For many fans, training camp is the best time of the year. It's a time rife with optimism when the sky is the limit, every franchise is improved and the social media world is a fan's proverbial oyster.
For fans of the Indianapolis Colts, training camp in Anderson, Indiana, is an injury-riddled, death-trap hellhole that should burn for eternity.
Sure, it's nice to visit training camp and get autographs, see players interact and just be around football after an offseason of prognostication. Anderson is a nice town which I have nothing against. But for the Colts, training camp has simply become one more month before games actually count, one more month when players can get hurt and ruin the team's always-optimistic forecast.
So far in 2014, reality has confirmed the fear.
It started before camp even started, with fullback Stanley Havili being placed in the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and Vontae Davis and LaRon Landry continuing to nurse what the team has called "soft tissue" injuries.
All three players were starters last season, and their absence has been a notable part of training camp thus far, thrusting players like Sergio Brown, Mario Harvey and Josh Gordy into starting roles.
While the extra time is beneficial for those reserve players, the absence of the starters, namely Davis and Landry, has kept the secondary from having any chance of building a chemistry and method of communication. Considering the team's already shaky depth and level of talent in the defensive backfield, two starters missing time is hurting Indianapolis' preparation for the season opener.
|Injury History of Colts Secondary|
|Player||Position||Seasons||Games Played||Game Missed for Injury|
|Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com and KFFL.com|
The Colts have three established starters in the secondary: Landry, Davis and Greg Toler. All three have extensive injury history, so the lack of practice thus far in training camp continues to be a red flag. The fourth projected starter, Delano Howell, was first given notable responsibility on the field in 2013 but was promptly put on injured reserve after six weeks.
While Howell and Toler have been able to practice, the Colts desperately need their two most talented members of the secondary to return.
Then there are the guys who have been hurt during the course of training camp. Vick Ballard and Donald Thomas, both coming off season-ending injuries early in 2013, are lost for the season.
Ballard, who tore his ACL in a non-contact drill last September, tore his Achilles tendon last week and will be placed on the IR list once the first roster cuts come around on Aug. 26. Thomas, coming off a torn quad and torn bicep, is believed to have re-injured his right quad and will need season-ending surgery. He, being a vested veteran, has already been placed on IR.
Though neither player was guaranteed a starting spot this season, their losses have cast a dark cloud on the Colts' already-limited depth at their respective positions.
NOTE: As you may have realized, depth being an issue is a bit of a theme.
At running back, Ballard's injury has had a number of ripple effects, most notably the added pressure on Trent Richardson to produce and Ahmad Bradshaw to stay healthy. With Thomas out, the pressure ramps up on Jack Mewhort to be effective as a rookie, unlike Hugh Thornton during his thrown-into-the-fire season last year.
If Mewhort isn't ready, Lance Louis will be the "next man up." Louis was a semi-effective guard for the Chicago Bears (although a train wreck as a tackle), but he missed the entire 2013 season with a torn ACL. Louis will likely get a few snaps in camp with the first team, but the job, more or less, is Mewhort's to lose.
The offensive interior is questionable enough with Khaled Holmes and Hugh Thornton slated to start at center and right guard. Holmes played just 13 snaps last season, while Thornton was the Colts' second-lowest graded offensive player by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Then there are the players who have suffered minor injuries in camp. Trent Richardson was forced to sit multiple practices out, Dwayne Allen missed Wednesday's practice and Josh McNary has missed practice all week. These injuries aren't expected to be severe, but all are limiting the involvement of three players expected to take on larger, more critical roles in Indianapolis this season.
But it's not just the actual injuries that have drawn attention during camp; the handling of said injuries by the Colts has once again become a major talking point.
For the umpteenth consecutive season, the Colts seem to be headed toward a season decimated by injuries. Every team incurs injuries, the Colts aren't special, blah, blah, blah.
No, the Colts are special in a very bad, depressing way. For the last decade or so, it seems, the Colts have consistently been among the bottom of the barrel in injuries. They don't just have bad years: Every year is a bad year.
Every. Single. One.
The best way to illustrate this is through Football Outsiders' adjusted games lost (AGL) metric, which has been around since 2008. Using that metric, the Colts have been in the bottom 10 every season. Bottom 10 might not sound bad in itself, but when you consider the compiled devastation year after year, you begin to understand what an impact it can have.
Over the last five years, the Colts players have missed an adjusted 169 games more than the average team and nearly 50 more than the next team (New York Giants). At some point, you wonder where the line between coincidence and the poor handling of injuries is crossed.
Is it a training thing, a treatment thing or a diagnosis thing? I don't know, and I don't think anybody is really in the position to say. But at some point, changes have to be made; different tactics must be attempted.
There have been cases where injuries were misdiagnosed and mishandled, such as Bob Sanders and Anthony Gonzalez in 2010.
There have been cases where players have attempted to come back from injury and promptly were seriously injured again, such as former Colts tackle Ben Ijalana, and now Ballard and Thomas. There have been cases of players trying to play through injuries that were clearly debilitating, such as Pat Angerer and Greg Toler in 2013.
Again, I don't know where the issue lies specifically, and I'm not going to speculate in-depth as to where it is. But an issue does exist. Perhaps it's in the entire culture of the organization, as hinted at in a recent revelation reported by Bleacher Report's Will Carroll.
According to Carroll, the Colts' recent use of "soft tissue" to vaguely describe certain players' injuries (namely Landry, Davis and Richardson) has been an indirect way to pressure those players to get back onto the field.
Mike Chappell was on the radio today and gave me a clue. He said (paraphrasing) that giving vague designations like this was often hard on a player. A player could have a serious injury and because the facts weren’t known, he might look like a malingerer.
I’ve made a lot of calls over the last couple days but finally got to the right person in the right place, willing to discuss it on a Colts off-day. The Colts' designations are essentially a challenge. Maybe it’s Chuck Pagano, maybe it’s Ryan Grigson, but the edict came from on high. It’s about pressure.
Carroll is a smart, plugged-in guy in Indianapolis, and he doesn't report things negligibly. It meshes with the frustration that coach Chuck Pagano showed on Wednesday morning regarding unnamed players the team wanted to see get on the field.
On the other hand, the public shaming of nicked-up players would fly directly in the face of the cautious approach Pagano has been preaching to the Indy Star.
"We have to hit, we have to push," Pagano said. "We have to do all the things necessary. But then we can also be smart about it. We're trying to harden our knuckles right now in training camp and develop that mindset. But at the same time, we don't want to be foolish and do things just to do things and then you lose a guy."
A factor in Pagano's calculation is the trust he's placed in his players. If camp will indeed be less physical, Pagano must know that his players will maintain their edge when the season starts.
If that trust in his players is real, the Colts have no need to hide the injuries that guys like Landry and Davis currently have. Instead, a more defensive approach would make sense, encouraging Landry and Davis to get completely healthy before risking further injury.
In the end, it's all part of the injury puzzle that has taken over the Colts' 2014 training camp. Instead of talking about upstart rookies, veterans with something to prove or the critical roster battles taking place at safety, guard and second-team inside linebacker, we're talking about Donald Thomas and Vick Ballard.
It's a shame, really, but welcome to the last decade of Indianapolis Colts football. It's an injury-filled world in Anderson; the Colts just live in it. That is, as long as they can.
All statistics and snap counts come from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted. All training camp observations were obtained firsthand by the reporter unless otherwise noted.