With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror, it's time for NFL.com's annual "Exit Interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of each team's past season and spin it forward.
2011 in a Nutshell: The Cardinals haven't been the same since Kurt Warner exited stage left. Ditto the Dolphins and Dan the Man. Alice in Chains sure doesn't have the same vibe without Layne Staley, and the last Jack Ryan CIA movie sucked with Ben Affleck in the lead. The 2011 Colts promulgated the theory of the headless horseman, or in this case, the headless horseshoe. An entire organization suffered the dire consequences of having its franchise player downed by a nerve problem in his neck. Ultimately, 2-14 would be the final tally for a team exposed without Peyton Manning at the helm. Everybody suffered, from the top down, as head men Bill Polian and Jim Caldwell lost their jobs in the fateful campaign.
What Went Right: Well, if you just read "2011 in a Nutshell," or watched any football this year, you know the answer to that question is: not much.
One noticeable positive sign from the worst team in football was the lack of quit. I worked on NFL.com's live coverage of Thursday Night Football the night the Colts upset the Texans in Week 16. There was no giving up for a Colts team that had little to play for but pride. Much of that emanated from the defensive side of the ball. Over the last quarter of the season, when the epitaph on dead playoff hopes and any kind of success had long been written, the defense gave up just 72 points -- 18 points per game, the eighth-lowest total in the league, and lower than both the Ravens and Giants.
Pride. It's easy to make fun of in regards to a 2-14 team. But it was there. Reggie Wayne was damn clutch in the win over the Texans, catching a touchdown pass in the waning moments. The veteran wideout narrowly missed (960 yards) his eighth straight 1,000-yard season. Pierre Garcon, despite his inconsistent ways, had the most productive season of his career with 947 yards. And how about Donald Brown, who came on in the second half of the season and averaged 4.8 yards per carry?
What Went Not So Right: The issue was, where was the pride early, when the Colts seemed to shut it down without Manning? Indy got hammered out of the gate in Houston, stumbling and bumbling its way to an 0-13 start.
The strength of the Colts' defense -- the pass rush -- was neutralized because teams were playing from ahead so much that they ran the ball all day long. The Colts allowed 143.9 rush yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry, despite the fact they knew teams were gonna run in the second half. Free agent-to-be Robert Mathis had 9.5 sacks, while Dwight Freeney totaled 8.5, but they were not of the impactful variety. Meanwhile, the linebacker corps didn't exactly make the Steelers jealous, although Pat Angerer can play. The secondary finished second-to-worst in allowing a 103.9 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks.
The offense made up for all this defensive plight by generally sucking under Curtis Painter. Dan Orlovsky had some nice games, but when you're citing Dan Orlovsky as a bright spot, you're ... uh ... reaching. Neither quarterback had a great running game, largely because Joseph Addai has a case of Felix Jones-itis (he can't stay healthy).
Offseason Crystal Ball: There's no way around it. This club failed miserably without Manning. The offensive line didn't benefit from his quick release, the receivers and running backs didn't benefit from his audibles at the line, and the defense had little motivation to play well.
So how does new head coach Chuck Pagano and new GM Ryan Grigson get this team to play better without Manning going forward? All signs seem to point to Manning either not playing, or going elsewhere. The organization has a decision to make on a $28 million roster bonus, one which seems quite easy. If Manning is healthy, and agrees to a lesser deal, then he could remain in the blue and white. But it doesn't seem likely, as the most important thing to the multi-time MVP is winning. Throw in the fact that the team is sure to draft Andrew Luck first overall, and you get the picture.
I spoke with Grigson earlier this month, and he made it very clear that he hadn't had enough time to make any decisions regarding key personnel. Wayne, Garcon, Mathis, guard Ryan Diem, and long-time center Jeff Saturday are all free agents. When I pressed him on Mathis, and how he and Freeney would fit in the 3-4 Pagano is expected to run, Griggson said his staff can adjust.
2012's notable free agents
"(The coordinators) are pliable guys, they're knowledgeable guys ... they're football guys that are not trying to be rocket scientists," Grigson said. "They're not gonna shove the square peg in the round hole. We know what we have in Mathis and Freeney. (The coaches) are going to utilize those guys -- we know what they do great. You don't want to take away a guy's fastball. You want to utilize what guys are good at. You want to play to a guy's strength."
Sounds like Mathis and Freeney both could stay in Indy, but how would their rush ability be accentuated in a 3-4? (As standup LBs?) Either way, if the Colts do let their key parts depart, one question mark will be leadership in the locker room, or lack thereof.
Team Needs and Draft: Where to begin? This club sorely needs an inside linebacker, tackle, guard, center (that's every position on the offensive line), wideout and some secondary help.
And although the Colts have the first pick of the draft, they do not have the first pick of every round. Since Indianapolis and St. Louis both ended up at a league-worst 2-14, the teams will alternate at the top of each round. (Thus, the Rams actually hold the rights to the first selection of the second round -- a valuable asset because of its tradability as the first pick of Day 2.)