The Indianapolis Colts closed out the first half of their 2012 season with a 23-20 win over the Miami Dolphins. The win moved their record to a remarkable 5-3 and gave them the inside track for an AFC Wild Card. With half the season in the books it's time for the Colts to receive their midterm report card. I'll be handing out grades for each unit, each individual starter, as well as providing the reasoning behind each grade.
So have a seat, class is in session. Read, react, and tell me which Colts players you think are making the grade and which need to be sent to detention.
The Front Office:
General Manager Ryan Grigson (A-) - If you had to get rid of the (in my opinion) greatest QB of all time and one of the (in my opinion) best GMs in NFL history, you couldn't ask for much more after the first 9 weeks of the reboot. 5-3 and a legitimate threat to make the playoffs is impressive enough, but don't forget: the Colts are a Cecil Shorts, III 80-yard TD from being 6-2 and fighting for much more.
While the coaches and players have to get a majority of the credit for the on-field performance, Ryan Grigson's rookie draft appears to be a home run after 8 games. Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, TY Hilton, LaVon Brazill and Vick Ballard have all shown various levels of "goodness", and have each taken major strides in their progression since the first week of the season. And this doesn't even include rookie NT Josh Chapman, whose imminent return will likely turn the Colts into a top-5 defense. (writer's note: my Chapman love/hype is over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek, please don't take it too seriously)
Grigson has also been relatively successful in his free agency and trade moves. While the jury is still out on the Vontae Davis deal (and it will be for the next few years), the Winston Justice, Drew Stanton, and Josh Gordy trades were the right amount of risk vs. reward and have all yielded a player worthy (or better, in Justice's case) of the assets given up for them. Grigson's most questionable move appears to be the signing of C Samson Satele, who has been one of the worst performers on the offense this season. If that's the biggest strike against a rookie GM, you're doing pretty well.
The Coaches (B):
Head Coach Chuck Pagano (A+) - So how does a coach who has been on the field for 3 games get an A+? First, let me say that while I've been critical of some of the in-game decisions made by Pagano and his staff this season, I do expect the rookie head coach to grow and learn as he gets more experience.
What I'd like to focus on, however, is how Pagano - since Day 1 - has shown an amazing ability to connect with his players and to get them to buy into a thought, an idea, a cause. First it was the thought that no one believed in the Colts. Then it was the notion of Building the Monster. And now, as he is fighting for his life against Leukemia, he's been able to get the Colts to buy into the notion of believing in a vision, not circumstances.
Pagano's strength and determination in fighting his cancer, as well as his ability to continue being "a coach" for his team whenever possible, has been inspirational. He truly is ChuckStrong, and I know I'm not the only one rooting for him to dance at his daughters' weddings.
Offensive Coordinator/Interim Head Coach Bruce Arians (C+) -This was a tough one for me, as I've been called out by some readers as a bit of an Arians basher/hater. While there may be some validity to that opinion, I prefer to think of myself as brutally honest, blunt, and fair.
So let's start off with the fair: The Colts are 5-3 (and 4-1 with Arians as interim head coach), have a dangerous offense that has moved the ball on some of the better defenses in the league, and all of their offensive rookies have taken considerable steps forward this season. All of these things are pluses in Bruce Arians favor.
Now let's talk negatives: he's still too willing to settle for field goals in the red zone. His play calling is, at times, confusing and disjointed. I feel that the Colts "tip" far too many plays based on personnel, formation, and motion. The Colts are calling 27.25 running plays-per-game, far too high given the disparity in skill between the passing game and the running game. There are a lot of other smaller areas to nitpick as well, but these are the main issues I have with Arians decision making.
The best way I can sum it up is this: looking at the overall picture, including progression of players and team record, I find it hard to criticize the job that Arians has done. Judging him on a per-play-basis, however, and I find it hard to NOT criticize him. He gets a C+ for now, but the Colts ability to make the playoffs will likely depend largely on whether he earns an A or an F the rest of the way.
Defensive Coordinator Greg Manusky (C) - Manusky gets extra credit for having the greatest first name in the history of first names. Aside from his name, it's hard to get a firm grasp on how Manusky has performed this year: of the two units (O and D), his was the one given the least amount of attention and love in the off-season. The defense has also been the unit more-decimated by injuries this year, losing Mathis, Freeney, Davis, Angerer, Redding, Powers, Moala and others at various points this season.
That said, I still feel as though Manusky has failed to properly adjust to the injuries and lack of talent on his roster. Far too often he's reacted to the lack of a pass rush by dialing up big blitzes. While this seems like a logical adjustment, the blitzes have served to do nothing but give opposing quarterbacks easy reads and decisions. With the struggles of Powers, Vaughn, and Zbikowski in man coverage, Manusky's first adjustment should have been to switch to a more conservative zone-heavy defense, to hide the deficiencies of his team. Instead, he often chooses more aggressive choices that expose them.
There is hope, however, as Mathis, Davis and NT Josh Chapman are all expected to return to the team at some point, which should provide Manusky with enough scheme-friendly talent to put up a better fight against opposing offenses. I'll be keeping a close eye on Manusky the rest of the season to see how he continues to adjust to the hand he's been dealt.
Chandler Harnish (F) - The Colts rookie QB has already been cut. What a bust.
Drew Stanton (C) - He has nice clipboard-holding form, but he lacks some of the flowing locks and dreamy eyes that the Colts have had in clipboard-holders past. If Stanton wants an A, perhaps he should consider a wig and Jeff Saturday Contact Lenses™, kissing up to the teacher and doing extra credit never hurt.
Andrew Luck (A+) - The Colts other rookie QB has yet to be cut, but I'm sure Grigson has come close on more than one occasion. In all seriousness, Luck has been better - sooner - than I could have ever imagined. His performance against the Dolphins was the kind of in-the-zone dominance we rarely see from veterans, let alone rookies. His pocket awareness, poise, and decision making are all off-the-charts, and he has even taken positive strides in his biggest negative, his deep passing accuracy.
The Colts are 5-3 and fighting for a playoff spot because of Luck's play. And if they do pull off the impossible and make the playoffs, it won't be because of luck, the kid is that good.
Running Backs (B):
Donald Brown (B+) - When Brown has been healthy and on the field, he's been a difference maker for the Colts. He's been explosive, decisive, and tough, and his 4.3ypc average is by far the best on the team. He's turned his biggest negative (pass blocking) into a positive, and has become a good every-down back. For the Colts offense to operate at peak levels, they will need Brown on the field.
Vick Ballard (B-) - Some context: Ballard gets some extra credit for being "The Lounge Singer" and for doing a Ballard Roll to beat the Titans in Week 8. We're also grading him on a curve, keeping in mind that he's a rookie who was drafted in the 5th round. With all that in mind, Ballard has had a pretty good start to his rookie campaign. His numbers aren't gaudy, picking up only 3.5 yards-per-carry, but he's been very good in pass protection and has recently become a threat as a pass catcher out of the backfield.
Ballard has shown he has some of the tools required to be an every down back, but there are still some questions about whether he'll ever put it all together. Until then, he is well-equipped to be part of a dangerous tandem with Donald Brown.
Delone Carter (B) - While Carter hasn't materialized into the bruising, reliable short-yardage and goal line back we had all hoped he would when he was drafted, Carter has developed into a pretty decent running back, and even displaying a surprising amount of speed and agility. Carter has the 2nd-best YPC on the team at 3.7, and has, knock-on-wood, seemingly fixed the fumbling problems that plagued the Colts last year.
Carter may never be more than a #3 kind of running back, but the Colts have to feel very good about having him in that role.
Tight Ends (B):
Dwayne Allen (A+): Allen was billed as the less athletic, but more well-rounded TE coming out of the draft. After 8 games, however, you'd swear he was the 2nd round pick who was brought in to be a match-up nightmare for opposing defenses. Allen has the kind of size that will terrorize opposing DBs, and the kind of footwork and hands that will give linebackers fits. Already 4th on the team in catches and yards, Allen is developing quickly, especially at a position which is notorious for slow development.
Coby Fleener (C+): Fleener has shown flashes of the dynamic play the Colts were hoping to get from him when they took him in the 2nd round of the draft, but he went down with a separated shoulder right as he appeared to be putting it all together. Part of Fleener's struggles this year have been scheme related - with the coaches not quite understanding how best to take advantage of his physical gifts - and part mental - he was clearly fighting the ball at the start of the season. Once those two issues are worked out - and I'm confident they'll be worked out sooner, rather than later - Fleener will show everyone why he was the most coveted TE in the draft.
The Allen - Fleener tandem is already a treat to watch, and you have to think that the Colts may have one of the best tight end tandems in the league moving forward.
Wide Receivers (B+):
Reggie Wayne (A++) - Once thought to be on the decline, Reggie Wayne is playing some of the best ball of his career. Not only are his stats pretty, he has 61 catches for 835 yards and 3 TDs, but watching him play has been eye-opening. Wayne is fighting through jams, rolled-coverages, and defenses scheming to stop him to provide the kind of reliable security blanket a rookie QB desperately needs. His statistical pace will likely slow down as Luck develops timing and chemistry with his other receivers, but that shouldn't take away from just how great Wayne has been, and how he carried this offense through the first month of the season.
Donnie Avery (C+) - No joke: I accidentally typed Donnie Average when I was putting his name down. This is a hard grade to deliver after Avery's performance yesterday against Miami in which he hauled in 5 catches for 108 yards, but the truth is, aside from the Vikings and Dolphins games, Avery has been unable to take advantage of defenses focusing on Wayne at a time when the Colts desperately needed someone to step up and become a reliable #2. If Avery can consistently duplicate the kind of performance he had yesterday moving forward, it will not only help raise his grade (clearly the most important thing), it'll also go a long way towards helping this team make the playoffs.
TY Hilton (B) - Hilton and Avery are actually pretty similar, but Hilton's grade is more friendly simply because TY is a rookie. Hilton likely lacks the physical gifts to be more than a #2/#3 on a good team, but he has already taken major steps in his route running and reads. Now he simply has to work on catching the ball to become a consistently dangerous threat.
Offensive Line (D+):
LT Anthony Castonzo (B) - Castonzo hasn't been great, for sure, especially in the week 8 win against the Titans, which was perhaps the worst game of his career. Still, he has been great as a run blocker, and while he's had some slip-ups in pass protection, most LTs will. Castonzo's gaffes are amplified for two reasons: 1) Arians calls very few plays which afford TE or RB help to his OL and 2) the sub-par play of the interior OL makes it hard for Luck to step up to avoid outside pressure. Castonzo is good enough to be the LT on a good offensive line, and his performances will start to look better as the line around him improves.
LG Insert Name Here (C-) - No one knows who the starting LG is, so we'll simply say, for most of the season it's been a weak spot on the team. This may be in the process of changing, however, as not only did Jeff Linkenbach's performance start to improve over the past few weeks, but LG Joe Reitz finally seems to be healthy and ready to contribute. If the Colts can stabilize the left side of the line, it'll be a major step towards patching one of the biggest holes on the offense.
C Samson Satele (F) - Brought in as a free agency this off-season, Satele was heralded as a good, young run blocking center with some potential in the passing game. Instead, Satele has struggled in every phase of the game and has settled in as the worst player on the offensive line. Given the fact that Grigson just signed him, it's unclear how the team will address the position moving forward, but finding a good long-term solution at the position should be one of the Colts priorities this off-season.
RG Mike McGlynn (C) - McGlynn has rebounded from a bad start to become a perfectly average starting RG. While this may sound like an insult, trust me, it's not: I'm a firm believer that you don't need much more than average play from your offensive line to be successful, especially when you have a superstar QB such as Luck. Would an upgrade be nice? Sure, every fan wants to watch their QB sit in a nice, comfortable pocket surveying the field and surgically dissecting the defense, but if he can continue to play at this level, the Colts will have more pressing needs than replacing Mike McGlynn this off-season.
RT Winston Justice (B) - Like McGlynn, Justice has rebounded from a bad start. Unlike McGlynn, Justice has been surprisingly good in pass protection. His run blocking still leaves a lot to be desired, but in a pass-happy NFL, you've got to be pretty happy with Justice's performance, especially considering his level of compensation and the assets the Colts gave up to acquire him. Justice has been battling injuries all season and his ability to fight through injuries and stay on the field will be a big key to the success of this OL moving forward.
Defensive Line (D+):
NT Antonio Johnson (F) - Johnson, who was already an average (or worse) DT in the Colts old 4-3 scheme, is out of his element as a NT in a 3-4 defense. He lacks the size, strength, and quickness to demand - let alone beat - consistent double teams, and is all too frequently being pushed back and losing his 1-on-1 match-ups. As shaky as the Colts have been in other areas, a lot of their defensive issues start with the poor play of Johnson. Which leads us to...
The 5th Round Rookie from Alabama has taken 0 NFL snaps and has 0 ACLs left in his body, but none of that matters. He's the Hero NT this team needs, and the one its fans deserve. I'm not saying Chapman will single-handedly transform the Colts into an all-time great defense, but I'm currently looking for alliterative nicknames to trademark, just in case. (e.g. - blue blurs, Crushers of the Corn, Crossroads Creatures, Horseshoe Hitmen, etc... send in your suggestions to email@example.com)
DE Cory Redding (B-) - Redding has been one of Grigson's better FA signings this year, when he's been healthy. Unfortunately for the Colts, Redding has been plagued by various injuries all year, and as is the case with most of their defense, they lack the depth to overcome his absence. When he is on the field, Redding has been good against the run, has made occasional plays in the passing game, and has played with the kind of fast motor and energy that the rest of the team can feed off. He may not be the most talented player, but he's the kind of emotional leader and steady veteran that every team needs.
DE Fili Nevis/Drake Moala (C) - This one is hard to judge. First, I believe Drake Nevis is the superior player. He's good against the run, and, when given the opportunity, he can be successful harassing opposing quarterbacks. Whether Nevis continues to see the majority of snaps now that Moala is healthy will be a major point of interest going forward.
Second, it's hard for either player to be too successful while playing beside Johnson. Johnson's inability to ever demand a double team means that opposing offenses are free to double the more dangerous defensive players, which helps negate some of the athleticism and attacking ability of Nevis (and Moala to a lesser extent). Hopefully the eventual insertion of Chapman into the starting lineup will create space and opportunities for the rest of the DL to make plays.
OLB Robert Mathis (A) - Mathis has been the one man who can consistently create a pass rush on the defense, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that some of the best defensive performances have come during the games in which Mathis was active. But there's the issue: Mathis has been battling a knee injury for the past 3 weeks, and now finds himself dealing with a back injury. It's unclear how much time, if any, Mathis will miss with this latest injury, but it's clear that the Colts will need a healthy #98 to have their best chance at making the playoffs.
ILB Jerrell Freeman (A) - If Freeman continues to play this well, he may want to consider changing his first name to Jor-El. By now you all know his story: Freeman toiled in obscurity in the CFL, first as a member of the Tennessee Titans practice squad (yes, this is supposed to be a dig at the Titans) and then playing for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Freeman has taken full advantage of his chance with the Colts, becoming their best overall ILB and winning a starting job from either Kavell Conner or Pat Angerer (depending on who you ask and on which day you ask them). Freeman's standout play has helped solidify the linebackers as the best and most deep unit on the otherwise thin, undermanned defense.
ILB Pat Angerer/Kavell Conner (B-) - Both players have their strengths: Conner is a very fast and aggressive, and can make stops against the run, while Angerer is a smart, speedy, well-rounded linebacker who has no real deficiencies in any facet of the game (yesterday's TD pass against him notwithstanding). Right now the Colts are playing the duo in a rotation, and while I eventually expect Angerer to win the starting job outright, both are good enough to help this defense be successful in the long run.
OLB Dwight Freeney (D+) - Is it an ankle injury? Is it the scheme? Is it a lack of effort? Or is he in decline? No one is really sure what has happened to one of the most feared pass rushers in NFL history, all we do know is that at $19,000,000.00, Dwight Freeney has been 2012's post overpaid NFL player.
Through 8 weeks, Freeney's play was bordering on liability status, but a switch seemed to go off during the Dolphins game which hopefully signifies a turn around for one of the fan favorites.
If Freeney can recapture some of his pass rush magic, it could change the complexity of the Colts defense entirely, creating more pressure on the QB and covering up some of the glaring issues plaguing the back end. If he can't, if week 9 was an aberration, the Colts may need to consider the option of benching Freeney in favor of a Hughes/Mathis tandem, to give the defense the best chance to be successful moving forward.
Defensive Backs (D):
S Antoine Bethea (B+) - Bethea has had some struggles this year, especially earlier in the season, but most of those issues can be attributed to the poor play from his teammates. When he's not covering up for other's mistakes, Bethea is still solid in coverage and capable of delivering a big hit to the ball carrier. While some serious attention has to be paid to the rest of the starting secondary spots, Bethea is a player the Colts should be happy to build around moving forward.
CB Jerraud Powers (C-) - Powers was taking a lot of undeserved criticism earlier in the season when he was allowing (and immediately stopping) a high volume of catches. Somehow perception became reality, however, and Powers has really struggled against average receivers in recent weeks. Most of this is likely scheme related: Powers is a zone cornerback who simply lacks the physical tools necessary to play a physical, man-to-man style. If the Colts want to help Powers (and Vaughn, whom we'll talk about shortly) perform better, they should consider playing more zone coverages until the rest of the defense is healthy enough to properly execute their man schemes.
CB Vontae Davis (INC) - I don't want to rehash the Vontae Davis trade and my opinion on it, so I'll simply say this: while I wasn't a huge fan of the trade initially, I'm starting to come around. Davis has shown, in the brief periods in which he's been healthy, flashes of being the best player in the secondary. The Colts desperately need Davis to get healthy if they are going to have any hope of slowing down some of the high-powered offenses they are about to face, especially if the defensive coaches are going to continue to play man-to-man coverage, in which Davis thrives.
S Tom Zbikowski (D-) - NO.
CB Cassius Vaughn (F) - NO. No no. No. No no no. No. No. No. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.
Special Teams (C+):
P Pat McAfee (A) - He's good. His kick-offs and punts have done a good job of hiding the poor coverage that still plagues the Colts special teams units, and when he does happen to make a mistake, he's still one of the best tackling punters I've ever seen. The criticism he received from GM Bill Polian last year was fair, and McAfee seems to have taken it to heart and worked on his near-end-zone punts.
K Adam Vinatieri (D-) - Vinny is quickly reminding fans that he is a PATRIOT!!! and not a Colt!!! Okay, that's a bit over-the-top, but honestly, Vinatieri is kind of old and kind of expensive for a kicker who is making 72.7% of his FG attempts this year. And that % is probably helped by the fact that Arians has called for 6 FG attempts in the 20-29 yard range. 3 of Vinny's misses have come in the 30-39 range, 1 in the 40-49 range, and 2 in the 50+ range. On a team that is so FG happy, they need better, more consistent production from a high-priced kicker.
tl;dr(too long;didn't read) - as a fan put it yesterday on CBS open mic night: GO BACK TO NEW ENGLAND! (just kidding. Mostly)
At 5-3, the Colts are a surprising contender for a playoff spot and well ahead of schedule in their rebuild. If the team continues to develop and Grigson can have another stellar off-season, they could move to the head of the class in 2013.