How Bad Are the Indianapolis Colts?

The Colts have been disappointing, but are they really one of the NFL's worst teams?

After seven weeks, there is only one thing for certain about this year’s Indianapolis Colts: thank goodness they’re in the AFC South.

The NFL season never goes quite like we anticipate. What's happened to the Colts, though, through seven games is unfathomable. A trendy pick as the possible AFC champion, Indianapolis has been one of the biggest disappointments in the league. It’s not just the Colts’ 3-4 record; it’s how badly they’ve played, especially in the five games with franchise quarterback Andrew Luck under center.

Full disclosure: I live in Indiana, but I’m by no means a Colts fan. Let me tell you -- it’s like the Walking Dead here. People are just out there staring blankly, sleepwalking through their days and trying to figure out what in the world is happening.

You see, Colts fans aren’t used to losing.

Since 1999, the second year for some guy named Peyton Manning, the Colts have a 176-87 record with 14 seasons of double-digit wins and all of two losing campaigns -- one of which came in 2011, when Manning missed the entire season. Colts fans have been spoiled by Manning and Luck, so when the Colts stink it up, their fans don’t necessarily get mad; they get confused. Like they didn’t know this was possible. Two straight possessions ending in a punt? Is that legal?

So how bad are these Colts, and is there any chance they right the ship?

The Season

It started right away, in the first half of the first game. Facing Tyrod Taylor and the Buffalo Bills, the Colts looked completely overmatched and went into the half down 17-0.

There were brief moments of hope, starting with the Week 3 comeback win over the Tennessee Titans. With Luck out injured and Matt Hasselbeck at the helm, the Colts won consecutive games over the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans, making them 3-0 against the AFC South.

Luck returned for a Week 6 clash against the New England Patriots, and Indianapolis actually hung with the robots from Foxboro. That was overshadowed by the hilariously awful fake punt, which pretty much dumped gasoline and a match on coach Chuck Pagano’s hot seat, a seat which has been warm since this summer but has reached scorching levels of late.

Last week against the New Orleans Saints, the Colts replicated their lousy performance against the Bills, digging themselves a 27-0 hole in a home loss.

It’s been bad. Like, Ryan Mallett’s last couple weeks bad.

The defense hasn’t been good, which was expected. The problem is the offense. With Luck and a stable of talented receivers, the Colts’ offense was supposed to be a high-scoring machine. Instead, Indianapolis is battling with the Jaguars, Bills and Texans to be the team with the most punts. 

Number Crunching

According to our nERD metric, the Colts are the 24th-ranked team in football with a -4.55 nERD, sandwiched between the Titans and the Cleveland Browns.

If you’re unfamiliar with numberFire, nERD, an in-house metric, is our way of calculating how good a team really is, based on expected point differential against a league-average team. For the Colts, they would be expected to lose by 4.55 points against a league-average opponent on a neutral field.

It’s too simplistic to lay all of the blame on the shoulders of Luck, but it’s hard not to point to his play as a big reason for the poor start. Quarterback wins are an extremely flawed stat for a number of reasons, but the Colts are a mind-numbing 1-4 in games started by Luck and 2-0 under Hasselbeck. #WUT

Our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric is the opposite of quarterback wins; it takes everything into account. NEP measures the number of points (real points, not fantasy points) a player adds for his team versus what he should have added for his team, based on history. A 10-yard gain on 3rd-and-9 in a lot more valuable than a 10-yard pickup on 3rd-and-20. NEP accounts for that. You can read more about it in our glossary.

Among quarterbacks who have attempted 100 passes this season, Luck ranks 20th in Passing NEP per drop back at a clip of 0.05, which is significantly worse than his 2014 mark of 0.17. Luck’s Passing NEP per drop back this year essentially ties him with Jameis Winston and Blake Bortles. Luck, Winston and Bortles quarterbacking at the same level. Hard to imagine that 12 months ago.

Go by whatever stat you prefer -- yards per attempt (down from 7.9 to 5.8), interception rate (2.6 to 4.3), completion percentage (61.7 to 56.2) or QBR (61.54 to 38.25) -- and it’s pretty obvious Luck has been a lot worse this season than last.

The Colts’ offense ranks 21st in Adjusted NEP per play at 0.02. Indianapolis’ offense has scored just 13.63 points more than what a league-average offense would have scored given similar situations. For reference, the juggernaut Browns sit at 25.84 points above expectation, nearly twice as productive.

A season ago, Indianapolis finished ninth in Adjusted NEP per play at 0.09. It’s quite a tumble down to 0.02.

The defense deserves some blame, too. After finishing 2014 a surprising 11th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, the unit checks in 22nd this season. The Colts have allowed 55.51 points above expectation. They’re getting torched through the air, ranking 25th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play.

It’s not all bad. Punter Pat McAfee leads the league in gross punting yards.

Wait, that’s necessarily not good? Oh, OK. Er, yeah, then it’s all bad. All of it.

So to recap: the Colts have been terrible on defense and bad on offense. It’s a miracle they have three wins.

What Lies Ahead

As previously stated, thank goodness for the AFC South.

Despite the horrid start, the Colts still have a 49.3 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to our calculations, anda  49 percent chance of winning the division. Their Super Bowl odds of 0.2 percent, however, are lower than Tennessee’s, so that dream is just about dead.

How much of an effect does the AFC South have on the Colts’ odds of reaching the postseason? Here are the division title odds for the teams surrounding Indianapolis in our nERD rankings: Saints (0.3 percent), Titans (21.3 percent), Browns (0.1 percent), Detroit Lions (0.0 percent) and Texans (18.3 percent). It’s not hard to pick out which teams are in the AFC South.

The Colts taking advantage of their weak division is nothing new, of course, as the team is 17-17 against non-AFC South foes since drafting Luck. As we wrote about nearly 10 months ago, the AFC South has altered our perception of Luck and the Colts, whose 15 turnovers are tied for second-most in the NFL. 

So, despite the 3-4 start, despite the turnovers, despite the porous defense, there is a 49 percent chance the Colts host a playoff game, and it would likely be, at this point, against the Pittsburgh Steelers or New York Jets.

While Luck has been bad through his five starts -- and I’m not going to attempt to explain why, mostly because I have no idea what’s happened to him -- it’s still only five games. That’s an extremely small sample size. Plus, 80 percent of Luck’s starts have been against teams (Bills, Jets, Patriots and Titans) that sit in the top 12 in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play.

Better days likely lie ahead, as three of the Colts’ last four games come against AFC South teams. Five of their final six games are against bottom-12 defenses in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play.

Next up, however, are the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos, the top two pass defenses in terms of Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. Combined, Carolina and Denver have prevented 72.21 points above expectation this season.

Before things get better, they may have to get worse.