Indianapolis Colts 2013 Team Review: On the Rise

When being really good isn't quite good enough.

I remember watching Napoleon Dynamite and thinking it was an average movie - nothing stood out to me really. But later, as I looked back on it, I began quoting more and more of the one-liners, finding myself appreciating it a lot more than I initially did.

That kind of reminds me of the Colts this past year. Nothing flashy, but looking back, it was actually a pretty stinkin’ good season.

While we were all distracted by the dominance of the Seahawks and Broncos, the Indianapolis Colts were quietly putting together an impressive 11-win season. Perhaps we ignored them because it was strength of schedule based (though they did win some impressive games early on), or maybe it had to do with their lack of glamour - no one dazzled highlight reel, and no one on the team blew up the stat lines. It was really just your prototypical team effort manifesting itself on the field.

Across the board, the numbers are very middle-of-the-road, both for players and team stats. On a per game average the Colts were 14th in the league in points scored, 15th in yards, 17th in passing yards, and 21st in rushing yards. Just a whole lotta “meh.”

So how’d those “meh” numbers become such a quality season on the whole? Well, that's why we've got advanced analytics to tell us.

The Good

The Colts' best player is their franchise quarterback, neck beard himself, Andrew Luck. Indianapolis' signal-caller ended the 2013 season with 570 passes for 3,822 yards, 23 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. On the ground, he contributed 377 yards and four scores. While his passing numbers may not indicate much of an improvement on his rookie season, a deeper look at the numbers shows that Luck took a decent step forward in his sophomore campaign.

In 2013, Luck threw for fewer yards and didn’t improve his touchdown total (as we could have expected when Arians took his high flying game plan to the desert). And while his Passing Net Expected Points total ranked just 15th among NFL passers, it was still five points better than what he saw a season ago.

Luck was able to still post a top 10 Total Net Expected Points total though. Why? His legs. He continued his rushing pace into his sophomore season, accumulating more points on the ground in terms of NEP than every quarterback not named Cam Newton. Keep in mind, the NEP metrics don't depend solely on who has the more impressive stat line at the end of the day, but who did more to improve their team's chances of scoring each time they touched they ball. Within Rushing NEP, Luck ran the ball effectively, not necessarily with blazing speed for 50-plus yards. We don't know him as a runner like we do Newton, Kaepernick, Wilson, but Luck is very smart about tucking the ball and taking off.

In the end, Luck finished better than guys like Big Ben, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan, and Tom Brady in terms of Total NEP. Again, nothing awe-inspiring, but still high-quality play.

As the injuries and disappointments in the running game started to mount up, one bright spot that emerged later in the season was Donald Brown.

Brown finished as the seventh-ranked running back in terms of Rushing NEP, and 15th in Total NEP this year. In the same vein as Luck, Brown didn't light up the stat sheet necessarily, but he gained important chunks of yards to help the Colts score. He didn't start a game until Week 13. He didn't have a single 100-yard game. He finished 2013 with 102 carries for 537 yards, 6 touchdowns, and (indicative of his higher Rush NEP) a 5.3 yards per carry. He also contributed 214 yards and two scores receiving. Again, not an impressive stat line at first glance, but on the whole, he contributed greatly to Indy's late season success.

Because of Brown and Luck, the Colts finished 2013 with the third-best rushing offense when adjusted for strength of schedule. But, as we all know, there was one part of that running game that certainly didn't perform above expectation.

The Bad

When it comes to bad, first and foremost, Trent Richardson comes to mind. When Jim Irsay traded for T-Rich after the season started, it was thought that, if Richardson actually had a high-quality passing game around him, any lessened defensive attention on the run could only be beneficial to the rolling ball of knives. The problem was that Richardson just wasn't very good. He missed wide open holes and his yards per carry average was simply atrocious. Case in point: among all running backs this season, Trent Richardson carried the third-worst Rushing NEP. No qualifiers. Just the third worst. Out of all running backs.

It's a little tragic when you consider how effective Donald Brown was in the Colts offense, too. While Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce were the bottom two runners in the league in terms of Rushing NEP, much of that had to do, clearly, with a poor offensive line. The fact that Brown was able to have such high efficiency while T-Rich's was so low is concerning.

Outside of Robert Mathis being a beast and leading the league with 19.5 sacks, the defensive unit as a whole proved ineffective. In most defensive categories, the Colts found themselves in the bottom half or bottom third of the league. In fact, according to our Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points metrics, the Colts finished 20th against the pass this year and 25th against the run. And that overall lack of effectiveness on defense showed in the playoffs, giving up 44 points in their win (barely) over Kansas City, then allowing the Patriots to hang 45 on them.

What Should They Do?

It’s been reported that the Colts are showing interest in free agent wide receiver Eric Decker. This could prove quite beneficial as Reggie Wayne isn’t getting any younger, and T.Y. Hilton does need someone else to take away defensive attention. JJ Zachariason wrote a great piece about Decker's non-Denver Broncos potential here.

If they don't address receiver via free agency, there's plenty of depth in this year's draft despite their lack of a first-round pick. Some options that could be available are Allen Robinson of Penn State, Jordan Matthews of Vanderbilt, Brandin Cooks of Oregon State and Davante Adams of Fresno State.

For running backs, the talented Bishop Sankey out of Washington could be a great fit. He has drawn comparisons to Gio Bernard. He's regarded as an "all purpose" back that has great inside vision.

But where it seems much of the attention needs to be is on the defensive side of the ball. Whether it's the pass rushing Caraun Reid from Princeton, Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov, or Buckeye cornerback Bradley Roby out of Ohio State, all three levels of the defense could use a considerable upgrade. The least likely of these seems to be Reid, as Indy appears likely to stay put on the D-line. I'm personally rooting for Shayne Skov to become a Colt. Stanford has long produced high-quality talent in a NFL style system (especially in Indianapolis). He has three-down size and capability to go along the smaller Jerrell Freeman. He also has versatility in both run-blocking and pass coverage. This could give Indy the biggest boost of any single prospect mentioned.

As I'm finishing this up, I see that the Colts acquired former Brown, D'Qwell Jackson. The universal opinion is that this is not a great fit. He's a big name, but not the right person for Indy's scheme. I fear this may lessen the chances Indy drafts Shayne Skov, which could be a shame for them. Jackson is very talented, but may not be ideal in Indy.

Things are getting interesting, especially for a team with some cap space available. Time to sit back and get your popcorn ready.