INDIANAPOLIS – They are saying one thing, but doing another. The Indianapolis Colts say they are trying to win this year. But what are they doing?
They are punting.
They have been punting for months now, and as any football coach will tell you, punting is the right play at times. For the Colts, this could be the right time. It is dichotomy we are hearing, not outright double-talk, when General Manager Chris Ballard says on Sunday, “You can’t take these years for granted, and we will put a team out there that will go out and try to compete to win,” and when coach Frank Reich says one day later, “Every decision that we make is a win-now decision.”
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Ballard and Reich were saying those things in direct response to questions about the team’s latest punt, a towering blast that land out of bounds: the release of defensive end John Simon on roster cut-down day Sunday. Simon was the Colts’ most effective defensive end this preseason, and arguably their best defensive player – for sure their most disruptive defender – a year ago. Simon is 27. He has not lost a step. He is in his prime right now.
But the Colts aren’t playing to win right now.
Understand, they aren’t playing to lose. They’re hoping to win this season, but they’re not planning for it, and there’s a difference. Planning to win this year would mean including John Simon on this roster, even if it means giving up on a younger player whose tomorrow looks more promising than his today. And here, I’m talking about rookie Kemoko Turay and second-year pro Tarell Basham. They also play defensive end. Today they don’t play it as well as John Simon, but tomorrow? Things could change tomorrow.
Let’s not make this all about John Simon though, OK? The media tried to do that with Ballard on Sunday, peppering him with questions about the unexpected release of the Colts’ most effective defensive player, until someone apparently crossed a line by asking Ballard if there was “any worry (about) the message it might send to the locker room.”
Ballard, who earlier had professed great affection for Simon – “I’m close with John Simon. He’s one of my favorite guys and favorite players,” he had said – ended the Simon line of questioning with this answer:
“Look,” he said, “John Simon is a great player without any question, but we didn’t just release (Dwight) Freeney or (Robert) Mathis and 14.0 sacks.”
And it’s true. Ballard is correct. Have I written that the Colts released “a Pro Bowl defensive end”? Nope. I wrote: They released their “most effective defensive end.” Which they did. And teams not hoping to win, but planning on it, they don’t release their most effective player at any position. Simon had 2½ sacks in the preseason, and not against players soon to be released, but against actual NFL offensive linemen.
But again, this topic is bigger than Simon, whose release is merely another example of the Colts’ stated intention on the 2018 season. And their intention is to punt.
Hey, good things can happen on a punt. The punt team tracks the ball, does it not? Hopes to down it inside the 5-yard line, or better still, hit the returner and force a fumble and get the ball back. Like I say, punting doesn’t mean surrender. But it does mean: punting.
It means desperately needing skill players on both sides of the ball but waiting for the third day of the three-day 2018 NFL Draft to start grabbing them, stockpiling five picks in the first two rounds – and using every damn one of them on building-block pieces closer to the line of scrimmage.
It means needing a receiver so badly that the Colts picked up an inexpensive Eagles cast-off, Marcus Johnson, on cut-down day Sunday – but never brought in former Dallas Cowboys star Dez Bryant, far and away the best available receiver, as a prospective free agent. Signing Dez would have been a significant upgrade in talent in the Colts receiving room but a risk in their locker room, and teams playing for tomorrow make the choice the Colts made.
This is not about Dez Bryant, either. It’s about every single big-money free agent available this offseason, none of whom signed with the Colts. Not any. The Colts entered the spring with $70-plus million in cap space – more than 29 of the other 31 NFL teams – and made Denico Autry, who recorded five sacks in 16 games last season in Oakland, their biggest investment at $17.8 million over three seasons.
Coincidentally, Autry plays defensive end. Guess how many sacks he had in the preseason? One-fifth as many as John Simon: 0.5.
Point is not: Simon is better than Autry. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t – it’s close. But the point is: The Colts had so much cap space, and they have so many needs for mega-talent, but they went for pieces, for fits. Autry is a piece. Eric Ebron (two years, $15 million) is a fit at tight end.
Finding a big-money free agent to sign with Indianapolis in March, after a 4-12 season and before quarterback Andrew Luck’s return, would have meant overspending, and the Colts wouldn’t do that. Which is sensible for a team not seriously pursuing a postseason berth.
And the Colts aren’t pursuing the 2018 NFL playoffs. Not seriously. They’re thinking about next season, maybe even the year after that. Ballard has said repeatedly that he wants young players, and he wants to give those young players the chance to develop. Development takes time, and the Colts obviously think they have it.
Do they? Tough call, it really is. In the NFL you’re only as good as your quarterback, and the Colts have that position on lockdown, with Jacoby Brissett a tremendous backup and, of course, Andrew Luck a top-flight QB when healthy. Quarterbacks play longer than almost everyone else – New England’s Tom Brady is 41, New Orleans’ Drew Brees is 39, and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers just became the highest-paid player in NFL history at 34 – so this fact isn’t everything. But it’s something:
Next week, Andrew Luck turns 29.
The Colts have a quarterback, which means they have window – and while it’s not exactly closing, the window is open right now. And the Colts are aiming less for today, more for tomorrow.
Say what you want. Say that it makes sense, what the Colts are doing, and there’s certainly an argument to be made that it does. But there’s also this argument, and it’s not an argument, really. More like a fact:
After reaching the 2014 AFC title game, when Luck was 25, the Colts’ last three mediocre-turned-disastrous seasons backed this franchise far, far away from Super Bowl contention. And by punting the 2018 season, the Colts just pinned themselves deeper.