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The Colts Don’t Have a Plan, and Now They’re Home Underdogs Against the Browns

The same franchise that made the 2015 AFC championship game is now getting points against the NFL’s factory of sadness. How did Indy fall this far, this fast?

Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Cleveland Browns are favored in a road game against the Indianapolis Colts this Sunday. Cleveland opened as a 2.5-point favorite and is now down to a 1.5-point favorite, according to most Vegas sportsbooks. But the Browns remain favored on the road. Let that sink in.

It’s not just that Cleveland is an 0-2 team whose rookie quarterback and his second-year backup combined to throw four interceptions and lose a fumble in a 24-10 loss to the Ravens last week. It’s that the Browns haven’t been a road favorite in three years and have been a road favorite only three times in the last 10 seasons. There are significantly more NFL games that now end in ties than games that began with Cleveland being favored on the road.

And it’s remarkable that this comes against the Colts. While Cleveland has had only two winning seasons since its franchise reboot in 1999, the Colts have had just two losing seasons over the same span. They’ve played in an AFC championship game more recently than the Browns have been favored on the road, in the January 2015 matchup with the Patriots that spawned Deflategate. We made fun of the Colts for hanging an “AFC Finalist” banner celebrating that conference-championship loss, but perhaps the franchise knew where things were headed: Indy has been one of the worst teams in the league this season, losing 46-9 to the unspectacular Rams in Week 1 and falling 16-13 in overtime to the similarly hapless Cardinals in Week 2.

There is a simple explanation for the Colts’ steep decline: Quarterback Andrew Luck is hurt. He had surgery in January for a nagging shoulder issue—although the team never explained what the injury was—and has been notably mum about the timetable for his recovery. Colts owner Jim Irsay said Luck’s return was “on the football gods” and Luck’s “gut feeling,” which some interpreted as a shot at Luck. As cryptic as that was, it’s the most elaborate update we’ve gotten. It doesn’t seem like Luck is anywhere near ready to return, as the team continues to rule him out. My personal theory is that Luck will stay out for most of the 2017 campaign, and that the Colts will play coy from week to week.

Sometimes, I’d consider it a bad break when a team struggles following an injury to its star quarterback. But while the Colts are literally un-Luck-y, I think their story has more to do with immense roster mismanagement than it does with misfortune.

I don’t want to say that the Luck situation is the worst-handled injury I can remember. The worst way that a team can handle an injury is by forcing an injured player back into action before he’s ready, and the Colts decidedly have not done that. But the whole thing has been botched. Luck’s injury was not a surprise; the Colts knew he was hurting and presumably gave him the go-ahead to have a nonurgent procedure to fix a problem.

This gave Indianapolis the entire 2017 offseason to plan for the possibility of Luck missing extended time. The Colts could have signed a competent backup, as many were available. (This is the point in the article where I will mention that one of those quarterbacks was Colin Kaepernick, who is still unsigned and—fun fact—has a higher career QB rating than Luck.) They could have used a mid- to late-round draft pick on a quarterback and given the youngster the opportunity to spend training camp and the preseason practicing with a first-team NFL offense.

Los Angeles Rams celebrate after sacking Indianapolis Colts quarterback Scott Tolzien Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Instead the Colts rolled with quarterback Scott Tolzien, who at no point has displayed anything resembling competence. He entered this season with two career touchdown passes and seven interceptions in six NFL seasons; after playing for three quarters in Week 1 against the Rams, he now has two career touchdown passes and nine interceptions. Indy scrambled upon realizing it was heading into the fall with such an awful QB and hastily traded for Jacoby Brissett from the Pats a week before the season. Brissett is fine—he’s the greatest preseason quarterback of all time!—but the Colts had to give up 2015 first-round pick Phillip Dorsett to get him and are now starting a player who still might have to use Waze to find the team’s facility.

It’s baffling that the team would fail to plan for the absence of its franchise passer—who, quite frankly, is the only point of strength on an aggressively weak roster. The Colts’ best running back is 34-year-old Frank Gore; their offensive line is piecemeal (although it should get better once injured center Ryan Kelly returns); they have basically no good defensive players other than cornerback Vontae Davis, who is also injured. Stunningly, the Colts’ defensive starting lineup in Week 1 was composed entirely of players who did not start in Indianapolis’s season-opener last year, a feat that’s nearly impossible to pull off. The 2016 Colts defense had four former Pro Bowlers: Robert Mathis (retired), Mike Adams (signed with the Panthers), D’Qwell Jackson (cut and has not signed with a team), and Davis. That unit allowed 6.0 yards per play, the second-worst mark in the league, and struggled to stop both the pass and the run. Take away some of the better players from that unit, and it makes sense that things have gotten incredibly ugly.

Defense is supposed to be the specialty of head coach Chuck Pagano, a longtime defensive backs assistant who took the top job in Indianapolis in 2012 after serving as the Ravens defensive coordinator. And yet, in his five years in charge of the Colts, the team has produced only one top-15 defense.

This is the recent story of the Colts. In the past 20 years, Indianapolis has had two franchise quarterbacks, Luck and Peyton Manning, the latter of whom is perhaps the greatest passer of all time. And beyond that they’ve had little else. Sure, there have been some great players on the team: Wide receiver Marvin Harrison is a Hall of Famer and likely would be even if he hadn’t been paired with Manning; wideout Reggie Wayne is a borderline Hall of Famer as well; running back Edgerrin James was a force of nature; Dwight Freeney is one of the best defensive ends of the millennium; Mathis is a five-time Pro Bowler; safety Bob Sanders was briefly one of the best defenders in the NFL. But for the most part, the Colts’ success has been dependent on having an excellent quarterback. In the 20 years since the franchise drafted Manning, Indy has had 10 seasons in which it’s finished among the top five in points scored or yards gained, and only two in which it’s finished 20th or worse in one of those categories (2011, when Manning missed the full season with a neck injury, and 2015, when Luck played only seven games). Meanwhile, the Colts have had just two seasons in which they’ve finished among the top five in either points or yards allowed: 2005 and 2007, the years before and after they won a Super Bowl. They’ve finished 20th or worse in both categories eight times. The Colts defenses were generally good to average under the direction of former coach Tony Dungy. They’ve been bad to awful under Pagano and his predecessor, Jim Caldwell.

So much of Indianapolis’s period of excellence is a direct result of the team having two no. 1 draft picks in years when top-tier QBs were available. And the Colts’ front office deserves credit for making the right picks both times, nabbing Manning and Luck instead of Ryan Leaf and Robert Griffin III. But a franchise that’s been one of the most consistent in the NFL over the past two decades has relied on a strategy that amounts to having an excellent quarterback and hoping that things elsewhere work out. This week’s line against the Browns shows what can happen when the only ingredient in a recipe for football success is removed.