Shifting The Playbook: An Early Look At The 2009 Indianapolis Colts
Alright, I'll come clean. I'm not an expert. I have stayed at a Holiday Inn Express within the last couple years, and I haven't missed a Colts game since...never, that I can recall, but I'm not a licensed professional. I don't subscribe to Football Outsiders or pretend to know the intricacies of offensive line shifts and defensive audibles.
I watch the games intently, don't get me wrong, but am I analyzing play formations on a microscopic level? No. After scoring a touchdown, can I tell you what play the Colts ran on their third offering of the drive? Ehhhh, in broad terms, maybe.
So does the fact that I watch the game through the pure eyes of a fan -- rather than that of a coach or scout -- make me any less qualified to break down the anticipated changes in the extensively complicated Colts playbook?
Well, yes, yes it does. It doesn't mean what I'm about to offer up isn't useful though.
I watch the games. I understand what I see. For instance, you know what didn't work last year? That queered up stretch/pitch play they repeatedly ran for a grand total of negative-245 yards. That was not a good play.
See? Look at that analysis. You can trust me.
Just let me put on my handmade Ron Jaworski mask, and...we're good to go.
So what exactly are the biggest changes and issues for the slightly re-vamped Colts playbook heading into '09?
Compensating for the loss of Marvin Harrison:
It's assumed that Anthony Gonzalez is ready to graduate from his utility role and into the permanent position of outside receiver in the Colts offense. Some have questioned his ability to move from the slot and fill the Shawn Bradley sized shoes left by Harrison on Peyton Manning's right side.
The actuality is that Gonzalez out produced "The Philly Godfather" last year, and he's built almost identically to the future Hall-of-Famer. Also, he's entering his third season, normally viewed as a "leap year" in terms of wide receiver production.
Gonzalez will be fine. Don't worry about it.
What happens to his vacated role, however, will greatly impact what Indianapolis is able to do with their various formations and audibles.
The newly drafted Austin Collie and second-year vet Pierre Garcon are expected to battle it out for that third receiver slot, and while I've got a feeling the man Bill Polian compared to Brandon Stokley after the draft ends up winning the job, I'm not all that convinced that either will be the primary guy in the role.
Dallas Clark has split his versatile, and nearly impossible to cover frame out into the slot with great success over the past few years, and considering the inexperience of the other two options, I fully expect to see him occupying that spot with much more frequency in '09.
The really interesting part will come when Clark does split wide.
What direction do the Colts take then?
They could call on their prototypical blocking tight-end, Tom Santi, to inhabit the sixth spot on the line in order to provide added assistance for Manning, or they could go the complete opposite direction by utilizing the sleek-catching Jacob Tamme in a Clark-esque role in the passing game.
Or maybe they'll decide to use H-Back Gijon Robinson as an added blocker and occasional receiving threat either in the backfield or on the line. Or maybe -- and I'll get more in-depth on this later -- maybe they employ both Joseph Addai and Donald Brown together. Obviously, that type of formation would only work if the offensive line completely regains its dominance, but it's worth throwing out there as a possibility.
How does the Addai/Brown combo work?
I've addressed how potent I think the Addai/Brown duo can be previously, but in terms of how formations are formulated and play calling is called, I haven't touched on that aspect.
In the past, when they've been at their most potent, the Colts have used two backs effectively in both the rushing and passing game. When Dominic Rhodes was sharing the load with Addai, the Colts essentially rotated the two every other possession and used them in exactly the same role.
You'll see plenty of that this year as well, but what the team hasn't done, is use two agile and versatile backs together...in the same formation, at the same time.
Just imagine. Manning in the shotgun, with Reggie Wayne and Gonzalez split wide, Clark floating between the slot and end positions, and Addai and Brown flanking either side of the improvisational genius of Manning.
Tell me that doesn't send shivers up the back of every defensive coordinator in the league.
I understand that they've never gone that route before, but then again, they've never had the running talents of two first-round selections at their disposal either.
Now that they do, why not utilize both simultaneously? I'll bet you a half-eaten ham sandwich and a warm 40oz that the subject is at least broached between Jim Caldwell and the two-headed monster of Clyde Christensen and Tom Moore.
Which gives a nice segue into my next point of analysis.
The Coaching Changes:
Jim Caldwell as the new head man:
Caldwell is a complete enigma to Colts fans at this point. No one is sure what kind of attitude and personality he's bringing to the bar-b-que. Some think he'll be a Dungy replica. Others think he could be the fiery disciplinarian that many have secretly pined for. Personally, I'm guessing he'll fall somewhere in the middle (I know, I know, I'll try to be a little less bold from here on).
What we do know is that he's spent the last seven years working with Manning on a daily basis, and the higher-ups thought so favorably him that he was named head coach before the start of last season.
We also know that he went 26-63 in his stint as the leader of Wake Forest's pitiful football program.
With so little knowledge of the man, it's pretty hard to accurately predict what kind of little changes and shifts in the playbook he'll introduce. They will be little though. Caldwell is smart enough, and has been with the team long enough, to realize what needs tweaked and what doesn't.
He ain't touching the offense, I can guarantee that, and he brought in his ol' boy Larry Coyer to handle the defense. That's his imprint as far as the X's and O's are concerned.
One area the Colts will most feel his presence is in the way he handles his game-management duties. Dungy was the Rush Limbaugh of play-callers, conservative beyond comparison. Will Caldwell take more chances? Does he have the cajones to wave Manning to the sidelines when the quarterback is frantically rushing to the line in an attempt to sneak a fourth-down play by the defense?
Those are the type of decisions that will greatly impact the course of games and seasons, and again, we just don't know which way Caldwell will tend to lean as of yet.
Larry Coyer as defensive coordinator:
When Ron Meeks was unceremoniously shown the door, Coyer was immediately brought in. He had previously coached Caldwell in college at Iowa, and eventually went on to a very successful stint as the D-Coordinator of the Denver Broncos.
Upon his hiring, fans quickly began talking excitedly about abandoning the Tampa-2 in favor of a blitz heavy defense similar to that of the Steelers and Chargers of last year. They argued that a complete alteration of the scheme was in order, and Coyer was just the man for the job.
Wishful (and borderline idiotic) thinking was all that was.
The Colts defense is built specifically to play the Tampa-2, and to switch to a scheme that doesn’t fit the personnel would have disastrous effects. Plus, when run properly, the T2 works! Maybe I missed something, but didn't the Colts just win a Super Bowl two years ago running Dungy's baby? They did? Ok, that's what I thought.
Now that's not to say there won't be some major changes to the playbook, they just won't be wholesale modifications.
Meeks and Dungy were strictly about getting pressure on the QB with the four down linemen, and those four only. Coyer, on the other hand, has always been a proponent of sending linebackers and safeties crashing into the line to throw the opposing offense off its rhythm.
Watching who emerges out of the crowded linebacker and tackle positions will be paramount in figuring out what type of identity the defense takes on. If the speed-rushing, but coverage challenged Philip Wheeler emerges as a starting outside backer, and the monstrous Terrance Taylor is getting burn at nose tackle, that'd be a pretty good indication that a much more blitz heavy scheme is in the Colts future.
If prototypical Tampa-2'ers Tyjuan Hagler and Freddy Keiaho knock Wheeler down the depth chart, and undersized guys like Eric Foster and Keyunta Dawson are filling the middle, then assuming a continuation of the past would be appropriate.
Tom Moore's kinda, sorta, semi-retirement:
Moore is offensive genius, there's no doubt about. One needs only to look at what he did as coordinator of the '95 Lions -- Scott Mitchell threw for over 4,000 yards and 32 touchdowns and both Herman Moore and Brett "Friggin" Perriman had over 100 catches -- to see the truth in that statement.
But let's be honest, this is Peyton Manning's offense. At this point, Moore's biggest contribution is as a sounding board to his All-World quarterback. Sure, he sends in a concept from the sidelines, but it's Manning who calls the plays, positions his receivers, and gestures wildly to confuse the defense.
If Moore were indeed fully departed, I might be a little nervous, but in his newly minted role as "consultant" -- whatever the hell that actually is -- he'll still be there on an everyday basis, chirping in his understudy's ear, and providing the type of experienced guidance Manning relishes.
In other words, it'll be same stuff, different day.
And that's something you don't need a key to the NFL Films office to figure out.
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