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OP: End of the Lucky Horseshoe

Time for an outlandish prediction, or if you’d rather, a little preja vu…

The future arc of the Indianapolis Colts has been brewing in my mind for a while now, ever since Tony Dungy decided to retire after the 2009 season. And as the offseason has gone on, I’ve become more and more convinced that the horseshoe that has been pointed up for so long in Indy is going to turn downward. I’ve said as much in private email conversations for a while now, and now I’m goin’ public.

To leave the land of the metaphor and say it plainly, here’s the prediction:

The Colts won’t win 10 games this year.

That’s a big deal, because the Colts won at least 10 games in each of the 7 years of Dungy’s tenure (2002-08). In fact, Indy won at least 12 regular season games in each of the last six years.

But that run will come to an end this offseason. And here’s why:

*Jim Caldwell isn’t up to it – We’ve gone into this at great detail here on the site. (You can read here how I compare the Caldwell hiring to others this offseason and read here what I don’t like about Caldwell’s career path.) I lived through the Caldwell experience at Wake Forest when I was a student there, and while he is a very nice man he’s not a good coach. He came to Wake Forest with a Joe Paterno pedigree, and he gets this Colts job with a Tony Dungy pedigree. But a pedigree is not a guarantee. I simply can’t believe in Caldwell as an NFL coach.

*Staff turnover – The Colts apparently hired Caldwell as Dungy’s successor in waiting to preserve staff continuity. But that didn’t work, because the Colts will have new coordinators on offense, defense, and special teams. The offensive coordinator, Tom Moore, retired (along with OL coach Howard Mudd) in fears of losing pension money. Moore and Mudd will remain as consultants, and their replacements – Clyde Christensen as offensive coordinator and Pete Metzelaars as line coach – have been in Indy for 7 and 5 years, respectively. But losing Moore and Mudd cuts the staff’s overall experience, and something will get lost in transition. Even Peyton Manning has questions about how it’s going to work.

On defense, the Colts wanted a more aggressive scheme than Dungy’s patented Tampa 2, and so they encouraged coordinator Ron Meeks to resign. (He landed in Carolina.) That smacks of a new coach’s arrogance in trying to implement his system and his way. The Colts’ defense wasn’t great, but it was OK, and the personnel fit it. But Meeks was replaced by Larry Coyer, who has a reputation of being blitz happy from his previous stops. There’s no way the current personnel – which haven’t been upgraded on defense – can take a huge step forward with the new scheme with the current personnel. Instead, I expect a step back, if not two. And the fact that Coyer and Caldwell used to work together makes me wonder if cronyism, not strategy, prompted the move.

Caldwell also cut special-teams coach Russ Purnell loose. That’s not a big deal, except it’s another sign that Caldwell is trying extremely hard – too hard, in our opinion – to put his own stamp on the team. The team was winning 12 games a year, and a failed college coach wants to put his stamp on it?  That’s just not a good idea.

*The divisions are labor – The Colts have made hay in an AFC South that is traditionally a so-so division. Jacksonville and Tennessee have each been good at times, but rarely at the same time. But Tennessee should be tough this year, and Jacksonville (who always gives the Colts problems) should bounce back. Plus, Houston continues to get incrementally better. It will be hard for the Colts to get to 4 wins in the division. The Colts play the NFC West out of conference, which will help the win ledger, but drawing the entire AFC East plus a road game at Baltimore is no bargain. (Thanks to Andy for starting my thought process on the schedule.)

*Roster rut – If you look at the transactions ledger, the Colts have only added one free agent from another team – backup linebacker Adam Seward. They have lost some key players, including P Hunter Smith, DT Darrell Reid, CB Keiwan Ratliff, and most notably WR Marvin Harrison. The problem is that marginal draft picks will have to replace most of these guys. While that long-term strategy works, in the short term that could lead to some growing pains. And this is a team with too much in flux to afford many growing pains.

All in all, I see the Colts slipping noticably this year – even with Peyton Manning, Bob Sanders, Dwight Freeney, Reggie Wayne, and the other stars there. The personnel depth has always been so-so because the Colts had so many stars, and that will show up negatively especially as the defense attempts to change schemes.

And remember how fortunate the Colts were to get to 12 wins last year. Over the first half of the season, the Colts were 3-4 including two white-knuckles wins over Minnesota and Houston that could have easily gone the other way. The Colts will not be good enough this year to turn those white-knucklers into wins, and the difference will show in the win/loss record. The horseshoe isn’t lucky enough to save the Colts in 2009.

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