagine: a 35-yard flea-flicker to Reggie Wayne.
That, though, was the longest pass Luck would complete all night.
Despite taking the express route to the San Diego 40-yard line, the Colts had to settle for an Adam Vinatieri field goal on the opening drive—and wouldn't score again until Vinatieri booted another while the last seconds of the first half expired.
Despite facing a San Diego Chargers defense allowing a third-worst 7.5 average yards per attempt, per Pro Football Reference, the Colts steadfastly refused to throw downfield.
They pounded Richardson and Donald Brown into the Chargers defense 13 times for 55 yards, or 4.2 yards per attempt, while Luck nibbled away on screens and other short passes. On the few occasions Luck let it fly, his normally-reliable receiving corps couldn't hang on.
In the second quarter, a streaking Heyward-Bey dropped a screaming Luck pass that surely would have gone for a score. On the next drive Fleener was all alone behind the defense, and dropped a ball that hit him in the numbers. Even Wayne and Hilton, both sure-handed, had a couple of notable wide-open drops.
The key phrases in there, though, were "open" and "behind the defense." The intermediate and deep routes were there for Luck and the Colts all night; Hamilton just didn't dial them up.
Steady as She Goes
Barely taking six points—and, luckily, a four-point deficit—into halftime should have been Hamilton's wake-up call. Instead, he kept the foot off the gas as the Chargers slowly, slowly pulled away.
After halftime, the Chargers took almost six minutes off the clock before padding their lead with a field goal. The Colts answered with a maddening nine-play, five-minute series that featured one attempted (incomplete) pass, and ended with a punt.
The Chargers then launched a 15-play, nine-minute and 13-second war of attrition that killed off the third quarter, ended the second and tacked on yet another Chargers field goal.
Finally, finally, with 9:43 left on the clock, a 10-point deficit and only six points scored, Hamilton and the Colts offense realized they were about to give the game away.
Luck looked deep to Wayne, connecting with him on back-to-back plays for 21- and 23-yard gains—the latter of which was Wayne's 1,000th career catch:
That drive eventually ended in another Colts field goal, and it was hard not to wonder if the NFL's fourth-highest scoring offense would ever score a touchdown against its 11th-worst scoring defense.
On their next drive, the Colts punted the ball away on 4th-and-2 with just 3:29 left on the clock, and it was hard not to wonder if the high-revving Colts offense would even score another point.
The Chargers mounted another campaign into Colts territory, surprisingly choosing to boot a 51-yard field goal at the two-minute warning, rather than go for it on 4th-and-1 and likely end the game.
On the ensuing drive, down to 1:47 on the clock and behind by 10 points on the scoreboard, Hamilton pressed his Luck too far:
A Win Forfeited
Even Chargers fans had to be frustrated with the way Hamilton was using (or not using) Luck. When you have a quarterback of that caliber, you don't keep him under wraps, you put the pedal to the metal and dare the other team to keep up.
Cars are made to be driven, and this Colts offense was built to score points.
Hamilton's commitment to offensive balance is admirable, but at some point you have to admit when things aren't working and adjust. That point is being whipped at your own power-run game by the Chargers' unremarkable tailback duo of Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead.
Hamilton's one-track mind wasn't just confusing, it seemed almost arrogant—as if the Colts game plan was to beat the Chargers with one hand tied behind their back, while looking ahead to next week's massive Sunday Night Football match against the undefeated Denver Broncos.
The decision not to take the Chargers seriously backfired: The Colts forfeited a very winnable game on a week all of their AFC South rivals lost, missing a big opportunity to get a stranglehold on the division. Now that matchup against the Broncos becomes even more important, while chemistry and confidence hit season lows.
This is far from the end of the Colts' season, of course—they're still a game up on the flailing Houston Texans—but owner Jim Irsay spent a whole lot of money in free agency this offseason, and give up a first-round pick for Richardson, to win this year.
The Colts can't do that if Hamilton won't open up the throttle on their high-output offense.