While the Rams and Buccaneers had their moments, I don’t think many would disagree with the notion that, for the majority of the 2011 NFL season, the Indianapolis Colts were the league’s worst team.
That proved, of course, how important a good quarterback is. But it proved more acutely how important Peyton Manning was to that specific team. Because without Manning, all of Indy’s flaws from previous seasons were suddenly exposed. In 2011, without the Manning Band-Aid, the layman was able to finally see that Indianapolis was a tired and aging team that lacked depth and had missed on far too many recent draft picks.
That’s why Bill Polian, Chris Polian and Jim Caldwell are gone, and it’s also why it’s a foregone conclusion that Indy will use the first pick of the 2012 NFL draft to officially replace Manning with another blue-chip quarterback prospect — Stanford’s Andrew Luck.
Sucking in 2011 was probably very painful for Colts fans, but it could have been significantly more agonizing. Luck is considered to be one of the best NFL prospects in league history, so the team picked a good time to fall off a cliff. In fact at times, with Manning’s future in limbo with a huge roster bonus looming and a neck problem lingering, it seemed as though they’d gladly thrown themselves off of said cliff.
And the good news is that sucking in 2012 will probably be tolerable, too. It’s easy to be bad if you have a franchise quarterback beginning the grooming process. Ask Carolina Panthers fans how 6-10 felt in 2011 with Cam Newton killing it and promise hijacking Charlotte. The Panthers and Bills finished with the same record, but did it feel that way?
It’s just a lot easier to lose when hints of success in the short-term future fill the air.
Hopefully, Colts fans keep that in mind in 2012. Because while there’s still a lot to be determined in the draft and free agency, the early indication is that Indianapolis will start next season with easily the weakest roster in the league, and one of the weakest rosters I’ve ever seen.
See, the Colts are pretty much starting from scratch. Rookie general manager, rookie head coach, rookie quarterback. Now, starting a rookie under center nowadays isn’t the same semi-self-destructive sacrifice it was years ago. Luck is considered NFL ready, and recent rookie starters such as Newton, Andy Dalton, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco have proved that immediate success can be had.
But those young quarterbacks had stronger supporting casts. Newton had Steve Smith and a strong offensive line. Dalton had A.J. Green and an even better line. Roethlisberger was drafted by a team that was already considered to be a contender. Ryan had Michael Turner and a solid defense; Flacco had Ray Rice and a legendary defense.
The Colts, though, are clearly sacrificing 2012 for 2013 and beyond. A team that was 2-14 last season let Manning go last Wednesday, cut four veteran starters and the only legit quarterback on the roster last Friday and are in the process of trading their top pass rusher. Luck has already lost one potential target in Dallas Clark, and now there’s a good chance top receiver Reggie Wayne leaves as a free agent. Receivers Pierre Garcon and Anthony Gonzalez are also slated to hit the open market, and longtime center Jeff Saturday’s future is also up in the air.
Amazingly, despite the moves they’ve made to cut the roster down to the bare bones, the $38 million of dead cap money left behind by departed veterans means that Indianapolis still has limited room under the cap. The team currently has less than $12 million to spend on in-house and out-of-house free agents.
Luck might be able to single-handedly lead the Colts to a win or two, because it’s ultimately hard to go an entire season without winning a game, and he could be good enough to overcome a lack of receivers, backs, linemen and defenders on a given Sunday against, say, Jacksonville, Buffalo, Cleveland or Minnesota — all of whom the Colts play at home in 2012.
That favorable schedule, the presence of Luck and simple luck itself should be enough to keep Indianapolis from pulling a ’2008 Lions’ next season. But would it really surprise anyone if the Colts did finish 0-16? And if that were to happen, would it really bother Indy fans that much? I mean, look at the Lions now.
And think how sweet it would be to have another top pick in 2013…