Colts fans generally haven’t had to worry about the team’s offense from year to year, and probably won’t have to until Peyton Manning retires. The team’s defense has had bright spots and question marks in recent seasons, and it appears that the Colts have made a concerted effort to get bigger up front in order to perform better against the run.
But this offseason, the unit that has undergone the most dramatic changes is the Colts' special teams.
Caldwell’s first move as head coach (apparently occurring just moments after Dungy announced his retirement) was to replace often criticized special teams coach Russ Purnell with South Carolina’s Ray Rychleski. Also gone is special teams standout Darrell Reid (noted for destroying Chris Henry in a game against the Titans) and ten year veteran punter Hunter Smith.
Will the Colts’ special teams improve under the new leadership, or will the loss of several of the unit’s stalwarts induce a setback?
Most followers of the team were so critical of Russ Purnell in the past that it seems every mention of his replacement is hailed with glee. Ray Rychleski was a successful special teams coach at South Carolina and Maryland, with the former ranking second in the SEC in kickoff coverage last season (Rychleski’s only season with the Gamecocks) and the latter leading the nation in yardage allowed on kickoff returns in 2007.
The Colts could certainly use his influence, as the Colts ranked 24th in the league covering kickoffs last season (which was actually a significant improvement from ranking 29th in 2007 and 30th in 2008).
Rychleski will have to adapt to a different set of rules than he is used to in the college game, and the unit as a whole will have to adapt to an NFL rule change that bans wedges on kickoff returns.
We shall see during training camps’ first practices on Monday whether or not Rychleski can bring new energy to the coverage unit. But he will have to do so without last season's star on special teams, Darrell Reid. Darrell Reid was a leader for the unit last year, even organizing extra practices for the unit to “tighten the screws”.
Darrell Reid signed with Denver in the offseason and Pierre Garcon, who was a gunner on special teams last season, might see less time on coverage teams if he wins the third wide receiver position and shifts his focus to the offense.
But the coverage unit will have many returning starters such as Melvin Bullitt and Matt Giordano, and should benefit from the development of players like Marcus Howard who excelled on special teams as a rookie.
The Colts also resigned Tyjuan Hagler and Freddy Keiaho, experienced veterans who could bolster the coverage unit if the open starting linebacker position is won by Philip Wheeler in training camp.
Rookie Jerraud Powers, who ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at his pro day workout, should push Dante Hughes for one of the gunner spots. Barring injuries, the teams overall added depth this season should help the Colts continue to improve their dismal kickoff and punt coverage.
The Colts’ return game itself is also a question mark, and there will be plenty of competition for the kickoff and punt returner positions in training camp. Pierre Garcon averaged 21.6 yards on 22 kickoff returns last season, but might not be available for special teams duty this year as mentioned above.
Keiwan Ratliff was the team’s primary punt returner last season, but he was not resigned by the Colts and is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
T.J. Rushing will be the front runner for both positions if he can make a successful return from a knee injury that ended his 2008 campaign. Chad Simpson returned some kickoffs for the Colts last year, and will probably compete for the position again in 2009.
The Colts’ fourth round draft pick, Austin Collie, earned honorable mention All-Mountain West Conference honors as a kick returner in 2007 and should try out for this position in addition to competing for the third wide receiver slot.
Without much of an influx of new talent in this area, the Colts probably won’t suddenly have a Dante Hall or Devin Hester-type explosive return game. The entire league will be adapting to the ban on wedges, so all 32 teams will suffer the same growing pains with this change. The Colts probably won’t rank in the top ten in return yardage, but they still have Peyton Manning to help them get out of bad field position.
Perhaps the biggest question regarding field position is that of Hunter Smith’s replacement at punter. Smith was a Colts constant for the last ten years, and replacing his consistency at the position is not an easy feat.
The team has high hopes for Pat McAffee, whom they picked in the seventh round of the 2009 NFL Draft. The team also signed Tim Masthay as a college free agent to compete with McAffee for the position.
McAffee punted exclusively rugby style at West Virginia, but Bill Polian has stated that “he can punt conventionally and that's what we're going to have him do.” He will have the advantage of receiving snaps from veteran Justin Snow, one of the most consistent long snappers in the league.
The Colts were not financially forced to let Hunter Smith go in free agency, so this change should reflect that the front office wanted to upgrade the position. The playoff loss at San Diego probably made the team abundantly aware of how important the punting game can be, with that game showcasing an amazing performance by Mike Scifres which repeatedly left the Colts pinned against their own goal line.
Since Bill Polian has proven that his decision-making is trustworthy, I expect McAffee to make a successful transition to the NFL and immediately help the team. Some rookie mistakes are to be expected, but it will also be interesting to see if the Colts integrate some of his rugby style punts into their game plan.
Special thanks to MyColts.net for featuring Bleacher Report writers on their website!