Indianapolis Colts mauled in AFC Championship – Now what happens to take the next step forward

by Kent Sterling

Andrew Luck had a tough time last night in the AFC Championship, but job one for Ryan Grigson is to sign Luck to a deal that both pleases Luck, but allows the Colts to continue to evolve elsewhere.

Andrew Luck had a tough time last night in the AFC Championship, but job one for Ryan Grigson is to sign Luck to a deal that both pleases Luck, but allows the Colts to continue to evolve elsewhere.

The AFC Championship was an ugly waste of nearly four hours for Indianapolis Colts fans, but for the brain trust charged with continually evaluating and improving the roster, it was an accurate snapshot of where they are and where they need to go.

Reports of deflated balls aside (could that have helped the Patriots dominate as they did in the trenches) Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots were annoyingly superb throughout, forcing the Colts into uncomfortable circumstances that resulted in game changing mistakes.

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Teams can’t achieve greatness until they are ready for it, and yesterday the Colts showed themselves unready to move forward toward hanging a second banner from the rafters of Lucas Oil Stadium.  From Josh Cribbs taking a punt off his face as he tried to fair catch it to a multitude of dropped and errant passes to a defense that was not capable of stopping anything or anyone, this game showed the warts that the Colts had successfully overcome to reach the semifinals of professional football.

Attention on 56th Street now turns to the task of retooling so being embarrassed by Belichick doesn’t happen again, which should be plenty to keep owner Jim Irsay, GM Ryan Grigson, and coach Chuck Pagano occupied for the next four months.

First up is putting the finishing touches on a contract extension that will keep quarterback Andrew Luck in Indianapolis for the foreseeable future.  Bringing back Luck is a no-brainer, but how to do it so his contract allows the Colts to improve elsewhere will be the challenge.

Right now, the Colts have approximately $109 million committed to contracts for 2015, according to  The cap is projected at $140 million.  That leaves $31 million for free agents, the 2015 draft class, and extending Luck.

Unrestricted free agents include WR Reggie Wayne, DE Cory Redding, WR Hakeem Nicks, backup QB Matt Hasselback, CB Darius Butler, OL Joe Reitz, S Sergio Brown, S Mike Adams, RB Ahmad Bradshaw, and Josh Cribbs.  That’s a bunch of players who filled important roles in 2014 to either re-sign or replace.

Some of the work is fairly simple.  Cribbs earned an opportunity to retire after yesterday’s muffed punt.  Wayne and Redding may choose to retire.  Bradshaw is an oft-injured 29 year-old at a position where 30 is retirement age for most.  Adams will turn 34 five days after Bradshaw’s birthday, and while he played well, safeties can be had cheap.  Nicks was likely not thrilled with his level of use, and may seek to build value somewhere else.

On the plus side, Robert Mathis’ return could provide great dividends demand upon his recovery from a torn achilles and what amount of football he has left in his tank.  He’s about to turn 34, but an old Mathis is a hell of a lot better than no Mathis.

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That leaves Brown, Reitz, Hasselbeck, and Butler as targets that need to be retained, and areas of concern that outnumber areas of strength.

The Colts have each of their picks in the first six rounds of the 2015 Draft, and will draft 29th.  They might as well draft the best player available because for a team that just went to the AFC Championship, they have needs almost everywhere.

Minus quarterback, cornerback, and wide receiver, where could Grigson and company feel good – especially after yesterday?

That’s the bonus of playing against Belichick.  He is going to expose your weaknesses, and make you feel a little less good than you did prior to the game.

Here are the strengths of the Colts:

Quarterback – Despite Luck’s miserable (Andy Dalton-esque) stats yesterday in the rain and wind (12-33 for 126 yards, 0 TDs, two picks, and a passer rating of 23), there is no doubt he is the future of the franchise.

Cornerbacks – Vontae Davis and Greg Toler might be the best tandem of corners in the NFL.

Wide receiver – T.Y. Hilton is elite, and Donte Moncrief could be a great bookend for a decade.

Tight ends – Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen need to hold onto the ball a bit better, but they provide solid options for Luck.

Special teams – Pat McAfee, Adam Vinatieri, and Matt Overton are as good as it gets.


Offensive line – The shuffling of the line (minus Anthony Castonzo) spoke to the mediocrity of the other four spots.  Maybe Khaled Holmes develops into a longterm solution at center.  Maybe Gosder Cherilus regains health and protects Luck’s front side as well as Castonzo has his back.  Lots of maybes.

Defensive Line – Counting the outside linebackers as defensive linemen here, Bjorn Werner was reportedly a healthy scratch yesterday, and if Redding retires, Mathis must return to form or pressure on a quarterback will be difficult to imagine from this group.  If stopping the run is where they choose to hang their hats, yesterday showed they are a long way from being who they thought they were.

Running Backs – Trent Richardson costs the Colts the same amount of cash in 2015 whether he’s on the roster or not, so expect him to be back unless Grigson can find a GM willing to trade for him.  (There is a joke lurking there somewhere, but why be cruel on a day like today?)  Neither Boom Herron nor Zurlon Tipton qualify as reasonable solutions to a problem that has plagued the Colts since Edgerrin James left for Arizona.

When your two chief deficiencies are at the line of scrimmage, there is some remedial work to do.

As much better the Colts are compared to their AFC South rivals is roughly the same as the gap between the Colts and the Patriots – although in the opposite direction.

With a great offseason, the Colts will close the gap on the Patriots, and might take yet another step forward next year.  A bad offseason could throw this rebuild into reverse.

This might be the most important offseason of Grigson’s career.

4 thoughts on “Indianapolis Colts mauled in AFC Championship – Now what happens to take the next step forward

  1. John Bender

    Excellent analysis as always, and your closing comment couldn’t be more accurate. In my opinion, as disappointing as yesterday was, this team as currently constructed was fortunate to have taken the next step in the post-season this year.

    Looking back, I’m not sure that the first round opponent would have mattered, as we seem to match up well against both the Bengals and the Ravens. However, and with all due credit for how the Colts played in Denver, it’s tough to deny that they benefited from a diminished Manning. Still, I believe they earned that victory more via their solid play than any other factor. That being said, the Colts did benefit from some week 17 “luck” (no pun intended) that flipped the seeding and prevent a divisional round trip to New England, which would have apparently meant an earlier exit and a season that ended absent that “next step” they took this season. Of course, things breaking in your favor is very much a part of the game, so I’m not one to place an asterisk next to any post-season victory, or to say “yes, but”, although that does lead me to my next point.

    As is always the case in professional athletics, the flip side of improving and / or “taking the next step” is that the bar is raised accordingly, and having now advanced to the AFC Championship Game, and with a likely 6 year, $150M contract extension for Andrew looming, among other extensions that will be necessary to retain other members of his draft class, the narrative now becomes “Super Bowl or Bust” in terms of “taking the next step”. It gives me great pause to look at those cap numbers and realize that they not only need to make improvements, but must also retain / replace existing pieces, and only have approximately $30M to do so.

    With so many obvious areas of concern, in my viewpoint, it really comes down to this. Grigson simply MUST have an extraordinary draft and / or unearth other inexpensive free agents, all of whom will need to “over-perform” their contract value. Anything short of that, and I believe that taking the next step forward to a Super Bowl appearance will not only be very difficult, but extremely unlikely. Moreover, failure to significantly address areas of need and / or a mediocre / poor draft could set this team back several years at best and leave them unable to reach their goal of capturing a Lombardi by virtue of Luck’s presence. Should that occur, it would seem to me that the Grigson / Pagano era could be in real jeopardy 365 days from now.

    Off the top of my head, I can’t speak to the contract length of either, but once they reach the end of year 4, I would imagine there will be significant introspection and reckoning on Jim’s part, and if next season’s incarnation of the Colts take a step backward, with newly acquired players not addressing areas of concern in a meaningful way, it may well prove to be Grigson and / or Pagano’s undoing, right or wrong, fair or unfair.

    The most important offseason of Grigson’s career indeed my good man.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      It is always the gap between expectations and reality that costs coaches and GMs their jobs – see the Chicago Bears for a great recent example. Expectation is the ghost Grigson must continue to outpace – as you correctly assert.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      With Luck in his third year, the Colts were not good enough to get to the Super Bowl. I understand your point, but it’s an exaggeration of a widely held truth.


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