Comparing the 2009 Colts to Peyton Manning's Best Teams

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Comparing the 2009 Colts to Peyton Manning's Best Teams
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After the Colts' roller coaster win over the Denver Broncos Sunday, I was looking forward to coming home and watching what the highlight shows had to say about the Colts' achievements.

Instead, what I got was sound bites of Brandon Marshall, the Bronco wide receiver that broke the NFL single-game receptions record by hauling in 21 passes.

Such is the life of the Indianapolis Colts.

Throughout Peyton Manning's career, the Colts have made winning look routine. Perhaps that's why the highlight shows focused more on the achievements of Marshall and less on the fact that the Colts set numerous records with the 28-16 win over Denver.

The win gave the Colts 114 for the decade, breaking the mark set by the 49ers during the '90s.

The win was the Colts 22nd consecutive regular season win, breaking the mark set by their nemesis, the New England Patriots, from 2006-2008.

The victory also tied the record for most consecutive wins to start a season, which was originally set by the 2005 team.

That's a lot to happen to any team on any given Sunday.

When you look at the history of the Colts since moving to Indianapolis, it's really a matter of B.M. and A.M. Before Manning and After Manning.

In their first 14 seasons in the Circle City, the Colts complied 88-135 record. They had twice as many seasons with 11 or more losses than they had playoff appearances. The non-Manning led Indianapolis Colts never won more than nine games in any single season.

It's easy to see why Manning changed football in Indianapolis.

Since Manning's arrival, the Colts are 130-59. They've missed the playoffs only twice, and are now on their seventh consecutive year with at least 12 wins.

But how does the latest version of the Colts compare to these other Manning-led clubs?

Despite all the success, there are four teams that stand out. Before ranking them using seven different categories, let's take a look at a brief history of each.

 

2009 Colts (13-0)

Manning's 12th year may be his most impressive. He's playing under a new head coach. He's got several new receivers learning the offense. Defensively, the Colts have had games with 75 percent of their starting secondary on the sidelines. Yet, they are 13-0, led by the league's top passing attack.

 

2006 Colts (12-4)

Their record doesn't stand out, but their result does. The 2006 team limped into the playoffs, only to come together for an amazing four game run that lead to a victory over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.

 

2005 Colts (14-2)

The 2005 team has the best record of any Manning-led team. Like the 2009 team, they started the season off 13-0. They ended the season losing three of their last four, including a shocking loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round of the playoffs.

 

1999 Colts (13-3)

Manning's second season was the Colts' first dominant team. The roster may be unrecognizable to some, but the offense was led by the Colts' triplets (Manning, Edgerrin James, and Marvin Harrison) in their first full season together. Starting a trend of playoff woes, this team lost its opening playoff game to the Titans, who went on to the Super Bowl.

 

Category One: Offense

The 2005 team steamrolled through their schedule with an impressive display of offensive firepower.

Seven times, the 2005 Colts scored over 30 points a game. Manning had one of his best statistical years, even though he did not win the MVP award. Manning's stats were lower than his record setting pace of 2004, but he was much more efficient, completing over 67 percent of his passes.

It would the last year the triplets were together, and James finished his Indianapolis career by gaining over 1500 yards. They were third in passing and 16th in rushing, the best balance of any of the four years.

The 2006 and 1999 Colts were very similar in the offensive statistics, finishing second and fourth in passing and 18th and 19th in rushing respectively. The difference between the two was balance. The 2006 team split rushing duties between Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes. The passing game had six receivers with 30 or more catches. In 1999, 3200 yards of offense came from just James or Harrison.

The 2009 team just doesn't stack up as well. Sure, they lead the league in passing yardage, but Manning's rating pales in comparison to his 2005 and 2006 version and he's on pace to throw more interceptions than any of the other years mentioned. It doesn't help that the 2009 team is dead last in the league in rushing.

Ranking: 1. 2005, 2. 1999, 3. 2006, 4. 2009

 

Category Two: Defense

Manning-led Colts teams have never been blessed with Steel Curtain-like defenses, but the 2005 team was close. That team allowed just over 15 points per game, ranking them second in the league.

Bob Sanders stayed healthy and established himself as a defensive force. Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney combined for 22.5 sacks. Six times the Colts defense held opponents to under 10 points. They were in the top half in both rushing and passing yardage allowed.

Even in the playoff defeat, the 2005 Colts' defense played well, holding the Steelers to under 300 yards of total offense.

The current team fares much better in this category than it did offensively. The 2009 Colts are third in points allowed, though they are ranked in the bottom half in passing and rushing yardage.

The 1999 team was a middle of the road defense, and it showed in their statistics. They finished between 17th and 19th in every major statistical category.

The clear loser of this group is the 2006 team. They were 23rd in points allowed. They were second against the pass, but only because no one needed to pass against them. Teams simply ran on this team all day long. They finished last in the league in rushing defense, and the low point came when they gave up 375 yards in a 27 point loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Ranking: 1. 2005, 2. 2009, 3. 1999, 4. 2006.

 

Category Three: Special Teams

There's not a lot to talk about here. The Colts haven't had a legitimate return man since Clarence Verdin made the Pro Bowl in 1992. None of these teams stand out for their return ability.

The kicking game has also been very consistent throughout the years. Mike Vanderjagt's 2005 season was probably the best, when he converted on 23 of his 25 field goal attempts.

Only two things jump out about any of these teams.

Rookie Pat McAfee is having an outstanding year for the 2009 team. He's averaging over 44 yards a punt and has 17 land inside the 20. The Colts have enjoyed strong punt and kick coverage throughout the year.

On the flip side, the 2006 group couldn't cover Verdin's grandmother. The 2006 Colts were 30th in the league in kickoff coverage, and everyone remembers Devin Hester's opening kickoff return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl.

Ranking: 1. 2009, 2. 2005, 3. 1999, 4. 2006.

 

Category Four: Coaching

Tony Dungy. Jim Caldwell. Jim Mora.

One of these is not like the others.

Mora was a solid coach, but his years with both New Orleans and Indianapolis were inconsistent at best. His job with the 1999 team was his best during his career, but a lot of that had to do with the influx of talent the Colts had from 1998, and not from any outstanding coaching decisions Mora made.

Of the two Dungy years listed, it's hard to compare the two. Dungy suffered a great personal tragedy toward the end of the 2005 season. It's hard to say what effect that had on the team going into the playoffs. If anything, the playoff loss did make Dungy and the Colts a little strong in 2006, so that year gets the edge.

But, honestly, I think the most impressive job in a single season has to go Jim Caldwell. Dungy never faced the multitude of changes that Caldwell has. Some of it was initiated by Caldwell, like his desire to change defensive coordinators or the release of Harrison. Still, Caldwell has kept the offense in the top five in the league while also establishing a defense that is unwilling to give up a lot of points.

Caldwell has to also be commended for his ability to make adjustments during games. In the game against New England and the second Houston game, the Colts gave up 44 first half points, but only 17 in the second half. Part of that has to be attributed to Caldwell.

Ranking: 1. 2009, 2. 2006, 3. 2005, 4. 1999.

 

Category Five: Schedule

A favorable schedule can go a long way in making a team better than it may really be. For this category, I'm looking at the teams that succeeded with the toughest schedule possible.

The 2005 team faced the highest number of teams that made the playoffs that year (six), and earned a solid 5-1 against that competition. The only loss was to Seattle, which was after the Colts clinched home field and started resting players.

However, the 2005 team gets knocked for facing nine teams that finished 6-10 or worse. None of the other three teams faced more than four.

None of the other teams played more than five playoff or potential playoff teams either, but the 2009 team has the potential of playing more since Jacksonville and the Jets are still in the hunt of a playoff spot. Also, unlike the 1999 or 2006 team, they haven't lost to any playoff bound teams.

Ranking: 1. 2009, 2. 1999, 3. 2005, 4. 2006.

 

Category Six: Next Man Up

The Colts mantra has to account for something when you think of the best Manning-led team. The "Next Man Up" means that when a player goes down, the Colts expect his replacement to come in and perform.

Two teams did this. Two did not.

The 2009 Colts are a prime example of the Next Man Up philosophy. The Colts release their all-time leading receiver (Harrison), and replace him with Anthony Gonzalez. Gonzalez gets hurt and is replaced with Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie. The result is a combined 95 catches, 10 touchdowns, and nearly 1300 yards receiving.

On defense, the Colts lost Bob Sanders (again), Marlin Jackson, and have been without the services of many other starters are one point or another. Still, the Colts defense remains solid with the likes of rookies Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey. Clint Session has emerged as one of the league's top tacklers. Gary Brackett is playing the best ball of his career.

In 2006, the Colts had to go get their next man up. With Corey Simon injured, Bill Polian made a deal that brought in Tampa Bay's Anthony "Bugger" McFarland. Though it took the playoffs to really show the dividends of the trade, it did pay off.

The 2005 group really never faced the adversity that the others had, though that may have hurt them when the playoff game against Pittsburgh got tight. The 1999 team lost defensive leader Cornelius Bennettt before the playoffs. It showed when Eddie George scored the game's only touchdown off a long run right where Bennettt would have been.

Ranking: 1. 2009, 2. 2006, 3. 2005, 4. 1999

 

Category Seven: Luck

What? Luck isn't a football statistic? Of course it is. The best team doesn't always win the championship. Ask the 1998 Vikings or the 2007 Patriots.

Sometimes, you need a little luck to win a football game or two. For the 2009 Colts, it's helped them win a football game or five.

Yesterday's win over Denver was a prime example of this happening. The Colts had done nothing for the entire second half. Facing 3rd-and-10 from their own 20 in the fourth quarter, Manning suddenly hit Collie for a big first down. It was the play of the game. The Colts, after looking like the Lions for the last 18 minutes, suddenly put together a drive to seal the game.

It's happened throughout the year. The Bill Belichick fourth down gamble. The Kris Brown missed field goal in the first Houston game. Somehow, a play always seems to happen to bail this team out. Five straight fourth quarter comebacks is a sign this team just isn't good, but has a little luck on its side too.

Ranking: 1. 2009, 2. 2006, 3. 1999, 4. 2005.

 

Final Ranking

1. 2009

2. 2005

3. 1999

4. 2006

Okay, so the 2009 team is the best Colts team ever. What exactly does that mean?

Not a lot.

The worst of the four, the 2006 team, is the only one that won the Super Bowl. Even when they were winning, the knock on the 2006 team was that they couldn't stop the run and that would lead to playoff failure.

Instead, they turned it around and played excellent defense throughout the playoffs.

Hopefully the latest version of the Colts will follow in the flawed footsteps of that team and not the end result of the others.

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