For the most part, I really hate the NFL offseason. Most fans do. Unless you are still in a celebrational stupor on Bourbon Street, the vast majority of NFL fans look at the offseason with disdain.
It seems like millennia until the kickoff of the 2010 season. Training camps won't open for five months. Even the draft is nearly two months away.
It's a miserable time to be a NFL junkie. With no game plans to debate, most of us spend way too much time over analyzing every move in the league. I'm sure that there were 31 message boards wondering if their team could sign the unemployed LaDainian Tomlinson. Maybe Brian Westbrook could help your team.
Heck, some fan is liable to talk themselves into Charlie Frye as a quality signing.
Idle hands, as they say.
But there are some viable moves every team could make. For the Indianapolis Colts, I think some possible moves fall into three categories. There are some moves they could make. There are moves they should make. And there are moves that left unmade, could unravel the 2010 season. In my dream world, I would love to see all 10 happen, but I'm not Bill Polian.
I wouldn't call it necessary, but it sure would be nice...
10. Find a Kicker
Nothing against Matt Stover or Adam Vinatieri, but after watching them play a rigorous game of backgammon at the community center, it occurred to me that maybe it's time for a little influx of youth in the Colts' kicking department.
Or at least get someone not alive during Watergate.
Vinatieri is the best clutch kicker in NFL history, but there's no denying that he has had his fair share of injuries in the twilight of his career. How will this affect his accuracy? Distance?
Stover has had a very underrated career. He was actually a solid replacement for Vinatieri for much of the season. My desire to replace him has nothing to do with his Super Bowl kick, but everything to do with the fact that he's on the wrong side of 30. And 40.
Colts' rookie punter Pat McAfee punted and kicked in college. Perhaps he can handle both duties? With a deeper than usual draft, maybe a solid kicker slips to a lower draft pick. At any rate, finding a kicker with a bit of distance in his leg might be a good thing.
9. Upgrade the Offensive Line
The Colts' offensive line has long had a reputation of being a quality unit. At passing blocking, they are one of the best. Run blocking, however, has it's ups and downs.
Yes, the Colts aren't a rushing team. You'll never seem dominate a game with 30 carries and 150 yards. But a little consistency would be nice.
The weaknesses of the Colts' line has been masked by the brilliance of line coach Howard Mudd. However, Mudd won't be back in 2010. Will the excellence in play go with him?
The Colts have a solid leader in Jeff Saturday. Saturday is still one of the league's better centers, but he'll be 35 by the start of next season. His leadership skills are invaluable to Peyton Manning and the offense.
Ryan Lilja and Ryan Diem are also quality players that are younger. Lilja seemed to get better as the season wore on after missing 2008 with an injury. Diem's one of the leagues most underrated right tackles.
After that, it gets sketchy. The Colts gave the left tackle job to Charlie Johnson at the beginning of the season. Johnson is a solid player, but isn't a dominating blocker. Journeyman Kyle Devan won one of the guard spots. Again, decent player, but only decent. Both of those men beat out higher drafted guys, Tony Ugoh and Mike Pollak. If Johnson and DeVan are just serviceable, what does this say about Ugoh and Pollak?
With Mudd's retirement, it might be wise for the Colts to upgrade the line to protect their No. 1 asset.
8. Find a Killer Instinct
I remember reading a preview about the Super Bowl where they talked about the philosophical differences between the Saints and Colts. The Colts were touted as a well-oiled machine. Predictable, dependable, and unspectacular. The Saints were the wild team. You'd never know would you would get out of them, but you know it would be something interesting.
In the end, the game turned out like that preview. The unpredictable Saints took chances. The Colts would have made the Republican National Convention look like a Greenpeace rally.
Maybe it was the curse of a rookie head coach. Maybe the team got too confident in a 10-0 lead. Whatever it was, it was easy to see that the Colts tightened up the farther the game went along. They can't do that if they want to win another championship anytime soon.
Of the 10 things listed, this is obviously the hardest to do, but the Colts need to find some sort of fire for next season. It shouldn't be a business like atmosphere. Instead, they should come out ticked off and stay that way. Some of the greatest teams had that edge. For most of 2009, I thought the Colts did as well. Maybe it was one game, but it was the wrong game to lose it.
It Can't Hurt You, It Can Only Help...
7. Find Depth at LB
For years, the Colts have tossed aside linebackers like they grew on trees. The Colts have simply not made LB a priority. Mike Peterson, David Thornton, and Cato June have all come and gone from the Colts roster. At every significant decision, Polian has chosen to build his LB corps through the draft. There's never been a need to pay big money to a LB.
But once again, the Colts find themselves at a crossroad. Gary Brackett is a free agent. Tyjuan Hagler is returning from injury. Both Clint Session and Philip Wheeler have shown great athleticism, but have also had growing pains.
The unit has talent, but it's the weakest unit on the defensive side.
The Colts need to either find some LBs in the draft, or sign a free agent (though the Colts' hands are tied somewhat in free agency).
The Colts defensive system asks a lot of its LBs. Larry Coyer had his LBs blitz more this year, but they also have responsibilities in run defense and pass coverage. Finding some versatile, or even situational, LBs would really help upgrade this unit.
6. Say Goodbye to Bob Sanders
I love Bob Sanders. I really do. I love his energy on the field. I love his quiet leadership ability. I love that he's capable of that one hit in a game that can totally change momentum in the Colts' favor.
The only problem is that Sanders is as fragile as peanut brittle.
For a few seasons, we had to endure the endless talk from experts that the Colts' defense wasn't the same without Sanders in the lineup. That theory sprouted wings when Sanders came back for the 2006 playoffs and helped lead the Colts to a Super Bowl championship.
I drank the Kool-Aid too. We needed Sanders.
But 2009 proved otherwise.
A 14-0 start, with Sanders taking a minuscule role in its undertaking. The defense played very well, and even helped win some games when the offense was less than stellar.
We now know that we've outgrown Sanders. He doesn't need to come save us anymore.
I would love for nothing more than to see Sanders come back, play 16 games, and show off the talent that won him the 2007 Defensive Player of the Year Award.
But it won't happen. Sanders style of play, combined with his relatively small physique, just can't handle it. At this point, it would be a realistic goal to see him in eight games.
His salary, though, tells us we need to demand more. Sanders' salary eats up a significant chunk of the Colts' cash flow.
It's hard to say if Sanders has any trade value. If he doesn't, the Colts should seriously consider saying goodbye. Sanders is nothing more than a luxury, and it's one the Colts just can't afford anymore.
5. Re-sign Peyton Manning—Reasonably
Manning will get re-signed. It's not even worth listing that as the option. But does he really need to become the highest paid player in the league? Do they give trophies out for that?
Manning is one the league's most marketable players. His "aw shucks" demeanor and good guy image making him a natural for promoting the league, Gatorade, or Oreos. Manning ranks as one of the mostly highly paid athletes in any sport already.
I find it impossible to believe that Manning has an ego that requires him to be the No. 1 earner in the league. Considering Manning's competitiveness, I find it more likely that Manning would rather take a little less to ensure that the Colts can spend some money or another area of need.
Now, I know Jim Irsay will give Manning what he wants, and I'm not one to tell another person what they need to make salary wise. But even in an uncapped year, if Manning took a little less from the kitty, it would definitely help the Colts compete for another Super Bowl title.
The importance of this goes up if the threat of a lockout becomes a reality in 2011. Manning only has so many quality years left. The time to win is now, so it would good if the Colts can spend money in every area possible to make a run for a championship.
Sure, Ignore This, and We Could Be Vacationing Early Next Year....
4. Replace Tim Jennings
There came a point in the Super Bowl where I realized that Drew Brees would not be stopped. It came when Jennings became a factor following Jerraud Powers' injury. Even if the Saints faced a third and long, you just knew Jennings would give a cushion to someone and allow a key third down conversion.
Jennings came out of college with the reputation of a speedster, and while Jennings has straight line speed, he has questionable closing speed. Often, Jennings' man catches the ball short of the first down, but Jennings' slow reaction time allows his man to gain more valuable yards.
Luckily, the Colts have several options upon which to replace Jennings. First, they should see if Marlin Jackson has anything left after two knee injuries. Considering the injuries, Jackson could be re-signed for little money. If he can go at all, he would be a great asset to the Colts. Unlike most corners, Jackson is a tall, physical presence. If he could be used in dime and nickel, it would be worth a shot to try him.
If Jackson can't go, the Colts will need to make corner a priority in the draft or free agency. Asking Polian to strike gold again, as he did in 2009 with Powers and Jacob Lacey, might be asking a lot, but Polain has had lucky finding solid corners in the draft.
But no matter where he looks, Jennings must be replaced. Powers injury did more to hurt the Colts than Dwight Freeney's did.
3. Find a Return Specialist
If you run a sub-4.4 40, then I am personally asking you to visit the Colts training camp this summer.
I've had pancake syrup move faster than some of the Colts' kick returners in recent memory. The Colts haven't had a real threat in the return game since Clarence Verdin in the early '90s.
Field position is everything in today's NFL. I've seen games that get mired into battles of field position, each team waiting for the other to make a critical mistake in the kicking game.
The Colts need to have a returner that causes special teams coaches to stay up late at night. Right now, the Colts don't have that.
For too long, the philosophy has been that the Colts need to be just good enough in the kicking department, and Manning will find a way to recover. You can't rely on that as a winning formula, especially against good teams in the playoffs.
The Colts must find a returner that can help win the special teams battle. Special teams killed them in 2008 against the Chargers. Special teams hurt them in the 2009 Super Bowl. The Colts can't let that happen again in 2010.
2. Re-sign Gary Brackett
I've mentioned before how the Colts have let the likes of Thornton and June go. In both cases, it was easy to get over the loss because you knew Brackett was still there.
If we lose Brackett, who would be left? Session? Wheeler? Outside of Brackett, who would be able to step up and assume the leadership role?
There's a reason Brackett is the defensive captain. Freeney gets the headlines, but Brackett is who really drives this Colts defense. His versatility allows him to make plays in both the passing and running game. Coyer even called on Brackett to help put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Even if everything I've mentioned fails to get done, there would still be hope if Brackett anchors the middle of the defense. Without him, the Colts would have a very weak LB corps, something other teams would be sure to expose.
1. Re-sign Antoine Bethea
As much as I like Brackett, I honestly believe this is the Colts' top priority. Sanders' absence taught me two things this year: One, we don't really need him, and two, Bethea is one tremendous player.
While it should be noted that Melvin Bullit did a fantastic job in relief for Sanders, it was Bethea that really helped a youthful secondary gel into a solid playmaking group.
Since joining the Colts in their Super Bowl year, Bethea has been a model of consistency. He's registered at least 95 tackles in every season. He's gotten at least four interceptions in half his years in the league. He has four interceptions in his six playoff games.
It's obvious the league is a passing one now. There's a reason why Polian puts little value in LBs. He knows that have a formidable defense you need a solid defensive line and a good secondary. Playmakers at safety are hard to come by. Consistent play makers are a true rarity. Bethea is the most underrated player in the Colts defense, even more so than Brackett.
The real hidden story of the Super Bowl underlines the importance of Bethea. For much of the game, the Colts played deep safeties, taking away Bethea's ability to come up and making plays in the passing game. It was a conservative approach, designed to keep the Saints from killing the Colts with deep plays.
Instead, they bleed the Colts to death, slowly.
Early in the game, Bethea nearly got an interception on an overthrown ball to Jeremy Shockey. I never noticed him being close to the line again unless the Saints were knocking on the door of the end zone.
Bethea's value can't be understated. The Colts need to re-sign him. Without the ability to trust Sanders for an entire season, the Colts need the steady hand of a veteran in the secondary that can lead by example. Otherwise, the entire 2010 season may be one long, slow bleed.