Before the team’s season opener, Colts owner Jim Irsay told a radio station in Indianapolis that he expected Andrew Luck to be one of three or four players in the NFL who is an "MVP-type of guy who’s really carrying us" in 2016. In Week 1, it looked like an apt description of the quarterback.
Luck — who missed nine games during a nightmare 2015 season that included a shoulder injury, abdominal tear and a kidney laceration — finished the season opener with four touchdowns, no interceptions and a 119.5 passer rating. But that still wasn’t enough to win and the Detroit Lions handed the Colts a 39-35 defeat.
The Lions matched the 450 yards of total offense put up by the Colts with 448 of their own, including a drive into Indianapolis territory in the final 30 seconds to set up a 43-yard game-winning field goal for Matt Prater.
"To start the season off, I’m pissed, because that’s not a result of our hard work that we put in all spring," Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said of the defensive performance. "It’s not who we are … I’m pissed off right now because we worked too hard — coaches do as well — putting the plan together; we got plenty of time to prepare for these guys. It’s not like they surprised us."
In 2015, there were 18 times when a quarterback finishing with a passer rating over 115 in a losing effort. Only one of those performances — Brian Hoyer’s 116.6 rating for the Houston Texans in a loss to the Colts — was for a team that finished the year with a winning record. Quarterback is, without question, the most important position in football, and it’s simply a terrible sign if great play from an elite passer isn’t good enough to get a win.
And that’s where the Colts are. Even when Luck had a spectacular showing, the rest of the team couldn’t do enough to beat a Lions team that was 7-9 last year with a below-average offense and below-average defense.
With a road trip against the defending Super Bowl-champion Denver Broncos up next in Week 2, the Colts are staring an 0-2 start to the season in the face.
It’s easy to overreact in September. Preseason predictions are often wrong and teams rise from the bottom of the league in a hurry, so it’s entirely possible the Lions aren’t being given enough credit, but this isn’t a new problem for the Colts.
GM Ryan Grigson’s bad drafting caught up with the Colts
The shallow roster of the Colts was exposed in a big way in 2011 when Peyton Manning missed the year due to a neck injury. Indianapolis entered the season with nine consecutive double-digit win seasons, but managed just a 2-14 record with Manning on the sideline.
Team president Bill Polian was fired and Grigson inherited a roster that was severely lacking. He did, however, have the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and an easy choice for how to use it.
Stanford’s redshirt junior quarterback Andrew Luck almost certainly would’ve been the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Instead he returned to play for the Cardinal another season, creating a "Suck For Luck" campaign among NFL fans rooting for their team to lose. As owners of the NFL’s worst record, picking Luck was an entirely easy choice.
The pick paid off immediately and Luck led the Colts to an 11-5 record as a rookie with seven game-winning drives, despite being on a team with the No. 26 defense. As Luck improved, so did the team, even making it to the AFC Championship in 2014 with the No. 3 offense and No. 11 defense, although the record never improved past 11-5.
Then, the team’s poorly constructed roster began to collapse on itself. While Luck was an instant star for the team and T.Y. Hilton developed into a legitimate deep threat, Grigson’s other early draft selections didn’t pan out.
A year after taking Luck, his 2013 first-round pick was Bjoern Werner, a defensive end who tallied 6.5 sacks in three seasons and is now out of the league. In 2014, the Colts didn’t have a first-round selection because it was traded to the Cleveland Browns to acquire Trent Richardson, a running back who scored six rushing touchdowns and averaged 3.1 yards per carry over 29 games with the Colts before he was released.
Big money to undeserving players
The Colts won right away with Luck, posting three consecutive winning seasons, and much of that had to do with Grigson’s willingness to open the pocketbooks and fill gaps in the roster.
While other teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders trudged through losing seasons as young players developed, the Colts patched the team with questionable deals. In the 2013 offseason, the Colts signed six players to contracts of at least $3 million per year:
Only Walden is still with the Colts and Hasselbeck was the only other player still on the roster in 2015.
That’s a lot of money going to players who were all in the later years of their career and weren’t added as long-term pieces. Grigson hasn’t seemed to learn his lesson either, springing for Andre Johnson, Frank Gore and Trent Cole last year.
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Throwing in the towel on the Colts may seem premature and overreactive so early in the season, but Week 1 only confirmed preexisting concerns. Yes, the team is dealing with injuries, but the flawed rebuild of the roster since 2012 has left the team entirely reliant on Luck to perform.
And even when he does — like his four-touchdown performance against the Lions — it’s still not always enough.
"This is a team very much built all around Andrew Luck, and without him, it's not an overly talented team," SB Nation’s Colts site Stampede Blue wrote in January. "It's average. It has average talent with an average head coach and an average general manager. If Jim Irsay wants average, that's fine."
For years, the Colts dominated a weak AFC South, but the division is improving quickly. Wins over the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans are far from sure things and the rest of the Indianapolis schedule features tough matchups against the Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets.
In fact, six of the 10 out-of-division opponents for the Colts this season were playoff teams in 2015 and that doesn’t include a Christmas Eve matchup against the suddenly dangerous Oakland Raiders.
Playing the Lions in Week 1 should’ve been one of the more winnable games of the year and Luck did his part, but the rest of the team didn’t.
The Colts currently have the most important thing any NFL team could possibly have: A still-young quarterback who is one of the best in the NFL. But for now, that talent is being put to waste.