Friday, May 4, 2018

More (and lasting) Damage from the Josh McDaniels Fiasco


A lot of fans were upset and confused when the Colts cut NT Johnathan Hankins a couple of weeks ago. The reason given by General Manager Chris Ballard was that Hankins was not a fit for the 4-3 defensive scheme they're moving to. 

Fans with good memories were confused by this as we know that Hankins played in both the 3-4 and the 4-3 while with the NY Giants.

This article addresses that question and a few more that I have not seen asked elsewhere.

Everyone knows the story by now: Josh McDaniels interviewed with the Colts during the playoffs, got the job, the announcement was delayed by league rules until after the Super Bowl, then he changed his mind and the Colts moved on.

Those of you that have followed fairly closely probably know that before the McDaniels flip flop, that the Colts even went out and hired some of his preferred assistant coaches.  

And the Colts, class organization that they are, honored those contracts.  

And this is where the whole thing goes off the rails.


To fully explain, we'll have to go back and look at what Chris Ballard did the previous season. For the purposes of this article, we'll be focusing solely on the defensive moves.


These are the veterans on defense that Ballard brought in previous to last season:  


  • DE/DT Margus Hunt: Hunt is a excellent athlete with limited experience, basically a project player. All of his previous experience was in the 4-3. 
  • NT Johnathan Hankins: Hankins had played in both the 3-4 and the 4-3 with the Giants.
  • DE/OLB Jabaal Sheard: Sheard came from New England where he played defensive end. He was brought in to play OLB for the Colts.
  • DE/OLB John Simon: Simon came from the Texans and has only played in the 3-4.
There were a couple of other signings (Spence, Bostic) but they are not important within the scope of this article.


Defensive rookies drafted:


  • S Malik Hooker: Ball-hawking safety in the mold of Ed Reed. 
  • CB Quincy Wilson: Good sized CB with primarily bump and run man to man cover skills. Seen as weak in off coverage. Primary fit would be a bump and run pressure defense, similar to what Seattle and Baltimore (and Pagano) run.

Again for the purposes of this article, we'll just focus on these players and not the ones drafted in later rounds. 


Now, some of you more advanced fans out there probably looked at these moves before last season and wondered if these guys were a fit for Pagano's attacking style 3-4 defense. Hunt, Sheard, and Basham sure didn't seem to fit.


Most of us believed that Pagano was a lame duck who would be replaced after the season, and some of us concluded that Ballard was getting a head start on the 2018 season by acquiring players who would fit into the scheme he actually preferred and planned to move to: The 4-3 front with cover 3 on the back end.  

In his first few months on the job, I heard Ballard mention this scheme a few times in passing, which immediately got my attention.  

So, what does this mean? Well, the following players that the Colts acquired prior to the 2017 season are a perfect fit for the exact scheme that Seattle runs: Johnathan Hankins, Al Woods, Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, Malik Hooker, Quincy Wilson, and Tarell Basham.  

It seems to me to very clear that Ballard was fully committed to moving the Colts to a 4-3 cover-3 scheme in the style of the Seattle Seahawks and the Atlanta Falcons.  

But Ballard has now stated that we'll be running a 4-3 Tampa-2 style defense for this season and into the future.

So what changed?  

Josh McDaniels, that's what.  

The Colts signed Matt Eberflus away from Dallas to be their defensive coordinator, because that's who McDaniels wanted.  

And Matt Eberflus is a Tampa-2 coordinator. 

Now don't get me wrong, Eberflus is considered to be a very sharp and up and coming defensive coach - Dallas had gone out of their way to incentivise him to stay as the possible heir apparent to Rod Marinelli.  

So, now that the Colts have switched to a different scheme than originally planned - they have a few players that were acquired that fit, and several that don't have a precise fit in this defense.   

Apparently Ballard wanted McDaniels so badly that he was willing to discard all of his plans for the defense that he presumably had been thinking about for years in preparation for his first GM job.


Players acquired last year who are scheme fits for the Tampa-2:

  • Margus Hunt: Perfect penetrating DT
  • Jabaal Sheard: Near perfect fit for the LDE
  • Tarell Basham: Good fit for LDE

Players acquired last year who are bad scheme fits for the Tampa-2:
  • Johnathan Hankins: (who has been cut)
  • Malik Hooker
  • Quincy Wilson
  • Al Woods
  • John Simon: (his best fit is for weakside OLB in the Seahawks scheme)
This is where we discuss Johnathan Hankins, who played in both the 3-4 and 4-3 with the NY Giants. He was their #1 free agent signing in 2017 and he really played up to his contract, providing stout run defense and adequate pass rush.

The reason that the Giants didn't resign him was that he was not a great fit for the type of 4-3 scheme that their current defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo favors. So Hankins's tape seemed to show a decline in his play, whereas it was really a scheme fit issue.  

Hankins was originally drafted to play in former Giants Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell's "break but don't bend" 4-3 scheme, and he excelled until the Giants fired Fewell and replaced him with Spagnuolo.

So, the reason that Hankins was signed was that he was a scheme fit for Pagano's 3-4 and was a projected fit for a DT in a Seattle style defense. 
In this example, Hankins would have been the 2-GAP DT 

And how was Hankins a scheme fit for the defense that Seattle runs? In Pete Carroll's cover-3 scheme, the most of the defensive line plays one gap, with one defensive tackle playing two gap. That two gap position was to be filled by Hankins, with Al Woods being the backup.



Now let's talk about Malik Hooker. Hooker was seen as a generational talent as a free safety in the Ed Reed / Earl Thomas mold. He was seen as a perfect fit for defenses that required the FS to be the primary cover deep guy who either supported corners locked in bump and run man coverage (Pagano's scheme) or corners in bump short zone coverage. In both schemes, his primary responsibilities are coverage, with the SS on the other side playing closer to the line.  

This is in contrast to the free safety's role in the tampa-2. In this scheme, both the FS and the SS drop straight back near the hashmarks and their responsibility is mainly the outside thirds of the downfield passing area:


The middle linebacker is responsible for the middle of the field. Both the FS and the SS are primary parts of the run defense and have very specific gap responsibility.

So, in a tampa-2, both safeties need to be rugged tacklers, while they have a lesser range requirement as each only covers a third of the field, whereas in the cover-3 they often are asked to cover 3/4 or even the entire deep passing area. Also safeties in the tampa-2 require less instincts as their decision making process is pretty rigidly dictated by what the offense does.  



Everything I just said makes Hooker a complete non-fit for the cover-2, and really, a great waste of talent. This would be like having Aaron Rodgers running the Tim Tebow offense. Sure Aaron could do it, but do you really want him taking all those hits and not using his supreme arm talent?  

On top of that, the increased responsibilities in the run game may take a toll on him physically. Basically he is playing role that Bob Sanders played. 

One of Hooker's issues coming out of college was his poor routes to tackle runners, but I didn't see any issues with this during his rookie year, so that improved with coaching.

And how about CB Quincy Wilson? Wilson was a polarizing player around the NFL as he was seen to only be a good fit for teams that ran bump man coverage. Didn't play much zone in college. Basically he was a good fit for either Pagano's defense or Seattle's.  

As a cover-2 corner, he is a little taller than you normally see. He also is not "squat" like you see in most cover-2 corners. In the cover-2 (reference the above diagram), the cornerbacks are primarily responsible for tackling outside runners and for the short passing zones on the outside third of the field.  


Some of you may remember when the Tampa Bucs acquired CB Darrelle Revis. Revis was a top echelon downfield coverage guy and Tampa was running a tampa-2. It was a disaster.  

Now I'm not saying that Wilson will be a disaster as a cover-2 corner, as he is younger and presumably more coachable that Revis was. But his physical skills and body type are not the ideal fits you would expect from a high draft choice. This tells me that in this scheme his ceiling may be sharply limited.

The conclusion from all this is that due to the chain of events from the attempt to hire Josh McDaniels, the Colts put themselves in the position to where they will likely never get full value from their 1st and 2nd 2017 draft picks. 

To me it is clear that Ballard never considered the possibility that he would hire anyone other than a cover-3 guy.

Everyone (including the Colts organization) is saying the Colts dodged a bullet when McDaniels jilted them, but it is more like they were hit but the bullet went through and through and they'll just have a limp for a while.  

The costs to all of this:

  • Potential loss of value their 1st and 2nd round picks on the 2017 draft (almost certainly the Colts would have picked different players had they known they were moving to the tampa-2)
  • Damaged the career prospects of Malik Hooker and Quincy Wilson by forcing them into roles they are not suited for
  • Wasted the money signing Hankins (did the Colts really need him to win four games?)
  • The Colts are stuck with a defensive scheme that is not the one favored and planned for by team management
  • The Colts rebuild and the progress of the defense will be held back as they almost have to play these guys based on what they have invested.

I feel that there is little chance of Malik Hooker and Quincy Wilson signing a 2nd contract with the Colts, and honestly I think they both should be traded at this point - while they still have value. After a couple of years playing in a scheme that does not fit them they will look like busts.  

I feel that the events described in this article represent a black eye for Chris Ballard and it all should have been handled much differently. I still love the guy and I think he is very good at his job - but this all was handled very poorly.

How they got stuck on McDaniels enough to upset their careful planning is a mystery for the ages.








Friday, September 18, 2015

The real reason Peyton Manning is struggling this season

The sports media is having a collective fit over how Manning looks this year.

It's hard to blame them; they do have a lot of empty air to fill and he has looked very old. And it's hard for them not to connect how he played at the end of last season (when his legs were injured) with what they see now.

So what happened? Has he fallen off the shelf?

"Falling off the shelf" is an old way that scouts and coaches would describe a sudden decline in play from one season to the next; usually with the inference that age is the culprit, and that the reduced level of play is both untenable and unlikely to improve.

Has Peyton Fallen off the shelf? No. No he hasn't.

Peyton Manning has been the subject of study for me since he came into the league; and I think I know him as well as possible for a non-football insider.

So why is he looking so old compared to how he looked pre-injury last year? I'll tell you: for the same reason an old computer seems slow - it's being asked to do things it is not capable of.

So, what is it that Peyton is being asked to do that he wasn't last year?

Footwork my friend; footwork.

Basically now that Manning has had Kubiak's version of Bill Walsh's offense (referred to by heretics as the "West Coast Offense") foisted upon him, the entire way that Manning takes the snap, sets up in the pocket, and throws on time has been fundamentally altered.

Kubiak's offense (which is very faithful to how Bill Walsh designed it) is heavily dependent on precise and quick footwork. There are other fundamental changes that Manning has had to adjust to: such as pre-determined throws based on coverages, routes that change dynamically based on the coverage, the lesser need for audibles at the line, and short precise throws on time to specific points.

But these are all things that Manning has no problem with.

The footwork though - that is a problem.

Bill Walsh always said he could tell if a college QB would fit his system by watching only his feet. When he drafted Joe Montana in the 3rd round; it was his feet that he coveted.

Simply put, in the Walsh offense, a Qb takes the snap and drops back in either a three or five step drop. At the point where the back foot hits, the QB should be on balance and already in position to immediately throw to his first receiver at a specific point on the field. This puts a premium on quick and precise footwork, along with the balance to be in a stable throwing position immediately upon the end of the drop. This puts a lot of pressure on that back leg; and a lack of spring in that leg will cause poor balance, a inconsistant throwing position, and release point.

This is critical. And it is exceptionally critical when the QB does not have a power arm. Brett Favre and John Elway excelled in this system despite having shoddy footwork (at least compared to a Montana) due to their ability to put a lot of power on the throw from awkward and fundamentally unsound positions.

Watching Manning this year, it is painfully obvious to me that his legs are dead. Dan Marino had the same issue in his final couple of seasons.

Now, there have been times this year that Manning has looked more like himself. Usually when they need to throw every down due to playing catch-up. So, why?

Well, most of those snaps are taken from the shotgun where the footwork is less of an issue. Manning takes the shotgun snap and can settle a bit while the receivers (who are running longer routes) try to get open.

Basically Manning is struggling for the same reasons that many college spread offense QBs struggle when they come to the NFL. Poor footwork.

Will practice improve the situation? Almost certainly it will. But how much?

I predict that either the Broncos will start working a lot more out of the shotgun, or that Manning will continue to struggle in the base offense.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Deflategate and all that

Why would he do this, or allow it? Because he has no scruples whatsoever.
What is more likely, that he has been caught for the only two times where there was trying to gain an unfair advantage?
OR
That every part of the organization where he is involved there is a concerted effort to gain an unfair advantage; and that spygate and deflategate are just the two times that he has been publically caught?
I say "publically" because if this story hadn't been reported by the media, it would have been resolved behind the scenes by the NFL.
Other than Bill Walsh or a young Paul Brown; no modern coach has ever had as much direct control over all aspects of the organization.
I can believe that Belichick would not be the one personally directing the deflation of footballs; but this could only happen in an atmosphere of competition where cheating in sly ways is institutionally encouraged and rewarded.
The biggest argument the the Belichick supporters have is that it would not have affected the outcome of this particular game whatsoever.
I don't think anyone is suggesting that it did. So, who are you arguing with?
The week before, the Patriots barely beat a scrappy Ravens team in freezing weather.
Are there any Belichick supporters that can honestly say that they don't think that the Patriot's balls in that game weren't intentionally deflated?
What do I think should be done? I'm torn on that. For the act itself, considering the advantage that was gained, I'd say the same penalty as spygate.
This seems to be a much lesser advantage than what was gained during spygate, but this is a second offense.
The only way to stop this sort of skullduggery is to hurt the Patriots competitively. A fine isn't going to do anything whatsoever.
And for those of you out there who thought the spygate penalty was too harsh? Well, since that penalty did not stop the Patriots from cheating, I'd say that the Patriots themselves are telling us the penalty was not severe enough - because they keep doing it.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Colts pick up the exciting but raw Donte Moncrief with their 3rd round pick.

I really do like this pick. I don't think the Colts plan on him being a large part of the offense this year, but I'm thinking the idea was to give them options for 2015 when the contracts of both Reggie Wayne and Hakeem Nicks expire.

The Good: Better than average size and strength (6-2⅜, 221 lbs). Very good change of direction and body control combined with a 4.34 40 yard dash. He has the measurables as well as some intangibles for the position. He tracks the ball well in the air and has the athletic ability and size to outjump defenders for the ball. Looks like he will develop into a really good route runner.

He played in a pro style offense, so he is experienced in the entire route tree. He also shows a good willingness to block (which IMHO is a great test of character at the WR position). He has a nice frame and could put on some more weight.

The Bad: Lacks true burner speed. In not a natural at catching the ball; uses his body not his hands. While he rarely drops an uncontested pass, he has difficulty cleanly catching in traffic.

Summary: I project him to be the opening day starter at the outside WR position in 2015 - he will replace either Wayne or Nicks. Because of his size and ability to separate, I'd say barring injury he should be a productive player for a good while.

Who he reminds me of: Josh Gordon

The Colts draft Jack Mewhort with their 2nd round pick

Yeah, I'm not liking this too much. This guy has journeyman written all over him.

The good: Smart and tough. Very mobile. Played LT at Ohio State, but Grigson has said they see him as a guard. His arms are considered too short for a tackle in this league.

He will be one of those guys who can fill in at every line spot.

The Bad: At 6-6, 309 lbs, he is a little tall and thin for a guard. Looking at his frame, I don't see him getting much bigger. He also plays really high and does not play with power. Not a natural strength guy. He also has no natural position; his short arms and lack of bulk will hurt him at LT. His poor drive blocking (as well as the short arms) make him a bad fit for RT and guard. He does not play with leverage due to his build, making it very tough for him to run block at the guard position. He is also too tall and thin to be an ideal center.

Summary: I'm guessing that this pick had a lot to do with what was left at the end of the 2nd round. I don't think Mewhort will ever be "the guy" at any particular position on the line. I see him having a long career as a quality reserve.

I really don't understand this pick.

Who he reminds me of: Jeff Linkenbach

Monday, September 30, 2013

Building the Monster - The Race Against the Salary Cap in Today's NFL


I have to admit that I've been a little puzzled by some of the moves made by Jim Irsay and Ryan Grigson since the latter came in as GM prior to last season. But recently I think I figured it all out.





This a long article which requires some reading, but there is a big payoff for the patient - we're pulling the cover off of the internal workings and plans of Colts management.

Many moves have been made in the last two years by the new regime, but these are the ones I found curious:
  • Reggie Wayne, Projected starting WR, re-signed 2/14/2012 for $17.5 million over three years
  • Vontae Davis, Projected starting CB, acquired 8/26/2012 for our 2013 2nd round pick
  • Gosder Cherilus, Projected starting RT, signed 3/13/2013 as Free Agent for $34 million over five years
  • LaRon Landry, Projected starting SS, signed 3/13/2013 as Free Agent for $24 million over four years
  • Erik Walden, Projected starting SSOLB, signed 3/13/2013 as Free Agent for $16 million over four years
  • Greg Toler, Projected starting CB, signed 3/13/2014 as Free Agent for $14 million over three years
  • Ricky Jean-Francois, Projected starting DE, signed 3/14/2013 as Free Agent for $24 million over four years
  • Aubrayo Franklin, Projected starting NT, signed 3/20/2013 as Free Agent for $1.1 million for one year
  • Ahmad Bradshaw, Possibly projected starting RB, signed 6/11/2013 as Free Agent for $1.1 million for one year
  • Trent Richardson, Projected starting RB, acquired 9/18/2013 for our 2014 first round pick

Now there have been a lot of other transactions, which is to be expected when you are bringing in a new GM and coaching staff - especially with the radical change in philosophy on both sides of the ball. So why do I single these transactions out?

Basically, for the last twenty years or so, there has been a consistent template that teams with new management have followed when taking over a bad team: clean house, trade valuable players for picks, drop salary, acquire lots of draft picks to acquire young players with upside who fit your new system, and acquire an inexpensive veteran or two to provide leadership and mentoring to all these young players.

This is the template the Colts followed in 1998, as have many other teams between now and then. So, why aren't we doing that now?

The answer is that Colts Management feels that if we don't win a championship with Andrew Luck in the next three years, we won't win one at all. That is a pretty strong statement to say the least, but I think I can back it up.

I'll explain why each acquisition was curious  to me at the time it was made - at least when compared to the normal rebuilding template:

Reggie Wayne, Projected starting WR, re-signed 2/14/2012 for $17.5 million over three years
Virtually everyone who follows football expected Wayne to move on to greener pastures after the terrible 2011 season. He was linked to New England, as well as other winning franchises with established quarterbacks. When we re-signed him to a three year contract (with the accompanying criticism), it was widely assumed that the intention was to mentor both Andrew Luck and the young wide receivers we were to acquire in the 2012 draft. This, while surprising, was not that curious - other than at the same time we were aggressively cutting salary by releasing other veteran players.

Curiosity score: 3 out of 10


Vontae Davis, Projected starting CB, acquired 8/26/2012 for our 2013 2nd round pick
This one surprised everyone, and it was the first indication to me that something strange was going on. Acquiring Davis via trade for our 2nd round pick flew in the face of any traditional rebuilding strategy. The first issue was giving up a 2nd, the next was the idea of bringing a potentially disgruntled player into a young and impressionable locker room. Rebuilding teams just don't make these kinds of trades. This was the sort of thing that good teams do to plug a hole. The assumption being that you are bringing in a player who is talented, but has had troubles, into a solid locker room where he can learn how to conduct himself by the examples of the veteran leaders. 

The only way this trade made sense at the time was that Grigson was convinced that the Colts could very quickly become a playoff team. That's the only reason you give up a high draft pick to plug a hole.

Curiosity score: 8 out of 10


Gosder Cherilus, Projected starting RT, signed 3/13/2013 as Free Agent for $34 million over five years
Another strange decision for a rebuilding team. Ok, we went to the playoffs in 2012, so maybe we weren't rebuilding. Still, it's rare for a team with a new regime to be signing veterans with no upside to plug holes. And clearly Grigson had Cherilus targeted, signing Cherilus on the first day of free agency for a bit more money than the NFL media expected.



Curiosity score: 6 out of 10


LaRon Landry, Projected starting SS, signed 3/13/2013 as Free Agent for $24 million over four years
Again, a strange decision for a young team. Landry went to the Pro Bowl for the lowly Jets in 2012. The Colts already had Pro Bowler Antoine Bethea at one safety spot, and I think most people would have expected them to draft a young player to groom for the other safety spot. I mean with Davis, Bethea, Butler, and some other holdovers, the Colts looked to have a pretty good secondary. It seemed like a natural that they would build through the draft. Instead they conclusively plugged a hole with a Pro Bowler.

Curiosity score: 7 out of 10


Erik Walden, Projected starting SSOLB, signed 3/13/2013 as Free Agent for $16 million over four years
This is the one that the NFL media (you know, those "experts" who can't get a job actually contributing in the NFL) and Colts fans point to as a Ryan Grigson "mistake." Well, from my POV, Walden has been very good at what he was brought in to do: Be a rugged edge setter at strong outside linebacker. Setting the edge - you heard that mentioned by multiple members of the Colts coaches and management on the day of the signing. I think every time they said that, they were firing a shot at the departed Jerry Hughes, our strong outside linebacker from 2012. Now for a young team, this is not that surprising a move. But this is the sort of signing that you make after the big money has been spent in free agency. Clearly Grigson and his staff were convinced that Walden was exactly what they needed, and they took no chances that they'd lose him by targeting him for immediate signing on the first day of free agency. From what I have seen from him so far (aside from a mental error here and there), he has been exactly what we wanted. But the timing and the amount of the signing were most unusual.

Curiosity score: 9 out of 10


Greg Toler, Projected starting CB, signed 3/13/2014 as Free Agent for $14 million over three years
Another strange pickup. Toler was known in league circles as a top-flight talent at CB, but he had been constantly injured and had not really shown anything thus far in his career. So, what was this about? Another move that only makes sense if you are a contending team and just need to plug a hole. Toler was a gamble, but when healthy, he gives us a 2nd physical specimen at CB, when paired with Vontae Davis. His play this year has been a little uneven, but he has made some really nice plays against both the run and the pass. If he gets a little more consistent  we'll have two pro bowl talents at CB, combined with two former pro bowlers at safety. Clearly we were shooting for the moon with this signing. At minimum this gives defensive coordinator Greg Manusky the ability to blitz; knowing that he has two physical bump and run cornerbacks and a quality nickle CB (Darius Butler) to harass receivers.

Curiosity score: 7 out of 10


Ricky Jean-Francois, Projected starting DE, signed 3/14/2013 as Free Agent for $24 million over four years
Another quick fix. Jean-Francois was a quality backup for the Super Bowl San Francisco 49ers, and he was signed to start opposite Cory Redding at defensive end. This guy was more of a normal signing: a 26 year old quality backup on a powerhouse team. He really was only a curious signing in that this was still not building through the draft - where you may be able to get the same production out of a cheaper player. The point is may. Clearly the Colts weren't interested in taking that gamble. This signing was also curious when considering that they also ended up signing Aubrayo Franklin six days later (more on him next).

Curiosity score: 3 out of 10


Aubrayo Franklin, Projected starting NT, signed 3/20/2013 as Free Agent for $1.1 million for one year
Considering they had just signed Jean-Francois, signing a 33 year old cast off from San Diego seemed a little strange - especially as this was still during the big money period of free agency. A slightly undersized nose tackle at 6'1", 317 lbs, he is clearly a stop-gap veteran plug in. Sound familiar?





Curiosity score: 5 out of 10


Ahmad Bradshaw, Possible projected starting RB, signed 6/11/2013 as Free Agent for $1.1 million for one year
Another move that does not fit the typical young team template. The Colts signed Bradshaw late in the pre-season, perhaps delayed due to the health and healing of his foot injury, and perhaps due to the players in camp not being what Grigson and Pagano wanted. Either way, young teams building through the draft do not bring in 27 year old running backs with an injury history. And there is still the question of whether he was brought in to start or not. We'll never know now with Vick Ballard going down for the season before Bradshaw was totally up to speed. Again, whether he was intended to be the eventual starter or just a high-quality backup, this is a move normally made by a championship contender to decisively plug a hole.

Curiosity score: 8 out of 10


Trent Richardson, Projected starting RB, acquired 9/18/2013 for our 2014 first round pick
Boom, take that. By trading our 2014 first rounder to Cleveland, this was our announcement to the rest of the league that patience was not our watch-word. This is a building the monster right now type move. In Trent Richardson, we now have a large, bruising running back that is the ideal fit for Pagano's vision and Pep Hamilton's offense. Cleveland Browns GM Michael Lombardi (no relation to Mark Lombardi, abstract painter known for his network diagrams of crime and conspiracy), has been on record numerous times (during his time as a paid pundit for NFL Network and The National Football Post) as minimizing the importance of the running back in today's NFL; actually poking fun at teams like the 49ers for building a team around a strong running game. And lookie what he was handed upon taking the job with the Browns: a high priced running back. Anyone who knows Lombardi would not surprised that he would trade away a young talented back like Richardson. And anyone who knows Lombardi would not be surprised at his willingness to make an extremely unpopular move . . .  cough cough Kosar cough cough . . . Sorry, having a Breaking Bad moment, but without the mad cash. Anyways, that a team like the Colts being the trade partner - and during the season no less! Shocking. This was a move that says: We are winning this year or next. Period. A trade like this during the season only makes sense if you are unwilling to compromise your year after an injury like the one that ended Vick Ballard's season. Rumblings are that Cleveland initiated the talks, but even then - this was a big deal.

Curiosity score: 10 out of 10


Now these ratings are based on the template that other young, rebuilding teams have followed. But when you view each move as part of a win now approach, each makes perfect sense and is not curious at all.

I mean you have either 11 out of 11 or 10 out of 11 acquisitions for players projected to start for your team in a two year period - when you are supposed to be rebuilding. Unheard of.

So, why the hurry anyways? If Luck plays fifteen years, surely there is plenty of time - Right?

Wrong: The Colts have a three year window to win the Super Bowl with Luck. 

Because that's when his economical rookie contract ends after the 2015 season. That is when resigning him will necessitate (due to the salary cap) changing the entire structure of the team, just like what the Colts did to good (but not great) success after Manning's rookie contract expired. This is where the Giants, Patriots, Ravens, Packers, and Saints are right now.

Once you have a massive contract for your QB which might easily take upwards of  20% or more of your entire salary cap, you can no longer expect to be able to afford a veteran heavy team with pro-bowlers all over the place. Irsay had a front row seat to a string of Colts teams that got weaker each successive year. Manning covered up a LOT of holes, thus hiding the decline of our overall talent, evidenced by our complete collapse in 2011 when he was injured. Irsay knows that everything is setting up that same situation starting in 2016 - which will be the first year of Luck's next contract. 

 That was a pre-emptive "sh!" Now, I have a
whole bag of "sh!" with your name on it.



Anyone who follows the NFL closely at all, understands that the stated length of player contract and the total amount is really meaningless. The things that insiders want to know is: How much guaranteed money (the money the player will get even if he later gets cut), and how long until an escalator clause makes it likely the team will be forced to re-sign the player or cut him. So, lets again list these new acquisitions, this time highlighting their contracts:



Reggie Wayne, WR, re-signed 2/14/2012 for $17.5 million over three years
Real contract: $17.5 million over three years, no huge cut-inducing ballon payments. Clearly this is a contract the Colts intended to be completed. Contract ends after the 2014 season.

Vontae Davis, CB, acquired 8/26/2012 for our 2013 2nd round pick
Real contract: Reasonable rookie contract, ends after the 2014 season.

Gosder Cherilus, RT, signed 3/13/2013 as Free Agent for $34 million over five years
Real contract: With a the first balloon payment coming before the 2015 season, probably ends after the 2014 season.

LaRon Landry, SS, signed 3/13/2013 as Free Agent for $24 million over four years
Real contract: No balloon payments, ends after the 2016 season.

Erik Walden, SSOLB, signed 3/13/2013 as Free Agent for $16 million over four years

Real contract: No balloon payments, ends after the 2016 season.


Greg Toler, CB, signed 3/13/2014 as Free Agent for $14 million over three years
Real contract: No balloon payments, ends after the 2016 season.


Ricky Jean-Francois, DE, signed 3/14/2013 as Free Agent for $24 million over four years
Real contract: A couple of high payments that may result in him being cut, but not too high. Contact ends after the 2016 season.


Aubrayo Franklin, NT, signed 3/20/2013 as Free Agent for $1.1 million for one year
Real contract: One year, stop-gap contract. Ends after 2013 season.


Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, signed 6/11/2013 as Free Agent for $1.1 million for one year
Real contract: One year, stop-gap contract. Ends after 2013 season.


Trent Richardson, RB, acquired 9/18/2013 for our 2014 first round pick
Real contract: Reasonable rookie contract, ends after the 2016 season.


So, basically, every player that the Colts have acquired has a contract that will effectively end after the 2016 season - right when they will need to shovel cash into Andrew Luck's deserving pockets.


Who wants to bet me that any free agents they may sign next year will have contracts that effectively expire after the 2016 season? Anyone?

I see this as a pretty big deal. Basically the Colts seem to think that they must win before the 2016 season ends; despite the fact that Luck will then presumably be entering the prime of his career. 


This is a pretty damming statement on the current way the NFL is structured financially.



Is it possible to win the Super Bowl nowadays while carrying a high-dollar Quarterback? Sound off in the comments . . .

Monday, August 26, 2013

2013 Preseason notes: Road-Grading the Offensive Lineman

The 2012 Indianapolis Colts offensive line was a mixed bag, caught in the transition from the small, intelligent, and mobile blockers favored by former offensive line coach Howard Mudd, to the larger power-type blocker preferred by Head Coach Chuck Pagano. A factor speeding the transition was that the players left over from the 2011 team and prior were not particularly talented, young, or healthy. The Offensive Line issues previously covered up by Peyton Manning became fully exposed.


Ryan Grigson used an extra-long scoop to fully explore the bottle of the barrel, bringing in stop-gap players such as Mike McGlynn and Samson Satele. The 2012 Colts offensive line was indeed a larger, more powerful group. In the end, it really just meant that they stunk it up in a different manner than the 2011 offensive line.

Lets review the visual evidence:

              Ow!                        Group Hug!                 Watch it!              This chair is rock-hard            No riders!               Really?  

Wow. And that was before the game even started.

So, are things better now? What has changed?

Gone:
  • A.Q. Shipley

New Players Acquired:
  • Gosder Cherilus, Right Tackle, Free Agent from Detroit
  • Donald Thomas, Guard, Free Agent from New England
  • Hugh Thornton, Guard, Rookie, drafted 3rd round
Instead of speaking generally about the above names, I'll just go into my grading for each player on the offensive line. Bear in mind that a "A" grade represents a player in the top tier at his position, and who is a good fit for the Colt's scheme.

Starters (current):

Left Tackle: Anthony Castonzo, Grade C+
Castonzo was the last 1st round pick from the horribly failed Chris Polian era (2004-2011), and like most Chris Polian picks, this was a pick for need. Unfortunately, Castonzo was more of the kind of LT that we looked for back then, not so much what we are looking for now.

Basically, Castonzo is a average LT in the league today, but is undersized for what Pagano wants on offense. He is a better than average drive blocker, but can be overwhelmed when matched up with a huge defensive end. He is a better than average pass blocker, relying more on quick feet and technique, than size and power. Again, he can be overwhelmed in pass protection by a larger defender.

Is the C+ grade harsh? No. While he is better than average at both run and pass blocking, he simply does not fit our scheme. He is signed through next year, and I can guarantee you he will not be re-signed. It's even possible that he will be cut this upcoming off-season. You heard it here first people.

Anthony Castonzo Breakdown:
Technique / discipline: B
Size / strength:            C
Overall talent level:     C+
Scheme fit:                 D


Left Guard: Donald Thomas, Grade C+
We signed Donald Thomas away from the New England Patriots, where he was a bench player pressed into a fair amount of action. While he acquitted himself well, the Pats had no intention of letting him compete for a starting job in 2013. It's probably silly, but I always have a little bit of paranoia in grabbing a player that the Patriots allow to get away. Like any team they try to retain their best players, but when they give huge contract extensions to trigger-happy gang-bangers, what is Donald Thomas - a serial killer perhaps? Don't say you haven't wondered the same thing. One thing is that they seem to like larger guards, as do we. He is slightly undersized for what we want to do going forward, so I'd be surprised if he is a long-term solution for us.
Dammit Donald, you let someone get within 15 yards
of me. Now I have to go and change my armour.

So, how does Stabby McStabstab grade out on the field so far? Pretty good I'd say. I haven't seen him make a single truly excellent play, but I have seen him make the expected play most times. I've also watched him make some pretty serious mental errors though, and I'm trying to attribute them to the new environment instead of something worse. And there's also been a couple of times when his hustle level did not seem to match those around him. Maybe he's just confused by playing with a QB that doesn't wet 'em when he gets pressure around his feet.

I do expect him to improve, so I'll keep an eye on him.

Donald Thomas Breakdown:
Technique / discipline: C+
Size / strength:            B-
Overall talent level:     B-
Scheme fit:                 C+

Center: Samson Satele, Grade C+
Setele was one of Ryan Grigson's free agent pick-ups from 2012, and was expected to provide a steady, yet unspectacular presence at center. This he did; until he got hurt. He was in good company though, as the line was riddled with injuries and players were shifting positions faster than your local politician.

Satele is a smart player, which is how he makes up for his physical shortcomings. A bit undersized and underpowered for what the Colts ideally want, Samson is still a key part of the team. That said, with a large cap number for 2014, I expect him to be cut after the season. This is the same situation as Castonzo and Thomas; they are not the ideal physical type that Grigson is looking for. Satele and Thomas were signed because they were the closest fit that met the price we could pay. It's going to be a pretty deep draft for offensive linemen next year, so expect a few changes.

Samson Satele Breakdown:
Technique / discipline: B+
Size / strength:            C
Overall talent level:     C+
Scheme fit:                 C-


Right Guard, Mike McGlynn, Grade D
I want to start this off by saying I don't know Mr. McGlynn personally, and I am very aware that he could totally kick my ass. But from what I saw from him last year, and from what I've seen so far this year; my grade on him might be a little high.

McGlynn getting overpowered by
elderly gentleman. 
Unlike the first three players I reviewed, McGlynn fits the size parameters that Pagano is looking for. At 6'4", 325 lbs, he looks the part. The only problem is that his size and his strength simply do not match up. Just this year, I have seen him get completely run over while both pass blocking and run blocking. He has good mobility for his size, but he lacks explosive strength, and plays like a much smaller player.

He does play with good technique, but when he has a large and powerful player across from him, he (and those who depend on him) are in for a long day. He is a better physical fit at center.

I do not expect him to be the starter in the 2013 season opener. Who will replace him? Let's not get ahead of ourselves, more on that later in the article.

Mike McGlynn Breakdown:
Technique / discipline: B+
Size / strength:            D-
Overall talent level:     C-
Scheme fit:                 D


Right Tackle, Gosder Cherilus, Grade C+
Cherilus was clearly high on Grigson's list as he wasted no time in signing the former Detroit tackle on the first day of free agency. There was some grumbling about the large contract in league circles, but if he's your guy, you do what it takes - so, that did not bother me. What did bother me a little was that Detroit did not seem to feel it was very important to retain him. Of course Detroit has some pretty bad command and control issues, so maybe I shouldn't put too much stock into what they do or don't want.

I was not familiar with Cherilus from his time in Detroit. I don't really watch Detroit games, and since he does not play for a New York team or the Cowboys, there's no reason for anyone to have ever heard of him. Based on what I've seen from him so far this preseason, he looks like Ryan Diem in his prime: basically a pretty good right tackle. And he fits what Grigson is looking for in the size/strength ratio.

Of course that should rate a better grade than C+, right? Except for a few blown assignments in pass protection, he would have rated a B; but those blown assignments were pretty scary. So far this year, I have seen him beat inside and outside by rushers. And when he gets beat, he gets beat clean - for a big shot on the QB. This is bad.

Now because I am not too familiar with his early albums, I really don't know if this is a case of a veteran not caring about pre-season too much, or maybe he's dealing with some minor injuries. Either way, he needs to be more consistent in his pass blocking.

His run blocking has ranged from good to great. He does not seem to have the raw brute strength of a pure road grater, but he's strong enough and persistent. He has very good balance and he moves his feet well. Unless he has an inconvenient injury, we should expect him to be our starting right tackle through next season, but with a large cap number in 2015, he will probably be cut after next season. Like I said earlier, the 2014 draft class looks to be deep in offensive linemen. Cherilus's replacement will be drafted next season.

Gosder Cherilus Breakdown:
Technique / discipline: C+
Size / strength:            B+
Overall talent level:     B
Scheme fit:                 B+


Basically it looks like I have the Colts offensive line averaged out to a C+ grade. Is this average for the league? Probably.

What about the reserves? Well, I'm not going to go into depth on each of them. Jeff Linkenbach is a adequate spot replacement for either tackle position, and a stop-gap at either guard slot. I expect him to make the team this year. I imagine that rookie Khaled Holmes will make it. Joe Reitz is not a scheme fit (too small and weak), but he might make this year's squad based on him knowing where to line-up.

But the guy I really want to talk about is the guy who will soon be the starting right guard for your Indianapolis Colts: 2013 3rd round pick, Hugh Thornton:

Right Guard, Hugh Thornton, Grade B+
I can't even say how impressed I am with this guy. At 6'3" and 330 lbs, he is an ideal fit for the body type that Grigson wants in our offensive line. And unlike some of our other players, he plays stronger than his size would suggest. In just two of his series against the Browns starters, I watched him violently pancake two different very large players on run plays. Also in one of these two series, I watched him take a blitzing LB (who had timed the snap perfectly) and pick him up and rag doll him. Slammed him to the freaking ground. I have not seen a player at guard in the NFL with this sort of strength since Larry Allen of the Cowboys.

In extended playing time with the starters, he only had two plays where it could be said that he should have performed better. One was a blitzer who timed the snap perfectly and caused a hurried pass from Luck, and the other was a DL on a slanted rush who surprise him to the inside. His man didn't make the tackle, but the play was disrupted.

That's it. Other than that, it was ass-kicking power and head on a swivel awareness. He was ridiculous. I imagine that McGlynn has been allowed to occupy the right guard position out of veteran respect, but unless there is something behind the scenes that I can't see, Thornton is a massive upgrade over anyone we could possibly put into the right guard position. He's that good.

You want to know why we all the sudden started moving the ball on the ground in the third series against the Browns? Whoever we had playing RG got hurt and Thornton came in for him. It was that much of a difference.

Hugh Thornton Breakdown:
Technique / discipline: C
Size / strength:            A+
Overall talent level:     A
Scheme fit:                 A+

So, expect to see Thornton starting, sooner than later.

Where does this leave us? Can we compete for the Super Bowl with this offensive line? Yes we can. Line play has become somewhat depreciated by recent rule changes favoring the passing game. In the last few years, we have seen a team with the worst offensive line in the league win the Super Bowl (Pittsburgh), and last year Green Bay's horrific line did not stop Aaron Rodgers from looking like superman.

And we have our own superman, in the person of Andrew Luck. With this year's new emphasis on the short passing game, I can't imagine that Luck will see anything close to the level of pressure he got in Arian's downfield passing offense. That and with better talent and experience at WR, I think we are looking at a very nice year on offense.