Indianapolis Colts 2014 Season Review: One Step Closer

The Colts came within a game of the Super Bowl but still have room to improve on the field.

For the third straight season, the Colts finished with an 11-5 record and a playoff spot.

It was the second year in a row they won the AFC South. With making the playoffs each of the past three seasons, the Colts have gotten one round further every year. The 2012 Colts lost in the Wild Card Round, the 2013 Colts lost in the Divisional Round. and the 2014 lost the AFC Championship to the eventual Super Bowl champion Patriots. There was certainly a step or two forward for the Colts in 2014, but there was still enough left to desire for the team going forward.

What Went Right

When evaluating what went right with the Colts, most people would start with Andrew Luck. While Luck did go right, he was supposed to go right. This year, he finished seventh in the NFL in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP), which you can read more about in the glossary. His going right, though, wasn’t a surprise.

Possibly the biggest positive impact to come from Indianapolis’ season was the emergence of Vontae Davis.

Davis spent the 2014 season becoming one of the best cornerbacks in the league. Davis excelled in man coverage, routinely covering the opposition’s top receiver. Davis’ ability to stay on the top receiver made jobs easier for the rest of the secondary and led to Indianapolis’ ranking 11th against the pass in terms of Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP, which is adjusted for schedule strength. Acquired in a trade for a 2013 second-round pick, Davis has been one of the best values under this Colts’ regime, even after signing a four-year, $36 million contract last offseason.

Back to that Andrew Luck fella. He was asked to do a lot to carry the offense. Luck had the fourth most drop backs for quarterbacks, and the Colts had the sixth highest pass-to-run ratio in the league. Only Matthew Stafford had more drop backs for a team with a winning record and no other team with a winning record had a higher pass-run ratio.

Indianapolis relied heavily on the pass, and it worked well. The Colts ranked sixth in Adjusted Passing NEP. After two impressive seasons, T.Y. Hilton’s third was his best by Reception NEP. He ranked 11th overall and eclipsed 100 Reception NEP (he finished with 108.36) for the first time in his career. Coby Fleener also improved, especially in the absence of Dwayne Allen due to injury, and finished eighth among tight ends in Reception NEP (70.20).

Also, no team benefited more from divisional opponents than the Colts during 2014. Indianapolis went 6-0 against the AFC South, which ended up being our worst statistical division by nERD, which measures expected point differential against league-average opponents. The weak division helped pad the 11-5 record, which sent the team into the playoffs for the third straight season.

What Went Wrong

Is this where we talk about Trent Richardson? This appears to be the place where we talk about Trent Richardson. The second season of the experiment with the Colts somehow turned out worse than the first. The former number-three overall pick finished the season ranked 33rd in Rushing NEP (-13.95) among the 43 backs with at least 100 carries. By the end of the season, Richardson was being benched in favor of Dan Herron, whose Rushing NEP per carry of -0.03 was much less worrisome than Richardson’s -0.09.

Richardson wasn’t the only disappointment on the roster, though. Many of the big investments Indianapolis has made have failed to return the value spent on the player. Last offseason, general manager Ryan Grigson gave starter-caliber money to players such as Erik Walden and Ricky Jean-Francois, but they returned rotation-caliber performances. The Colts’ moves to improve the defense resulted in an average unit that ranked 16th in Adjusted Defensive NEP. Even 2013 first-round pick Bjoern Werner ended up inactive during the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots.

Injuries also hit hard, mostly before the season. Vick Ballard tore his Achilles in July and Robert Mathis tore his Achilles in September while serving a four-game suspension. Ahmad Bradshaw fractured both his fibula and ankle in November. Bradshaw’s Reception NEP per target of 0.70 was tops in the NFL among the 46 running backs with at least 30 targets. While Reggie Wayne played in 15 games, he struggled playing through a torn triceps, which led to his lowest Reception NEP (61.01) for a full season since his rookie year when he had 27 receptions.

What’s Next

There’s plenty of room for improvement on the roster in Indy, and the Colts will not be short of funds in an attempt to make those improvements. Per, the Colts will have about $33.7 million worth of cap space entering the offseason. That doesn’t include the possible savings in cutting ties with players like Walden, Jean-Francois, or LaRon Landry. The suspension of Trent Richardson could also make it possible to void the final year of his contract, saving over $3 million.

The free agent market looks to be heavy on pass rushers, which is something the Colts will need to improve. While the defense finished ninth in sack percentage, much of that came from situational pass rushers like Jonathan Newsome, who finished with 6.5 sacks while playing only 37.2 percent of the defensive snaps. There wasn’t a consistent play-to-play threat coming off the edge.

Reggie Wayne’s future is also up in the air. Wayne will be 37 years old in November and is coming off two injury riddled and unproductive seasons. Even without Wayne, the Colts have a fairly deep corps of receivers and added CFL receiver Duron Carter.

Over the past three seasons, the Colts have been among the top teams in the AFC despite obvious places where the roster could improve. This offseason is set up to fill some of those holes with a chance to jump into the Denver and New England tier of Super Bowl contenders.