Was Tony Dungy Holding the Colts Back in the Playoffs All These Years?

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Was Tony Dungy Holding the Colts Back in the Playoffs All These Years?
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Something occurred to me as I watched the Colts’ defense outplay the Jets' defense, the Colts’ special teams unit outplay the Jets’ special teams unit, and, well, the Colt’s offense do what they always do when they get their hands on the ball: score more often than not.

What occurred to me is that the reason that the Colts have been so successful this post-season is not the play of the offense but the vast improvement of the defense and special teams this year in comparison to any year under Tony Dungy.

After Sunday’s game the Colts are ranked fifth in overall defense, their rushing defense ranks third, and the passing defense ranks seventh – though I wouldn’t make a lot of that ranking, since a lot of those yards, in both games, were garbage yards given up by the Colts defense at the end of the fourth quarter. When it mattered the most the Colts gave up only two big plays in the air over two games.

When we look back at the Dungy era the thing that stands out is that the Colts went to the playoffs every year from 2002-2008, but only came away with one Super Bowl ring during that period.

 During that same time-span there were no major staff changes made by Dungy; even though the statistics consistently pointed out two major factors in the majority of those playoff losses.

 Right now as we enter the offseason we're seeing coordinators and position coaches getting hired and fired all over the place. But in Indy, from 2002-2008 nothing changed from one year to the next. Why?

Before we can answer the question, we need to look at each post-season, and analyze what was going wrong six out of the seven years Coach Dungy was there:

2002:

Only the Colts’ passing defense ranks in the top five coming in at four. The rushing defense ranks dead last at 12.

The Colts get humiliated in the Wildcard game, by the Jets, who won the game 41-0.

The Colts’ defense gave up 396 yards, where 180 of those yards were rushing yards.

Obviously, the offense didn’t play well either, but it’s hard to win a game when your defense is giving up that many yards.

2003:

Again, only the Colts’ pass defense ranks in the top five, coming in at fourth. The Colts’ rush defense did a little better this year ranking ninth.

The Colts blowout Denver at home, and then go on the road to play the Chiefs, in what turned out to be a high scoring shootout with the Colts winning by seven. Next the Colts fly to Foxboro to play the Patriots in the Championship game and lose by ten points.

2004:

There’s a pattern starting to emerge here: The Colts rank second in pass defense, and tenth in run defense, and lose games against teams that are well balanced or who run the ball exceptionally well and play great defense.

In the first post-season game they blow out the hapless Broncos by jumping out to a quick lead, and forcing them to play Colts football. That means abandoning the run for the pass, which, as I will go into greater detail later, is exactly what the Tampa-2 does best.

Next the Colts go to New England and get embarrassed by the Patriots. In that game, the Colts' defense was on the field for almost the whole first half because they couldn’t stop the run – they gave up 210 rushing yards total to the Patriots.

Granted they held the Patriots to six points the first half, but they gave the offense very few possessions, so they never got in rhythm. In the second half of that game, with the Colts' defense worn out, Brady and the Patriots blew the game wide open, and with the defense unable to stop them, the Colts' offense was put in the position of having to try to score on every possession. Manning started to press, got picked off three times, and the Colts' defense played a large part in another playoff loss.

2005:

Same story, the Colts pass defense ranked fourth and the rush defense ranked eighth.

The Colts are the one seed this year, have a bye week, and then lose in the divisional round of the playoffs to the Steelers. The Colts did get lucky and almost won this game, because of a Jerome Betties fumble at the goal line which was picked up by Nick Harper. Was it not for a shoestring tackle by Big Ben, Harper would have taken it to the house and the Colts probably would have won that game. The Colts still had a chance to tie the game, but unfortunately the, "idiot kicker who got liquored up and ran his mouth off.", as Manning so eloquently put it, missed the field goal and the Colts lost in the playoffs again.

2006: What is striking about the 2006 team that went to the Super Bowl is that they  had the No. 1 overall defense, the No. 2 pass defense, and the No. 3 rush defense. Something that never occurred the other six years of playoff runs. What’s even odder is that during the 2006 regular season the Colts’ rush defense was one of the worst in the league.

Somehow the Colts’ turned that around in the post-season. They played well in the first two playoff games, adequate in the championship game against the Patriots, and well in the Super Bowl. This has to be attributed to Coach Dungy, Defensive Line Coach John Teerlink, and Bill Polian for picking up Defensive Tackle Anthony “Booger” McFarland.

McFarland got them stouter in the middle, and Dungy and Teerlink got the defense line to close up the A and B gaps, the linebackers to be disciplined in their gap control, the defense to make precision tackles and swarm to the ball. These adjustments got them to play well enough to give the Colts’ offense a chance.

Keep in mind that the first two playoff games were against one dimensional teams, where, once the Colts shut their running games down, could not do much through the air. Limiting the air attack to small gains and pressuring the passer is exactly what the Tampa-2 was designed to do, and was very effective in those games. This allowed the Colts’ offense to put just enough points on the board to win the first two games, in which Manning and the Colts’ offense did not play particularly well.

In the championship game against the Patriots, who were a balanced team that could run the ball as well as pass it, the Colts’ defense didn’t play great, but they played well enough for Manning and the offense to win the game, and set a record for the biggest comeback ever in a championship game.

In the Super Bowl, the Colts' defense played well, limiting the rushing yards of Thomas Jones, and sticking to the bend-but-don’t-break philosophy of Dungy’s defense.

The real story of that game was the Colts offense, especially Joseph Addai and Dominick Rhodes, who helped the Colts sustain long drives – especially in the second half – that kept the Bears' defense on the field and wore them out.

My point is that the 2007 playoff defense for the Colts was good, but not great. The stats are skewed because of the teams they played, to make them look better than they were.

 Here is the reality: they we’re just good enough to keep the Colts in games, and take a lot of the pressure off of Manning having to be perfect – the only caveat to all of this is that Marlin Jackson deserves special credit for picking off Tom Brady, with 16 seconds left to go in the championship game. If it weren’t for that interception, the Colts still might be looking for their first Super Bowl win since 1971.

2007: This is the only post-season where no part of the defense ranked in the top five, and the first time the pass defense, which ranked twelfth, came in behind the rush defense, which ranked eighth.

In a game where the Colts' defense gave up 312 yards in the air, Manning still engineered a comeback drive in the fourth quarter, hitting rookie receiver Anthony Gonzalez for a touchdown that should have been the winning score.

Unfortunately, the Colts’ defense couldn’t stop Billy Volek, the Chargers backup quarterback, from converting a third and fifteen, which, if they had, would have effectively won the game for the Colts.

This became the third post-season where the Colts were one-and-done in the playoffs.

2008: This time the Colts pass defense ranked third, the rush defense ranked twelfth, and the Colts’ defense and special teams combined gave up 328 all-purpose yards to one player – this became the fourth time in seven seasons that the Colts were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round.

This game might be the worst loss of all of them. It’s a sad state of affairs when the entire game is put on the offense to win because the defense and special teams can’t stop one player.

Even still the offense rose to the occasion, though they couldn’t run the ball, and were pinned deep in their own end zone most of the game, they still came within two yards of winning the game.  

 It all came down to Manning having to convert a third and two inside his own ten yard line -- he snapped the ball, the left tackle missed his assignment and Manning got sacked for the first time in the game. After that the game was over for the Colts. The defense couldn’t stop the Chargers from tying the game, special teams gave up big yards on the kick return by Darren Sproles, and the defense imploded in overtime, resulting in a touchdown by Sproles. 

Special Teams: The Colts’ special teams, under Coach Russ Purnell, consistently ranked near the bottom of the league over the whole seven years that Purnell was there.

In so many regular season games, and especially playoff games, special teams can be the deciding factor between winning and losing. A perfect example is the 2009 playoff game between the Colts and the Chargers, where Punter Mike Scifres, and the rest of San Diego’s special teams unit, consistently pinned the Colts deep inside their own territory, making it difficult for the Colts to get drives going; while on the opposite side of the spectrum the Colts special teams unit gave the Chargers great starting field position most of the game, were horrible on returning kickoffs and punts, and gave up costly yardage to Darren Sproles on his kickoff return in overtime.

What can we glean from the above stats and six seasons of playoff losses?

1)    When you can’t stop the run your pass defense rankings get artificially boosted because teams aren’t throwing the ball that much. This makes your pass defense look better than it actually is.

2)    The Colts’ run defense consistently failed against teams who were balanced and could run the ball well. This certainly was a great contributor to all the losses in the playoffs. Sure, under Ron Meeks, the Colts didn’t give up a lot of points in the red zone, but it didn’t matter. When the Colts had to play good teams, who could score, the guy who gave the Colts the best chance to win was sitting on the bench for a good portion of the game.

3)    Ron Meeks rarely blitzed, did not disguise his coverages, and relied too heavily on his front four to generate a pass rush. Under Meeks tenure as defensive coordinator the Colts averaged two fewer offensive possessions per game than the league average of ten. From 2005-2008 the Colts were dead last in offensive possessions per game.

It must have been apparent to Tony Dungy, Bill Polian, and the rest of the coaching staff that the same pattern was happening season after season, and yet nothing was done about it.

The front office of the Colts always used the excuse, “We tried to bring in bigger DTs, but we had buzzard’s luck at that position.” Poppycock!

The truth of the matter is that Tony believed in using undersized guys up front and a bend but don’t break philosophy. He didn’t want big guys on the D-line, that’s not what the Tampa-2 calls for: it’s based on speedy, undersized guys who play a one gap system where gap control is paramount. They have to be quick to the ball, and be able to capitalize on the mistakes made by the other team because of the pass rush generated by the front four.

The Tampa-2 scheme worked great in the 90’s at shutting down the West Coast Offense, which is what it was designed to do. The problem was that by the time Tony was hired by the Colts, teams had figured out how to adjust the West Coast Offense to beat the Tampa-2. Sure, the scheme was still affective, but teams with the right personnel groupings could beat it. Plus it only took one guy missing a tackle for the whole scheme to break down. This is what happened to the Colts in the playoffs time and time again.

Tony Dungy was a remarkable coach, who has had a Hall of Fame career. As head Coach of the Colts he set numerous records, and brought a Lombardi Trophy to a team that hadn’t won one in 36 years, and a city that had never had one before.

As great of a coach as he was, he is an even better human being, who we can all stand to learn from, including how he handled the tragic loss of his son, and all the work he has done to help the youth in the cities of Indianapolis and Tampa Bay. Tony is truly someone to be admired.

However, no one is above reproach, and no one is perfect. It’s clear now that he’s gone, and the Colts defense and special teams have drastically improved in the regular season, and most importantly in the playoffs, that some of Tony’s best qualities as a human being might have interfered with his judgment as a head coach.

Tony Dungy’s loyalty to his friends, which is a great quality in personal life, interfered with him doing what needed to be done to correct the recurring problems the Colts were having during his tenure there.

Mainly, Ron Meeks and Russ Purnell needed to be fired, and should have been replaced by coaches of the same caliber as those on the offense. Had he done so, the Colts just might have a few more Lombardi trophies in their case at Lucas Oil Stadium.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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