Over the past decade, the Colts have been on a run paralleled by few teams in football history.
During this span, the team captured a Super Bowl title, two conference championships, seven division championships, seven straight seasons with at least 12 wins and eight consecutive postseason appearances. The team also set records for wins in a single decade and for the longest regular season winning streak.
At various points throughout this run, experts have questioned how much longer the Colts success would last, and whether a division foe such as Tennessee, Houston or Jacksonville would dislodge them from the top of the AFC South (which has been won by the Colts in all but two seasons since its inception in 2002).
After an unusual 2010 season, in which the Colts had to fight just for a playoff berth at a time they are usually able to rest their starters, analysts are already speculating that the team’s “window” is closing. However, this would be a premature prognosis, as the Colts remain legitimate contenders.
Here are six reasons why.
This is one is a no-brainer, but as long as Manning remains in blue and white, the Colts will be hard to ignore. Since his arrival, the Colts have been hard to put away, as the future Hall of Famer has led 45 comebacks in the fourth quarter or overtime.
Manning received some negative attention in 2010 for what was perceived as a subpar season, with some even labeling it as the start of his decline, but this criticism was overblown.
Last season, he threw 33 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, and during his MVP season in 2009, he threw 33 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Much of the criticism may have been the result of a poor midseason stretch, in which he threw 11 interceptions in three games.
However, it should be noted that Manning was playing with a receiving corps decimated by injuries for nearly all of last season (more on this in the next two slides).
The fact remains that with Manning, the Colts should not be overlooked.
Heading into 2010, Colts fans could hang their hats on the fact that the team reached the previous Super Bowl despite losing their defensive star and a starting receiver. With Bob Sanders and Anthony Gonzalez healthy, it was logical to assume the team could have an even better season.
However, in the season’s first game, both Sanders and Gonzalez were injured again and would miss the majority of the season (Sanders did not play again and Gonzalez only appeared in one other game).
This misfortune would turn out to be a sign of things to come, as by year’s end, the team would place 17 players on injured reserve. The team also had a number of starters, including linebackers Gary Brackett and Clint Session, running back Joseph Addai and corner Jerraud Powers miss significant time.
Considering the circumstances, the fact the team was still able to win a division title is impressive. Since it is hard to imagine injury trouble of this magnitude duplicating itself in 2011, with most of the injured players expected to return, the Colts should be able to have even more success in the coming season.
When healthy, the Colts receiving corps is among the best in the NFL. In 2010, the group simply was not healthy.
Anthony Gonzalez appeared in only two games, Dallas Clark was lost for the season in week six, and Austin Collie missed eight games including the postseason. With these players out, the Colts offense did not look like itself at times.
It should be noted that replacements like Blair White and Jacob Tamme did an admirable job considering the circumstances, but at the end of the day, White is not Austin Collie or Anthony Gonzalez and Tamme is not Dallas Clark.
With new parts shuffling into and out of the lineup, the Colts passing game was not as vertical as it has been the past, as evidenced by Peyton Manning’s 6.9 yards per pass attempt, his lowest total in this category since his rookie season.
Moving forward, a group featuring the All-Pro Reggie Wayne, who has been one the league’s most consistent receivers, two-year starter Pierre Garçon, and Gonzalez, plus Clark who is arguably the game’s best tight end, would offer the Colts one of the game’s best receiving corps in 2011.
Collie, who has emerged as a skilled and dependable target, could also be in the mix, but given his concussion problems in 2010, ensuring his overall health first is a bigger concern.
Tamme and White will round out the group and, now with a season of significant experience under their belts, add depth to what will be a formidable unit.
Granted, we don’t yet know if Anthony Castonzo or Ben Ijalana, the team’s first two selections in April’s draft, will be quality pros. We do know that the Colts offensive line could stand to improve, and the two rookies certainly can help in this regard.
At 311 and 317 pounds respectively, Castonzo and Ijalana will add some size to a line that has struggled in recent seasons in terms of run blocking. Since 2008, the Colts have ranked 31st, 32nd and 29th in the league in rushing.
To their credit, in this same period, the unit has done a good job protecting Peyton Manning, and the rookie pair seems poised to help this continue. Analysis on the players from CBSSports.com lists pass blocking as a strength of both Castonzo and Ijalana.
While it is generally overlooked in favor of the offense, the Colts defense, while not dominant, has been solid the past few seasons.
In 2010, the Colts ranked were 20th in the league in terms of yardage allowed, but again, injuries played a significant role. Defensive backs Bob Sanders, Melvin Bullitt, Jerraud Powers and Kelvin Hayden all finished the season on injured reserve, and rookie linebackers Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner had to start for more than half a season because of injuries to Clint Session and defensive captain Gary Brackett.
Heading into the coming season, the Colts have one of the league’s best pass rushing duos in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who have both earned Pro Bowl invitations in each of last three seasons.
In the secondary, although Sanders was released, Bullitt is expected to return and pair with former Pro Bowler Antoine Bethea to form a quality safety tandem. Also returning from injury is Powers, who has shown promise in his first two NFL seasons, and could start opposite of Hayden or Justin Tryon in 2011.
At linebacker, the combination of Brackett, Session, Angerer and Tyjuan Haggler will provide the Colts with options, as each has started for the team in the past.
This one may raise a few eyebrows, but a closer look would point to the league moving kickoffs up to the 35-yard line being an advantage for the Colts.
First of all, for fear of blowing one play out of proportion, who knows how last year’s playoff loss to the Jets would have ended had the game’s final kickoff resulted in a touchback rather than a 47-yard return by Antonio Cromartie?
Looking beyond that catastrophe, the fact is the Colts coverage and return units have both been poor. In 2010, the Colts had the second worst kickoff coverage team in the league in terms of yards per return, and have only ranked outside the bottom five in this category once in the past five years.
With regards to average kickoff returns, only three teams in the NFL were worse than Indianapolis last year, and the club has been in the bottom half of the league in this area five of the last six seasons.
With these struggles in mind, it seems that any rule that marginalizes the role of kickoffs benefits the Colts.