The Indianapolis Colts have been mired in an identity crisis for the last two years.
On one hand there's head coach Chuck Pagano, who has preached a power-running, stop-the-run philosophy predicated on "grinding" out wins since he was hired in 2012. But in 2012 Bruce Arians was the offensive coordinator and, for a time, the acting head coach. Arians' vertical passing offense was much, much different from the one to which Pagano's words would have lent themselves.
In 2013 came Pep Hamilton, a man with a background in numerous offensive philosophies and whose own philosophy was a reflection of that. Hamilton wasn't married to one blocking system, one personnel grouping or one style, but rather sought for the most versatile offense, one that could take advantage of whatever the defense threw at them.
Hamilton preached that versatility and balance from Day 1 in Indianapolis. From Hamilton after his hiring, via Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk:
We’ll do a great job of mixing in some power runs, mixing in the downfield passing game, maybe even mixing in some wildcat plays, mix in some read-option, pistol-type schemes. Just really try and present once again a lot of conflicts for our opponents.
You start upfront with the offensive line. We’ll continue to work and develop that continuity. I mean that’s where it all starts. I think it’s important that we have balance in our offense. We’re not just a one-dimensional football team. We want to create conflicts for our opponents. We want to have the ability to not only push the ball downfield and hit the big play in the passing game but we’ve got to be able to run the football.
It was an attempt to force balance that got the Colts in trouble at times in 2013. There's nothing wrong with balance, inherently, but when you have an enormously talented quarterback and explosive offensive weapons paired with a struggling running back and a paper-thin offensive line, balance isn't really an option.
But the Colts still attempted to get that balance by forcing the running game, forcing that identity upon themselves.
The strategy was a mixed bag for the first half of the season. The Colts were winning (5-2 through seven games), but it wasn't because of the running game. The Colts were winning because Andrew Luck was playing like a top-five quarterback in the league. And even during that good stretch came one of the most maddening games of the Luck era: a 20-9 loss in which the offense never opened up and stretched the field.
Even in the Colts' win over the San Francisco 49ers, the go-to example for the Colts' "smashmouth" philosophy succeeding, the offense started with a successful drive powered by Andrew Luck and finished with strong running to close the game out.
That's the key difference: Passing to set up the run, rather than the alternative.
Peyton Manning did it for the last five years of his career in Indianapolis. As the Colts offensive line deteriorated, the team could no longer just line up and run the ball successfully. Instead, they spread the defense out, let Manning go to work early and then took advantage of a less crowded box.
When the Colts were most successful offensively last season, this was the case as well. As Richardson continued to struggle, the Colts had no choice but to move to a more pass-oriented system. Down the stretch, the Colts opened up games with quick scoring drives to build a lead early.
From Week 15 to the end of the season, the Colts reverted to a no-huddle, shotgun-based offense to start the game. Five games where it was applicable. Against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 16 and the New England Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs, Luck had a sideline throw intercepted on the opening drive.
In each of the other three games, the Colts scored a touchdown to start the game. The strategy on these drives was clear: Spread the field and take advantage of the space with T.Y. Hilton catching underneath passes and Donald Brown taking draws up the middle.
Sure, there were other plays and targets mixed in, but these were the meat of the Colts' successful starts to games down the stretch.
On those three drives, Hilton caught nine passes for 92 yards and a touchdown (four first downs, at least one in each game) while Brown ran the ball seven times for 50 yards and a touchdown (all shotgun draws or no-huddle plays). Overall, Hilton caught 32 passes for 457 yards and two touchdowns in those three games, while Brown ran the ball 28 times for 124 yards and two touchdowns and added seven catches for 51 yards and a touchdown.
Finally, by the end of the season, it seemed that Hamilton had figured out how to best utilize his most dangerous offensive weapons. Even when those two weren't getting the touches, they opened up the field for others.
Take the Colts' game-opening touchdown drive against Houston, for example.
After Hilton caught two passes early in the drive to move the chains, Donald Brown ran for 39 yards on four draws. When the Colts got into the red zone, the defense was ready.
Lined up in the shotgun once again, the Colts spread the field with Griff Whalen split to the right, Hilton in the left slot and Da'Rick Rogers split to the left. Brown is the back, with Coby Fleener on the line as the tight end on the left.
The defense reacts accordingly, as the strong safety drops into the box to protect against the run and the defense stacks bodies in front of Hilton. The free safety in the middle of the field keeps his eyes on the left side, and when Hilton runs a drag route, jumps forward.
Meanwhile, Whalen is in isolation against the cornerback, and with a gaping hole in the middle of the field, a technically-sound post route leaves Whalen with plenty of room for the touchdown.
This, of course, is in contrast to the formations to begin the game in the previous two games, both three-and-outs.
That shotgun, no-huddle offense would make quite the impression in the playoffs, as the Colts scored 67 points and looked more explosive than they had all season. Similar themes could be seen, especially in the use of Hilton, who ran underneath routes all game then blew by the unexpectant Chiefs secondary for the game-winning touchdown.
Sure, there were some turnovers that hurt, but that was a byproduct of a lack of weapons more than the system. Luck tried to force the ball to Hilton a few times because of his lack of trust elsewhere.
Still, with 67 points and a playoff win, it's hard to call the playoff offense anything but a success.
Against the New York Jets in the first preseason game, the 2014 Colts had something similar cooked up. Hilton caught three passes for 38 yards, draws created some room for Richardson and Luck directed the Colts from the shotgun as the offense marched to the red zone. Due to a few blown blocks and a bad snap, the drive stalled, but overall it was a successful day for the first-team offense.
A big part of the system will continue to be tight ends. With Dwayne Allen back in the fold, the Colts can go into shotgun sets with two tight ends, giving them a favorable matchups for draw plays but also personnel that's still dangerous in the passing game.
Use the pass to set up the run.
Will the philosophy hold as the season approaches and games begin to count? It's critical that Hamilton continues to rely on Luck; with Hilton, Hakeem Nicks, Reggie Wayne and more, the weapons on the team are deep.
Is a hurry-up, shotgun offense the best for every team? Of course not, and it won't be the most efficient option for the Colts in every situation. There's a certain amount of gameplanning and adjusting for opponent that must be made.
But more often than not, the best personnel group is going to include more receivers than running backs. It's going to include giving Luck the ball, and the decisions, rather than Trent Richardson.
While the offensive line is still a mess, general manager Ryan Grigson has done his job to give Hamilton the tools to work with on the offense. Now it's up to Hamilton, and Luck, to make the most of it. Based on the end of last season, and the opening drive against the Jets, there's a certain amount of optimism that lingers down West 56th Street.
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.