Whether you have been following the NFL offseason by watching television, listening to the radio, or reading articles via print or the Web, if you have heard anything about the Indianapolis Colts, there is a good chance it was about one member or another of the coaching staff leaving or Peyton Manning being upset with the aftermath.
However, there is a lot more going on for the Colts during the offseason as they prepare for the 2009 season than who is missing or coming back in a reduced capacity. The following are five storylines I will be watching closely based on their potential impact on the Colts' 2009 season.
We have heard all about the retirement of Tom Moore and his diminished role as a consultant from the mass media, but how much has been said about his replacement at offensive coordinator, Clyde Christensen?
Clyde Christensen came over to the Colts from Tampa Bay along with Tony Dungy in 2002 and has been the wide receivers coach ever since. The Colts have a reputation for continuity on offense, and Christensen’s promotion lines up perfectly with that philosophy.
Peyton Manning made a point of mentioning that Christensen was already involved with play calling during the 2008 season for third down and red zone situations. Needless to say, the Colts offense led the league in both categories.
The Colts' biggest problem in 2009 involving Moore and Christensen may actually wind up being ensuring that Christensen does not feel like Moore is looking over his shoulder. Since Moore himself has referred to the term “consultant” as another word for someone who second guesses everything, I think he will have a strong appreciation for Christensen’s situation and best interests.
Another Colts assistant we have not heard much about from the mass media is their new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer, who was brought on board after tenures with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Denver Broncos to replace the departed Ron Meeks.
Coyer brings a very different track record to the position than Meeks. While the Colts defense under Meeks has often struggled against the run and to get off the field on third down, Coyer’s last stint as a defensive coordinator, with the Broncos from 2003 to 2006, indicates that he knows how to address those areas.
During Coyer’s four seasons as the Broncos defensive coordinator, the Broncos defense finished in the top five against the run twice and in the top ten in all but one season. The Broncos defense ranked 12th that year, which is still higher than the Colts defense has ever ranked against the run under Ron Meeks.
Under Coyer, the Broncos defense ranked in the top five on third down twice and never ranked any worse than 14th. The Colts defense ranked worse than 14th in all but two seasons under Meeks, during which they ranked 12th.
Problems with stopping the run and getting off the field on third down translate into a defense spending too much time on the field, which limits both the quantity and quality of opportunities for its offense to put points on the board.
Since 2002, when Ron Meeks took over as defensive coordinator of the Colts, the Colts defense has ranked last in time of possession-per-drive.
In more recent years, since 2005, the Colts defense has ranked last in time of possession-per-drive by a disconcerting amount. The difference between the Colts defense and the second-worst defense during that span is greater than the difference between that 31st-ranked defense and the 20th-ranked defense.
Under Coyer from 2003 to 2006, the Broncos defense ranked 2nd in time-of-possession-per-drive.
While word of adding new “wrinkles” to the Colts defense has excited players and fans alike, Coyer’s experience working with the Tampa 2 system as a member of the Buccaneers' coaching staff should ensure a smooth transition.
Perhaps tied to some of those new wrinkles being added by Coyer is linebacker Phillip Wheeler, who is projected to start on the strong side in 2009.
Considered by scouts to be one of the best blitzing linebackers in the nation when he entered the 2008 NFL Draft, Wheeler seemed like somewhat of an odd choice in the third round for a team that blitzes about as often as most people see their third cousin.
Perhaps Coyer has plans for utilizing Wheeler’s pass rush capabilities as an important part of a revamped Colts defense. Perhaps the drafting of Wheeler a year ago indicated an eventual move in this direction even before the current offseason.
Otherwise, the Colts will just have to make do with the raw athleticism of Wheeler that caused his college teammates at Georgia Tech to compare him to another teammate, Calvin Johnson.
During the 2007 regular season, the Colts defense played well en route to leading the league in points allowed. However, losing Dwight Freeney for the season to injury and an injury suffered by Robert Mathis down the stretch combined to have a profound effect on the Colts defense in the postseason.
With Freeney sidelined and Mathis limited by his injury, the Colts defense simply could not find their pass rush against the San Diego Chargers during the divisional round of the 2007 postseason.
Even though the Colts defense managed to injure the Chargers starting quarterback, Philip Rivers, by eventually pushing one of his offensive linemen onto his leg in the second half, the Colts defense had no answer for the Chargers passing game that day.
Rivers and his backup Billy Volek combined in that game for a 137.2 passer rating and 13.6 passing yards per attempt.
Even before injuries exposed the Colts lack of depth behind Freeney and Mathis, the fourth quarter collapse of the Colts against the Patriots midway through the regular season showed that this was a serious issue.
The Colts defense managed to put the seemingly invulnerable Patriots offense on the ropes for three quarters in that game specifically because of the pass rush Freeney and Mathis provided, but they eventually tired out. That allowed the Patriots to score two late touchdowns to come back from a ten point fourth quarter deficit and win the game.
During the game, both Freeney and Mathis could be seen spending plays on the sideline gasping for air. When they left the game, guys like Jeff Charleston took their place.
Colts president Bill Polian took notice and addressed the issue by drafting Marcus Howard in the fifth round of the 2008 NFL Draft and signing Curtis Johnson as an undrafted rookie free agent after the draft.
Howard has drawn comparisons to Robert Mathis due to his lean build and jaw-dropping speed off the edge. Johnson has earned comparisons to Joey Porter.
Unfortunately, Colts fans did not get to see very much of Howard and Johnson during the 2008 season beyond the preseason, special teams, and a meaningless regular season finale.
Still, the duo impressed in the limited time that they had, combining for 3.5 sacks during the preseason and 2.5 sacks in the regular season finale.
A bevy of defensive linemen on the Colts training camp roster could mean that one or both of these situational edge rushers will have a hard time even making final roster cuts this season.
The word from Polian is that both Howard and Johnson still have a lot of work to do in terms of developing their technique in order to be effective against bigger NFL offensive linemen.
But is Polian tipping his hand, or just throwing opponents off the scent?
Certainly one of the Colts team’s biggest problems during the 2008 season was its running game. The Colts ranked second to last in rushing yards per game and last in rushing yards per carry in 2008.
It was a performance that C Jeff Saturday and the rest of the offensive line consider an embarrassment, and their responsibility to fix in 2009.
Jamie Thomas, whom the Colts selected in the seventh round of the 2009 NFL Draft, is a new member of the offensive line who might just bring something new to the table. Listed at 331 pounds, Thomas is anything but a typical Colts interior lineman.
Charlie Johnson was the heaviest player to play on the Colts’ interior line in 2008 at 305 pounds. The only offensive lineman on the Colts roster during the 2008 season who even comes close to Thomas in weight is right tackle Ryan Diem at 320 pounds.
Like Diem, Thomas is listed as a tackle on the Colts’ roster, but he has not played tackle since high school and said that he has been working mostly at the guard position so far with the Colts during the offseason.
The Colts also signed Cornelius Lewis as an undrafted free agent after the 2009 NFL draft. He is listed at 324 pounds and as a guard on the Colts’ roster.
The Colts may have decided to get bigger on the offensive line. It is unlikely that either Thomas or Lewis will be starting in 2009 barring a rash of injuries, but we might just see them play key situational roles when the Colts need to pick up short yardage on the ground.