If the Indianapolis Colts make the playoffs in 2011, they will set the record for most consecutive playoff appearances by a franchise in NFL history. The Colts have made the playoffs in nine straight seasons, tying the NFL record with the Dallas Cowboys from 1975-1983 (and Dallas actually made the playoffs in 17 or 18 seasons). It is a testament to the consistency of Peyton Manning and the Colts organization that you could pencil them in for double digit wins and a playoff appearance every season for almost a decade.
This year, though, Peyton Manning has yet to make an appearance in a game as he is still recovering from a 2nd neck surgery in the offseason. While we think Manning will be back, he is 35 and it has led to speculation as to whether he will be ready to open the season. While the team isn’t among the oldest in the league by average starter age, most of the best players are. On offense, center Jeff Saturday is 36, and Reggie Wayne turns 33, and as we’ve seen with other star receivers, it’s about at that age that they can start to slow down. The Colts must hope he lasts as long as Marvin Harrison, who went strong through age 34. Dallas Clark is 32 and coming off a season-ending wrist injury.
Bookend defensive Ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney have been instrumental in the Colts’ run over the last decade, and both will be over 30 this year, along with MLB Gary Brackett. The Colts have churned over their corners in the Cover-2 scheme, and go through outside linebackers as well. The constants over the last five years, though, have been Mathis and Freeney. They both played 16 games last year, but will that continue as age creeps in?
The Colts are a veteran unit, and so they have often seemed to disregard the preseason. Still, is the preseason meaningless? If we look at point differentials for the previous year’s playoff teams in just the first quarter of Game 1, the first half of Game 2, and the first three quarters of Game 3 (the parts of the preseason when the starters and top reserves are most likely in the game), we see a positive relationship with whether they return to the postseason.
Here is a summary of the 60 playoff teams from 2005-2009, how they performed by point differential in those 6 quarters for the preseasons in 2006-2010, and how they did during the following regular season.
By point differential, the Colts aren’t the worst of the 2010 playoff teams during those 6 quarters (-19) this preseason. Seattle (-34) and Chicago (-21) both have been worse. But no one expects much of Seattle, who made the playoffs at 7-9, and Chicago is probably on a lot of lists for teams due to regress after reaching the championship game a year ago. Baltimore (-14) and Kansas City (-11) also join that -11 to -20 group with the Colts. Kansas City was another likely decline candidate even before the preseason, while Baltimore would be a little more of a surprise.
Still, the Colts seem to be the team where we are willing to completely ignore what is going on in the preseason, because a) Peyton Manning is out; and b) the Colts always mail in the preseason. As to the second point first, while the Colts don’t try to win in the preseason, it’s not true that they have been horrible in the six quarters I measured. Here is how they did the previous five preseasons in those quarters most likely to be played by starters and top backups:
- 2010: -7
- 2009: +14
- 2008: -17
- 2007: +24
- 2006: +2
In both Super Bowl seasons, they had a positive point differential, and in 2007, they had their best preseason performance and won 14 games. The Colts may not try to win games in the preseason, but they have been worse when “going against the 1′s” this year than in recent times. They were a combined +18 over the previous 5 preseasons.
Now, the obvious explanation is no Peyton Manning, and though the dropoff from Manning to Curtis Painter certainly is a big part, I’m not convinced that’s all of it. Colts fans better hope that is the only explanation, though. I think it calls into question whether this team is doing as good a job at finding depth of talent with young draft picks and free agent pickups to fit the system as they were 3-5 years ago, when the Colts dominated in finding replacement parts late in the draft.
You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, and over the last decade, you don’t pick against the Colts in the regular season. Still, everything must end. The Colts may get one last hurrah out of the currently comprised core group, if Manning’s neck surgery is an afterthought by week 2 and the other key veteran parts stave off the aging effects for one last time. Or we may look back and see that the run had already begun grinding to a halt following Tracy Porter’s interception return, and this team made the playoffs despite a big dropoff last year, because they played in an easy division where they had to merely outduel Jacksonville down the stretch, and it continues this year as the veterans decline.
I think the Colts are a lot closer to missing the playoffs in 2011 than to being strong Super Bowl contenders. They may still break that playoff streak record because the division is still pretty soft. They are not going to completely fall apart if Manning is under center, but they might slip to more of a league average team. If Manning wants to make a John Elway-like run to Super Bowls late in his career though, I suspect it will have to be with a new set of impact playmakers on offense and defense.
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[photo via Getty, table courtesy Mark Mize]