Overtime: Colts season preview

By BEN SIECK | MANAGING EDITOR

Entering the 2014 National Football League season, the Indianapolis Colts have two things going for them: quarterback Andrew Luck and the worst division in football.

This formula raised the Colts from the worst team in the NFL to back-to-back 11-5 records and last year’s AFC South division crown.

With those two elements going for them, the Colts should repeat as division champs. However, it is everything else that gives me concern. Indianapolis is precariously balanced atop the AFC South. One misstep and the Colts could come tumbling down to the rest of the pack.

Indianapolis’ hopes begin and end with its quarterback. Luck’s arrival, with the help of some good fortune, sparked the Colts to a nine-win turnaround. For his sophomore season, Luck cut down on his interceptions and incompletions while the Colts staved off regression.

Luck’s improvement in 2013 is a promising sign. He halved his interceptions, upped his completion percentage more than 6 percent and threw for as many touchdowns as he did in 2012. Two years is still a relatively small sample size, but signs point toward Luck continuing his growth in 2014.

The Colts will need this growth if 11-5 is to be repeated. For all Luck’s perceived greatness, his passing statistics are surprisingly pedestrian. Football Outsiders, a football analytics website, ranked Luck as the 14th best quarterback last season.

ESPN’s total quarterback rating placed Luck as ninth, due partly to his league-best quarterback rushing rating. Luck’s skill on the ground should not be discounted with the need for dual-threat quarterbacks rising, but it’s passing that will keep Luck healthy and productive in the long term.

Football Outsiders’ offers a similarity tool, which shows each NFL player’s most comparable season. In 2013, Luck’s closest companion was Sam Bradford and his 2012 campaign. Yes, Sam Bradford, who is probably on the outs in St. Louis after the Rams have failed to finish .500 since he took the starting job.

The general perception between those two quarterbacks could not be more different. Luck is seen as a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback whose career is trending toward the hall of fame, and Bradford is a draft bust who seems destined for a journeyman career.

For two former No. 1 overall picks, the difference is as simple as wins and losses. In Bradford’s first two seasons, the Rams went 8-18 in games he started. The Colts, with Luck starting, were 22-5.

Perhaps Luck’s greatest statistic is his record in one-score games. Luck is an improbable 14-2 in those games. In NFL history, only Peyton Manning’s 15-1 record from 2008-09 tops Luck’s first two years. Meanwhile, Bradford is just 9-11-1 in those games for his career.

There is certainly something to be said for a quarterback who does not falter under pressure, but Luck’s success seems equal parts skill and luck. The statistical progression Luck has shown gives hope that this will counterbalance his astronomical good fortune regressing to reasonable heights in the coming seasons.

However, Luck isn’t out there playing by himself.

The Colts, as a team, were ranked 13th in the NFL last season, according to Football Outsiders’ efficiency ratings, which measures teams’ values over the average. This was the worst ranking of any playoff team outside of Green Bay, whose starting quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, missed seven games.

Indianapolis will need to improve around Luck if it hopes to make it out of the wild card round.

The Colts will have plenty of weapons on offense. The issue is how effective those weapons will be.

Wide receiver Reggie Wayne is back after tearing his ACL midway through last season. He was effective last year, but returning at full strength is no sure thing, especially for a 35-year-old receiver.

Joining Wayne will be ex-Giants WR Hakeem Nicks, who Indianapolis signed in the offseason. Nicks disappointed in his last two seasons in New York, managing just 692 yards receiving in 2012, and failed to catch a touchdown in 2013. The Colts are hoping Nicks can tap into what made him one of the most dominant receivers in the game from 2010 to 2011.

Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton is coming off his first 1,000 yard receiving season, and was the bright spot of the 2013 Colts’ passing attack. Hilton will need to keep his production up amidst a receiving corps with more questions than answers.

Tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener represent what could be the league’s best one-two punch at the position. Allen only played in one game last season before a hip injury kept him sidelined for the rest of the year. In his place, Fleener proved a reliable pass catcher and will look to build off 2013’s 52-reception performance.

One of the biggest losses for the Colts this offseason was running back Donald Brown signing with San Diego. Brown was the second most efficient running back last season, according to Football Outsiders.

With him gone, the Colts will look to Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw to fill the hole at running back with Vick Ballard already lost for the season.

Bradshaw played well last season, averaging 4.5 yards per carry in three games before a neck injury cost him the rest of 2013. However, Richardson is the expected starter as the Colts seemed determined to ride the Trent Richardson express right off a cliff.  Richardson averaged just 3 yards per carry last season, and rated as the third worst running back in the NFL among those who saw at least a hundred carries.

Giving Bradshaw the majority of the touches out of the backfield means the Colts will have to swallow their pride, but Richardson is a sunk cost at this point. It is better for the Colts to admit it, rather than hurt the team any more.

The Colts weren’t anything special on defense last season, ranking 16th in 2013, according to Football Outsiders. Unfortunately, that defense took a massive hit when linebacker Robert Mathis was suspended for the first four games of 2014. Mathis led the league in sacks last season with 19.5. Indianapolis’ 2013 first round pick, linebacker Bjoern Werner, will need to step up in Mathis’ absence.

For a defense that mostly stood pat this offseason, losing Mathis puts even more pressure on the offense to score points.

The Colts benefit from a relatively easy schedule. Their division should be a cakewalk for the second straight season. Four games against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans should mean four wins. After all, the Jaguars biggest offseason addition was a new scoreboard.

The Houston Texans will be much better than last season’s dismal 2-14 campaign, but they’re still only looking at 7-9 or 8-8. However, the combination of lineman J.J. Watt and linebacker Jadeveon Clowney rushing the passer will make even indestructible Andrew Luck nervous.

The offensive line and Luck himself will need to be mindful of the hits he takes this season. Luck has been hit more than any other quarterback the past two seasons, according to Football Outsiders. His build and toughness have kept him on the field so far, but hits add up. If he is forced to miss any time, Indianapolis’ season will be jeopardy.

Luck and, well, luck should keep the Colts atop their division. It won’t be enough to get past the divisional round of the playoffs, but a favorable schedule, especially down the stretch, keeps the Colts in the postseason as they finish the regular season 9-7.

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