2009 NFL Season: The Once and Future Colts

The 2009 NFL season has come to a close.  The New Orleans Saints, chronicled here often throughout the season, won Super Bowl XLIV in convincing fashion over the favored Indianapolis Colts.  For a team that began the season with 13 consecutive wins, the Saints were able to march through the playoffs under the radar because the national press fell out of love with this team following home defeats to the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  The Colts, conversely, faced increased scrutiny in the postseason because they chose a fate the Saints tried to avoid.  First year head coach and longtime quarterbacks coach of the Colts, Jim Caldwell, pulled his starters in Week 16 (vs. the New York Jets) and Week 17 (at the Buffalo Bills) in a bid to maintain health and build resolve for the playoffs.

"Back to the track...To the Wall...We are Tied."

Excellence in the Mirror

The annual post-season missteps by the Colts are beginning to resemble those of major league baseball’s Atlanta Braves of the 1990’s.  Nowhere is that similarity more evident than “on the mound.”   Peyton Manning is the football equivalent of Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery.  What these men share, in addition to flawless technical mastery of their craft, are deeply disappointing championship seasons.  For the Braves, there were so many challengers: the one-dimensional homer domers (the 1991 Minnesota Twins), the 1996 Yankees (trailed the Braves 2-0 after dropping two at home), the 1998 San Diego Padres, and the 1999 Yankees (authors of an embarrassing Series sweep).  For Manning, there have always been the New England Patriots and the San Diego Chargers.  Four of his nine playoff seasons have ended at the hands of these two teams.  In his younger days, there were the Titans, Dolphins, and Jets.  To this mix have been added the New Orleans Saints.  It was akin to the Braves losing to …the Florida Marlins.  From 1991 to 2005, the Braves finished in first place every season, except for 1994.  From 1999 through this season, the Colts have won at least 10 games in every season except one: 2001.

Today, Peyton Manning is not considered the greatest quarterback to ever play the game.  The idea is not empirically sustainable.  Nor is Greg Maddux, for example,  considered the greatest pitcher to ever play the game.  The Braves don’t have the best pitching staff of all time; the Colts don’t have the best offense of all time.  Peyton Manning has a record of 9 wins and 9 losses in 18 career post-season games.  Greg Maddux was 11-14 in 30 career post-season starts.  There is no denying the dominance of the Colts and Braves, but it must be said that there were limitations to their success.

A Nagging Nemesis or Two

In much the same way that the Atlanta Braves of the 1990’s were compelled to surrender “Team of the Decade” status to the New York Yankees, the Colts were forced to admit to the on-field superiority of the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, if not the San Diego Chargers.  All expectations are that the Colts will continue their regular season success and domination of the AFC South.  The franchise has weathered the transition from Faulk to James and from James to Addai as well as they managed the transition from Harrison to Wayne.  The real question is whether or not the Colts can remake themselves into a dominant post-season team; can they become the team that wins the games they’ve most often found a way to lose.

The Future

What would you change about the Colts for the 2010 season?  Will the maturation of Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie be sufficient next season?  Does this team need more depth to spell Dwight Freeney?  Do you simply wait for Marlin Jackson and Bob Sanders to come back healthy?  Who should coach the offensive line with Howard Mudd moving on?  Who fills the shoes of Tom Moore?  What are the larger implications of this loss?  Did the Saints deliver a new blueprint type of victory that will be used in next years playoffs?  Gregg Williams’ didn’t follow the 3-4 outside linebacker approach that worked so well for New England, Pittsburgh and San Diego.  Will his approach be copied by teams like Houston and Tennessee during the regular season?  When a team performs this well for this long, it is very difficult to make significant changes — and yet, it is hard to argue that things should remain wholly as they are. Teams that lose the Super Bowl almost always have a great deal  of work to do.  Retooling and tweaking usually aren’t enough — and wholesale changes are rarely made in franchises who’ve had such consistent success.

I’ve maintained that the New England Patriots, following their defeat to the New York Giants in the 2007 Super Bowl were not going to make that climb again to the top of the mountain.  It’s been five years since they ruled the roost and a great deal has changed.  In the last two seasons, the Patriots have faced the eventual Super Bowl champion during the regular season.  In 2008, they lost 33-10.  This season, they lost 38-17.

Peyton Manning vs. New Orleans Saints -- Super Bowl XLIV

Now is the time to watch this team very closely.  Peyton Manning is still at the top of his game, but years and years of playing without a balanced offense is perilous.  Sunday’s game ended with 45 passes and a mere 7 points scored in the final three quarters.  In 2010, the Colts won’t be promised anything other than a long, hard fight to the top.  If the Titans or Texans figure out how to play with some consistency, the Colts could wind up like the Atlanta Braves — in third place and a shadow of their former selves.  Is this likely?  Hardly.  The Colts have a young, fast, aggressive defense (or at least they did until they went zone in the 2nd quarter last night).  Jim Caldwell seems to be an excellent coach and leader of men, even if he has been subjected to second-guessing since conceding victory to the Jets in Week 16.  The offense is getting younger, bigger and stronger every season.  I think this team is at least two years away from such a cruel fate, but there is no doubt that tomorrow comes sooner than any of us expect.

Just ask the Patriots who were soundly defeated with Tom Brady and Randy Moss on the field by a team whose quarterback passed for a mere 34 yards.  And now, it is Peyton Manning who must face Bernard Pollard twice each season.

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