Jeff Risdon. 6th September, 2006 - 10:21 pm
Last season: 14-2, lost AFC Divisional playoff
Coming: K Adam Vinatieri
Going: RB Edgerrin James, K Mike Vanderjagt, LB David Thornton, DT Larry Triplett, WR Troy Walters, RB James Mungro (injury)
Rookies of note: RB Joseph Addai, S Antoine Bethea
What I like: This was the best team in the regular season in 2005. The #1 offense in football still features the game?s best regular season QB, Peyton Manning. WRs Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne both rank among the 15 best in the NFL, and #3 WR Brandon Stokely is probably the best #3 in the league. TE Dallas Clark is also a major threat in the passing game, and there is great depth and skill at TE which the Colts regularly utilize. The OL is still pretty solid, though teams figured out late in 2005 they were real susceptible to overload blitzes. C Jeff Saturday and RT Ryan Diem are very good run blockers that keep holes open. DE Dwight Freeney is a highlight reel sack machine, and he?s better against the run than most speed rushers. The rest of the DL was much improved in 2005. LB Cato June made the Pro Bowl, and he and LB Gary Brackett are both excellent in pass coverage. S Bob Danders is an explosive run stuffer and excels at playing a hybrid LB spot. There is decent depth in the secondary, and the DL is stacked enough to situationally rotate 7 quality players. They added PK Adam Vinatieri, a proven playoff hero and an upgrade on kickoffs. There is a palpable sense of urgency amongst many of the long-term Colts that the window is closing; the time to win the Super Bowl is now or never.
What I dislike: Losing RB James is a huge loss. He?s replaced by rookie Joseph Addai, who is talented but very unproven. Backup RB Dominic Rhodes is good in that role but always injured and a big-time fumbler. Addai could be the best rookie RB in the last 5 years and still not come near what James meant to the offense. After the main 3 WR (who rarely leave the field) there is absolutely zero depth or proven talent. The OL, particularly the Gs, does not move well, and even with a bruiser like James, they struggled badly in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Any injury to Manning at QB and the team might not cross midfield for halves at a time. The defense is real small across the board. The team was great last year based on a highly improved defense, but don?t count on that again: In the last 8 seasons there have been 13 teams that improved in adjusted defense more than 10 spots from the prior two seasons and finished in the top 10 (the Colts went from 19th to 8th). Only one of those teams (the 2002 Rams, following a jump from 23rd in 2000 to 5th in 2001) finished the subsequent season within 7 slots of their improved ranking. Already some difference makers on the defense have been fighting injuries, and S Mike Doss will miss at least the first two games. He?s somewhat replaceable, but Freeney, Sanders, Brackett, CB Jason David, and LB June cannot leave the field without the Colts taking a major hit. All but Brackett missed at least one preseason game due to injury. Despite all the playoff heroics and clutch kicking, Vinatieri lacks the FG range and indoor accuracy of the departed Vanderjagt, the most accurate K in NFL history. And as good as Manning and Head Coach Tony Dungy might be, both have career-long battles with perennially losing the games that matter most.
Best case: A near-repeat of last year?s regular season, topped off with a Super Bowl. Some offensive passing records could happen.
Worst case: The team misses Edge James more than expected; the defense reverts to its mid-level performance, and the lack of size on D becomes exposed; the blitzing styles that disrupted the Colts at the end of 2005 remain effective and slow down the potent offense; Vinatieri misses a game winner or two; another early playoff exit.
Prediction: Nobody likes to talk about it, but this team looks eerily similar to the 2002 St. Louis Rams. The 2001 Rams went 14-2 with the explosive #1 offense and a vastly improved defense. But in 2002 the team suffered an injury to its MVP QB, a down year from the running game, and a defensive regression back to average from being top 10. Those Rams went 7-9, a fluke year in a string of very strong contending seasons. I?m not ready to predict that for these Colts, not with so much talent, but nobody thought those Rams would collapse either. This team could once again win home field throughout the playoffs, but I think it?s a down year in Indy. They finish 10-6, still winning their division but once again stumbling early in the playoffs.