The Indianapolis Colts' Offense in the Postseason: Albatross or Savior?

Eric JAnalyst IMay 13, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS - JANUARY 21:  Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts prepares to throw a touch down pass as Ty Warren #94 of the New England Patriots gets blocked by Jake Scott #73 during the AFC Championship Game on January 21, 2007 at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana.  The Colts won the game 38-34.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Much has been made about the Colts' 7-8 playoff record in the past decade. Despite the Colts' offense and its quarterback being among the most consistently prolific in NFL history, the blame for this record has been placed squarely on their shoulders by popular opinion. 

It does not matter if the Colts are the only one out of the four teams with a double digit number of playoff games since 2001 to not field a consistently strong defense.  It does not matter that the Colts defense has given up two touchdowns in the first three drives of three different playoff games.

It does not even matter that the Colts have fielded one of the most consistently poor special teams units in recent memory—a unit that blew two field goals in the postseason that would have sent one playoff game to overtime and won another one in overtime, and is the only one in NFL history to allow a kickoff return for a touchdown on the opening drive of a Super Bowl.

Popular opinion has decreed that the Colts offense, and namely its quarterback, simply did not do enough to win.

Using the data made available through the NFL’s Game Books, which currently go back to the 2001 season, I examined this popular opinion more closely using all playoff games since the 2001 playoffs.

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Of the 14 offenses with at least half a dozen playoff games since 2001, the Colts offense actually scored the second most points per game (23.2) behind only the Steelers offense (25.1). 

Keep in mind that I am only referring to points actually scored by offenses, which excludes any points scored on returns by defense and special teams.

While this fact alone would be impressive enough for many, consider that the Colts offense scored those points despite averaging the fewest drives per game (10.6) of any of those 14 offenses (drives ending in kneel downs were excluded). 

It being easier to score more points with more drives may be more or less common sense, but it bears mentioning that the only other offenses to average less than 11 drives per game out of the 14 offenses both averaged under 20 points per game, ranking 11th and 12th out of 14. 

By some apparent coincidence, both of these offenses are from New York.  Both the Giants and Jets averaged 19 points per game on 10.6 and 10.7 drives per game respectively. 

On the other end of the spectrum, the Steelers offense, who ranked first in points per game, tied for second in drives per game with 12.  The Ravens offense also averaged 12 drives per game and the Packers offense was first with 12.1 drives per game.

As you may already be expecting, the Colts offense averaged the most points per drive (2.19) of any of the 14 offenses. 

The Steelers offense ranked second with 2.09 points per drive, and the Rams offense ranked third with 2.01 points per drive.  The remaining 11 offenses averaged between 1.02 (Ravens offense) and 1.95 (Patriots offense) points per drive.

An additional consideration when putting scoring into context is field position.  The smaller the distance an offense has to move the ball to score, the better their chances are of scoring. 

The Colts offense had the worst average field position of the 14 offenses (29.1) and was one of only two offenses to start behind the 30 on average (the other being the Chargers offense at 29.4).

Perhaps not so surprising, the same Steelers offense that ranked first in points per game and second in points per drive ranked first in field position (33.9). 

Similarly, the same Patriots offense that ranked fourth in both points per drive and points per game (21.7) ranked third in field position (32.1).

The Rams offense that ranked third in both points per drive and points per game (22.8) did not have great field position, ranking eighth out of the 14 offenses (31.2), but they were still at least in the middle of the pack.

Interestingly enough, the same Jets who ranked so poorly in drives per game ranked second in field position (32.1).

If you consider all 29 of the playoff teams since 2001 without regard for the number of games played, the top four offenses in points per game (Browns, Raiders, Cardinals,  Steelers) were also the top four offenses in field position in almost the same rank order (Browns, Raiders, Steelers, Cardinals). 

The Saints offense was the only one in the bottom four for field position out of all 29 offenses (Saints, Dolphins, Bengals, and Cowboys) to average more than 17 points per game (20.5) with the Bengals, Cowboys, and Dolphins averaging 17, 13.3, and 6 points per game respectively.

So in spite of having the fewest number of drives and worst field position of any of the 14 offenses with at least half a dozen playoff games since 2001, the Colts offense scored the second most points per game and the most points per drive of those 14 offenses.

So if the Colts offense has been doing an excellent job of putting points on the board, why have the Colts been losing roughly half of their playoff games? 

The obvious answer is of course that the Colts defense has been giving up too many points, but this answer defies popular opinion, which holds that the Colts defense has actually been the more reliable unit in the postseason while the Colts offense has been the team’s albatross.

By all accounts, the Colts defense did play well during the team’s championship run in the 2006 playoffs after playing rather poorly during the 2006 regular season to become one of the worst ranked defenses to win a Super Bowl in NFL history.

Apart from that championship postseason, however, the Colts have posted a 3-6 record since 2001, which naturally begs the question: How did the Colts defense play in the postseason apart from that one year?

Excluding the 2006 postseason, 13 defenses have played at least half a dozen playoff games since 2001. The Colts defense ranks dead last among those defenses in points allowed per drive, and by a rather fair margin. 

The Colts defense allowed 2.42 points per drive, which was 0.31 more points than the next-worst defense (Giants).  As a matter of perspective, that is larger than the difference between the next-worst Giants defense and the eighth ranked defense (Chargers).

The Colts defense did not have the greatest field position with which to work—only three out of the 13 defenses had worse field position—but remember that the Colts offense had the very worst field position of any offense with at least half a dozen playoff games since 2001. 

That is a clear indication that the Colts offense was not the unit chiefly responsible for the team’s poor field position; however, this is made even more evident after examining yards per drive.

The Colts offense averaged the most yards per drive (34.5) of any offense with at least half a dozen playoff games since 2001.

On the other hand, the Colts defense allowed the most yards per drive (34.1) of any defense with at least half a dozen playoff games since 2001, excluding the 2006 postseason.

Remember those Steelers and Patriots offenses that ranked first and third in field position?  They only ranked 12th and sixth out of 14 offenses in yards per drive respectively.

Clearly the Colts offense did everything it could to earn good field position, but it was saddled with the worst anyway.

For a more direct comparison of the Colts offense and Colts defense’s roles in the team’s 3-6 playoff record since 2001 apart from their 2006 championship run, I looked at the points scored and yards per drive by offenses again without the 2006 postseason.

As you probably already expected, the Colts offense held its first-place rankings among teams with at least half a dozen playoff games, but what makes the analysis interesting is that the Colts offense’s margin over the next best offense in each category grew 80 percent for points per drive and 70 percent for yards per drive.

So while the Colts offense scored the most points per drive and accumulated the most yards per drive of any offense with at least half a dozen games, and the Colts defense allowed the most points per drive and yards per drive of any defense with at least half a dozen games in those non-championship years, popular opinion blames the team’s offense.

I guess that tells you what popular opinion is worth.

Needless to say, defense plays a vital role in postseason success. 

The top five defenses in terms of the fewest number of points allowed per drive in at least half a dozen games have combined to win seven out of the nine Super Bowls in the current 2000s decade (Note: the Ravens' 2000 championship postseason is not included in the available data).

These top-five defenses have also combined for 18 conference championship game appearances this decade, which is half of the total number of conference championship game appearances. At least one of those five teams appeared in a conference championship game in every single season this decade.

Clearly the Ravens, Buccaneers, Eagles, Steelers, and Patriots are on to something.

As for the Colts and Giants—the only two Super Bowl winners from this decade not on that list—even public opinion knows how those defenses came through in those postseasons, with both defenses allowing the fewest points per game in their respective postseasons.

At least popular opinion has something right.