The Colts lost to the Patriots 26 – 3 on the road in Week Nine, falling to 3 – 5 – 1 in a historically bad offensive performance that resulted in Head Coach Frank Reich being fired the day after the game. What did we learn?
Takeaway One: Colts Offensive Coordinator Marcus Brady Wasn’t The Problem
Another week, a fired offensive coordinator, yet another equally slow start and anemic outcome for the Colts on offense.
The Colts averaged 2.0 yards per play en route to amassing a historically low 121 yards of total offense. The offense couldn’t sustain drives as a result of failing to convert a single third down for the entire game – going zero for 14.
During the week prior to the game against the Patriots, the Colts fired offensive coordinator Marcus Brady, and head coach Frank Reich officially took responsibility for play-calling duties during the game. Fans may reasonably wonder how anything changed meaningfully regarding in-game play-calling, since Frank Reich has maintained this responsibility for the duration of his now-ended tenure as head coach.
The one thing that changed unquestionably in Week Nine was the absolute responsibility for the team’s offensive woes falling squarely on the shoulders of the head coach. The offensive output in Week Nine was the worst the team has displayed in recent (or distant) memory, including both embarrassing losses in Jacksonville during Week Two of this season (a shutout) and Week Seventeen of the prior season (with a playoff berth on the line).
Ultimately, head coach Frank Reich ran out of excuses and scapegoats. Colts owner Jim Irsay apparently – finally – felt the same way following Week Nine, and relieved Reich of his head coach duties the following day.
Takeaway Two: A Scrambling Quarterback Won’t Solve The Problems With the Colts’ Offensive Line
Partially due to repeated turnovers suffered by prior starting quarterback Matt Ryan and partially due to the apparent inability of Ryan to scramble to escape the sustained pass-rush pressure given up by the offensive line, head coach Frank Reich turned to erstwhile third-string quarterback, second-year player, and fan-favorite Sam Ehlinger.
Different quarterback; same outcome. The continuously shuffled offensive line gave up the same, sustained pass-rush pressure with Ehlinger under center. The Patriots sacked Ehlinger nine times, including one strip-sack fumble recovery.
Ehlinger’s scrambling ability was true to form; his 39 yards on five carries led the Colts in rushing. However, that the quarterback led the team in rushing is yet another indictment of the offensive line. Further, Ehlinger proved that his scrambling ability alone could not provide the needed spark for an offense that managed three points and 121 total yards.
Takeaway Three: The Colts Continue To Waste Solid Defensive Efforts
Week in and week out in 2022, the defense has kept the team in the game by keeping opposing teams off of the scoreboard. Week in and week out, the offense has failed to capitalize on defensive performances.
The Colts’ defense currently ranks thirteenth in the league with 20.3 points per game and fifth in the league with 306.8 yards per game. The Colts’ defensive rankings come in spite of an offense that ranks tied for last in the league in turnovers (17) and has given up two pick-six interception returns.
Granted, the Colts’ defense has not lived up to its reputation for generating turnovers, with a paltry nine on the season. Currently, only eight teams in the league have fewer defensive takeaways. Nevertheless, overall, the defense has held up its end of the bargain, especially given how often the Colts’ offense puts the defense behind the proverbial eight ball.
Takeaway Four: The Colts Are Second-Class In The AFC South
In the first thirteen years the division has existed, from 2002 to 2024, the Colts won the AFC South nine times. In the seven years since 2014, the Colts have failed to win the division. The Colts last won the division in the middle of the Chuck Pagano tenure and at the height of the Andrew Luck era.
For the final three years of the Pagano tenure and during the entirety of the Frank Reich era, the Colts have finished no better than second place in the division. Since 2014, every other team in the AFC South has managed at least one division title. Houston has won the division four times. Tennessee has won the division the past two years and is the likely 2022 division winner. Even Jacksonville won the division once.
Not only have the Colts failed to win the division; the Colts have also failed to win consistently in divisional games during a period in which the AFC South has had some of the worst teams in the league. From 2015 – 2017, the final three years of his tenure, Chuck Pagano-led teams averaged three division wins per season. During the first four years of the Frank Reich tenure, the Colts averaged 3.5 division wins per season. Through five divisional games in 2022, the Colts have only one divisional win.
While the Titans are seemingly building a team and a culture that wins divisional match-ups and controls the division, the Colts have regressed to the perennially poor performance of the Jaguars and the Texans.
Takeaway Five: The Manning-Luck Colts Era Is Officially Over
Colts owner Jim Irsay famously decried the “Star Wars numbers” put up by the Colts’ offense during the Manning era. His point, seemingly, was that he wanted to build a team that was balanced and dominant in all three phases instead of relying on the quarterback to carry the team. Admirable as that sentiment was, his efforts to install regimes that could ostensibly build teams with balanced offenses has led to a steady decline in offensive performance.
The NFL is, and for many years has been, a passing league. Teams win consistently through dominant passing attacks. As a philosophy, “run the ball and stop the run” is outdated and obsolete. Now-retired head coach Tony Dungy and general manager Bill Polian, both in the hall of fame, built teams on a philosophy of “pass the ball and stop the pass.” The success of that philosophy speaks for itself.
The Colts experienced unprecedented success on offense during the Peyton Manning years and at the beginning of Andrew Luck’s career. Since then, the front office has spent a decade dismantling everything that led to that success, first under general manager Ryan Grigson and now under general manager Chris Ballard.
The Colts have invested heavily in the offensive line while allowing a post-Andrew Luck quarterback carousel reminiscent of the Cleveland Browns. The team is undoubtedly more balanced in all three phases: offense, defense, and special teams. The team is also undoubtedly less successful, demonstrating an inability to win their division and an equal inability to win playoff games in the few post-season appearances they have managed since Andrew Luck retired.
Fans are left longing for the days of “Star Wars” numbers.