At 7-4, the Colts have lost two of their last four games and have fallen apart in every facet of the game. Worse yet, they were just shellacked by an inferior Arizona Cardinals team that may have an imposing defense but shouldn't be nearly good enough to beat the Colts 40-11.
What a difference a month makes! What a difference an injured Reggie Wayne makes!
In Week 7, the Colts handed the Denver Broncos and former Colts great Peyton Manning their first loss of the season. They entered the bye week at 5-2, looking relatively untouchable. Also on their resume were wins against the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks—two teams that were heralded as the NFC's best before the season.
To say the city of Indianapolis was feeling pretty good about their Colts would be an understatement.
That Broncos win was also the last game for Wayne this season. The Colts' best receiver and, frankly, best player not named Andrew Luck on the entire team tore his ACL and was placed on injured reserve just a couple of days later. Wayne often served not only as Luck's best downfield target but also his erstwhile safety blanket. When things went south, at least the young quarterback could count on Wayne.
Still, the Colts had their bye week coming up! They had an entire week to prepare for life without Wayne. They also have talented young receivers like T.Y. Hilton, LaVon Brazill, Darrius Heyward-Bey and tight end Coby Fleener. Sure, losing one of the NFL's all-time receptions leaders stinks, but maybe a few of those guys step up!
Or, you know, maybe not.
Entering Week 12's beatdown from the Cardinals, Wayne was still the Colts' second-leading receiver. Behind him was Fleener and then Heyward-Bey by a sizable margin. Every single Colts "weapon" (using the term with the loosest-possible definition) has talent but seems to be competing more for some sort of "most consistently inconsistent" title rather than trying to win football games.
To make matters worse: While we often talk about offenses and defenses in football as if they exist in some sort of vacuum, the Colts defense has suffered right alongside the offensive ineptitude.
Without a balanced and competent offense to put up points and hold on to the ball, the defense has become more and more sieve-like, giving up an average of 35 points the last three weeks—to St. Louis, Tennessee and Arizona.
What the Indianapolis Colts Can Do Immediately
To put matters lightly, things need to change. And they need to change now.
Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has taken a lot of heat (and rightfully so) for failing to alter his game plan in the absence of Wayne. Heck, even before Wayne's injury, the offense wasn't even looking like a well-oiled machine.
No, the dreams of Luck, Fleener and Hamilton duplicating their success at Stanford faded quickly into a shattered reality when it became apparent that the Colts didn't have anywhere near the offensive line dominance of the Stanford Cardinal.
Perhaps more importantly, the Colts' running game doesn't have the punch, either, which has befuddled everyone from Hamilton to general manager Ryan Grigson and the front office.
Here's the ol' Stanford offense in a nutshell: run the ball. Then, run the ball some more. After your opponent is truly demoralized, break off a play-action pass and make them curl up into a broken ball of sadness. Then, run the ball until the clock reaches zeroes.
It's how once-Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh taught Hamilton and Luck to win games. It's (by and large) how Stanford still wins games under David Shaw.
Stanford is physical. Their linemen are both bigger, faster and stronger and usually smarter than other teams' linemen. Moreover, regardless of your current thoughts on Miami Dolphins lineman Jonathan Martin, Stanford offensive linemen are usually some of the baddest and toughest dudes on any football field they step on.
That ain't the Colts.
No Reggie Wayne is huge, but it's funny how many (including myself) thought Pep Hamilton would be a godsend for Andrew Luck / Colts in '13.— Chris Trapasso (@ChrisTrapasso) November 24, 2013
Former offensive coordinator and current Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians may not have had the best offensive scheme for Andrew Luck, but he had a good idea of what he had on the Colts roster. Luck's interception number (18) was so high last season, because Arians utilized a high-risk/high-reward scheme that taught Luck to take shots and made good use of the Colts' speedy receiving corps.
Now in his second year, Luck is trying to break himself of the Arians-taught habits and relearn the tendencies of an offensive scheme that sought to pick apart through the air rather than take things in big chunks. Luck is also trying to operate in that scheme without the balance that makes that offense tick.
It's not working, Pep. It's just not working.
Bringing in running back Trent Richardson—for a first-round pick nonetheless!—wasn't the answer. No, in fact, the running game has been stagnant overall, but holdover Donald Brown has actually seemed like the most explosive runner in the backfield.
Even Dan "Boom" Herron has shown more burst in limited action than the once-heralded Alabama back. As a "weapon" (again, chortle), fullback Stanley Havili might be more reliable and should be featured more.
The Colts can keep pushing the train down this track, but they need to realize it's headed off a cliff.
Indianapolis might still be in first place because the rest of the AFC South is laughably bad, but the Tennessee Titans are sneaking up on them at 5-6. The Titans are doing so without their starting quarterback, Jake Locker, and with new life out of running back Chris Johnson, who has still not called my colleague, Mike Freeman.
The Colts play the Titans next week after only beating them by three just a week ago. The way things are trending, frankly, the Colts need to be praying that they're not handed another lopsided loss on the way to handing the division away over the last month of the season.
Hamilton needs to drop the facade of the running game. This isn't Palo Alto. Stop pretending. Instead, the Colts need to pass to set up the run, as Arians did. I'm not asking Hamilton to abandon his core beliefs; I'm asking him to coach the players he has rather than those he wishes he had.
The Colts should be spreading teams out three or four wide on every play and moving Fleener around like the chess piece he's meant to be. He could be a matchup nightmare, rather than the afterthought he ends up most of the time.
Following up: Andrew Luck finished the game at Arizona averaging 4.2 yards per attempt, lowest single-game figure of his career.— Mike Sando, ESPN.com (@SandoESPN) November 25, 2013
Put Luck in charge of his own protection. Unlike in college, where schools like Stanford, Wisconsin, Alabama and others can consistently recruit the best linemen on a yearly basis, the NFL game is often predicated around elite passers.
Look around at guys like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers. Even without great lines, they are able to negate even good pass-rushing defenses by quick decision-making and crisp throws.
In a salary cap-driven league like the NFL, we can hem and haw about the Colts defense, offensive line and weapons all we want, but the buck has to stop with the quarterback—just like it does with every other football team.
Luck has to be better, and the coaching staff has to put him in a position to do so.
Long Term, This Team Needs to Stay the Course and Ignore Quick Fixes
I'm reticent to label the trade for Trent Richardson as foolhardy so quickly, but the fact that it was a first-round pick befuddles me to no end.
Grigson is a young executive who has already earned accolades in his short time as a GM. The only logical reason for the Colts' trade for Richardson is that they thought he could single-handedly revitalize their running game.
Donald Brown sucked today but the Colts still had 2 players (Dan Herron, Andrew Luck) with more yards on fewer carries than Trent Richardson— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) November 25, 2013
There's still time for Richardson to make an impact in Indianapolis. He's not going anywhere for at least another year or two, and the offensive line should improve over those seasons to give him some bigger holes to run through. That said, he needs to be better—even when the line doesn't provide the same caliber of blocking as his Tide line used to.
Teams that eschew their long-term building plans for short-term free agency fixes often find themselves "just one move away" for a few years until salary cap issues or depth problems creep up on them and shove them back down to the NFL cellar (see: 2013 Atlanta Falcons). Teams that build through the draft and don't reach for quick fixes give themselves a solid foundation that lasts.
Which of those scenarios looks good to you, Colts fans?
Right now, the Colts would be drafting somewhere in the bottom 10 picks of the first round. In a quarterback-loaded draft class, we might be talking about grabbing a top interior lineman, a solid receiver or a much-needed defensive player. Yet, that building piece—that draft capital—is no longer available to them.
Thankfully, the Colts have their cornerstone, though. So, all is not lost. We can preach doom and gloom all day long, but there's still plenty of time left in the season, and this team is still vastly improved from just a few years ago when they were terrible enough to earn the first overall pick.
As I wrote recently, it's easy to forget this team is essentially rebuilding on the fly.
That's why it's so important, however, to not reach for shortcuts that just aren't there. This team should be stockpiling draft picks, not trading them away. This team should be letting high-priced free agents walk and banking the compensatory picks rather than overpaying guys like offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus and linebacker Erik Walden.
They shouldn't be convincing themselves that running backs like Richardson or Ahmad Bradshaw are the final piece, trying to find valuable late-round backs to round out their roster instead.
Yes, the Colts have some immediate changes to make with their offense, but if 2013 teaches the Colts any lessons at all, it must be that there are no shortcuts to success and that their big-spending offseason may have done them more harm than good.
If the Colts don't focus on both the immediate and long-term fixes that this team desperately needs, the embarrassment isn't going anywhere.