INDIANAPOLIS – Before the Indianapolis Colts can move forward from a disappointing 2019 season, they need to take a good, hard look at the past.
The reasons behind a 2-7 finish to the regular season that knocked the franchise out of the playoffs for the fourth time in the past five years are myriad. And it will take time to formulate the solutions.
That’s what general manager Chris Ballard, head coach Frank Reich and their staffs are currently working on at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.
Ballard and Reich are watching every minute of every game and cataloging a to-do list for this spring. They’ll take their conclusions back to their respective staffs and hold the meetings that will shape the team’s additions through the NFL draft and free agency.
Most of the outside attention will naturally focus on the quarterback and the ways in which the Colts’ passing game can improve. Reich already has acknowledged the need to be better in the passing game on both sides of the ball.
But the self-evaluation won’t end there.
What happened over the final two months of the regular season, and how can it be fixed?
“That’s an answer we have to figure out,” Ballard said during his annual postseason media availability. “I remember sitting there at 5-2 and thinking, ‘Man, we have a pretty good football team,’ but also thinking, we’d won some really tight, tight games. Usually, that pops back around on you. You don’t always win those out.
“Point differential is big. I always look at it. I think we about plus-8 or 9, always hovering right in that middle area. We were winning tight games and then, in the second half of the season, we weren’t winning those tight games. Whether it was a failure offensively or a failure in the kicking game or a failure defensively, in each of those tough losses, something would go wrong where we would not make a play.”
Some mistakes were big and obvious.
Defensive lineman Margus Hunt misread a block on the field-goal unit during the fourth quarter against the Tennessee Titans on Dec. 1, and a potential go-ahead kick was blocked and returned for the game-winning touchdown.
Veteran Adam Vinatieri – who struggled throughout the season before going on injured reserve for the final four weeks – shanked a potential game-winning field goal in the closing minutes at Pittsburgh nearly a month earlier on Nov. 3.
Other losses were tougher to boil down to a single moment.
Quarterback Jacoby Brissett was erratic throughout the game in a close loss at Houston on Nov. 21 that essentially knocked Indianapolis out of the AFC South title chase and during a blowout defeat at New Orleans on Dec. 16 that officially eliminated the Colts from postseason contention.
Meanwhile, the pass defense took a sharp decline in the final month. Indianapolis surrendered 1,397 passing yards over the final five games, a stretch in which the team went 1-4 with losses to two teams with losing records.
“(We) had some struggles this year, most of those struggles were in the passing game and all the factors that go into that,” Reich said. “We need to go back and get those cleaned up. … I think there was a good stretch where I felt our defense was playing really, really good football – not average football, like good football. So I’m encouraged by that, but we have to take ownership of the bad as well.”
Accountability, in some form or fashion, factors into every offseason answer.
Ballard has taken the fall for not providing enough depth to survive a rash of injuries during the second half of the season. And the coaching staff is taking a look at its schemes and adjustments as it sets the table for 2020.
But much of the responsibility falls on the players’ shoulders. Ballard has long maintained the locker room will only be as a good as the players want it to be.
He’s going to focus on bringing in the right kind of leaders to make sure standards are being held high. But improvement must also come from returning players – young and old.
“You hope the culture you build will be one that when they enter the building, they know we’re gonna do everything we can do to help them get better – and they’re gonna do everything they can to push each other to get better,” Ballard said. “That way when guys come in and they fall into the culture, this is what is expected. This is how we do business. This is how we do things, and here’s what’s tolerated and here’s what’s not tolerated.”
Ballard sensed some let up in his team after the 5-2 start. Indianapolis beat both team competing in next week’s AFC Championship Game during that stretch and might have gotten caught up in the praise that followed.
Ballard mentioned he might have underestimated the impact of departed veterans like defensive tackle Al Woods and safety Mike Mitchell, who helped fuel a 9-1 finish in 2018 that led to a surprising playoff berth.
But don’t expect him to go on a spending spree in search of a new veteran core in free agency. This team’s priority remains building through the draft, and it will use the open market to supplement when the fit is right.
“You all know my philosophy on free agency,” Ballard said. “You cannot buy a championship. You cannot buy a locker room. We will continue to go down the same road we’ve been going down. Saying that, when we get opportunities to acquire players that we like, we’ll do it.”