Exit Interview: Indianapolis Colts

It’s that time of season when some NFL teams have started looking toward next year. As each is officially eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the Colts, who were bounced out of the divisional round with Saturday’s 31-13 loss to the Chiefs.

What Went Right

Barely six months ago, we were celebrating the fact that Andrew Luck could simply throw a football again. Now, he’s not just throwing footballs, but throwing them as well as ever. Coming into Sunday, Luck had career highs in passer rating and QBR, and he was close to a career high in adjusted net yards per attempt. Luck finished with 4,593 yards, 39 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. He probably should have made the Pro Bowl instead of Tom Brady, but that’s OK—he’ll likely win the Comeback Player of the Year award, and that’s not so bad of a consolation prize.

Head coach Frank Reich’s system was excellent for Luck. The Colts passer has been getting the ball out faster and hitting easier, shorter routes all season (which is part of why he shattered his career high for completion percentage at 67.2 percent). These plays allowed Luck to not only thrive, but to also remain upright: Luck was sacked on just 2.7 percent of his dropbacks, the lowest rate in the NFL and the lowest rate of his career by far. This alone makes Reich’s first year as a head coach a success—he revitalized the team’s franchise passer and has a system in place that should keep Luck healthy long term.

Reich’s tenure has been about more than Luck, though. The Colts head coach, who got the job only after Josh McDaniels backed out at the 11th hour, was handed a depleted roster and low expectations. Yet the Colts came within a game of the playoffs, and Reich is a likely candidate for the Coach of the Year award.

Looking forward, the Colts’ 2018 draft looks like a massive success. Darius Leonard leads the league in tackles, has 7.0 sacks, and already looks like one of the best linebackers in the NFL:

Meanwhile rookie guard Quenton Nelson has been sensational on the interior of the Colts offensive line by opening up running lanes along with center Ryan Kelly for second-year running back Marlon Mack. Plus, rookie offensive tackle Braden Smith has anchored the right side of the Indy’s line. The Colts have solid talent to build around, one of the best QBs in the league, and a promising head coach—they should compete for the AFC South title come 2019.

What Went Wrong

The Colts shouldn’t even have been in a position to play in the divisional round after a 1-5 start, so this season can’t be considered much less than a massive success. But even given that, Indy’s inability to get anything going against the Chiefs is a bitter pill for Colts fans to swallow.

The Colts couldn’t get a first down until the waning minutes of the second quarter, as they started the game with four consecutive three-and-outs. They were granted opportunities such as a punt-block touchdown in the second quarter and a clutch fumble recovery in the third, but those moments were fleeting. A long drive at the end of the second quarter ended in a rare doinked field goal from Adam Vinatieri, and Chiefs pass rusher Dee Ford strip-sacked Luck in the third, erasing the Colts’ own fumble recovery. In fact, the Chiefs sacked Luck three times—every time it looked like the Colts had a chance to start clawing back, the Kansas City defense snuffed it out.

On a key drive early in the fourth quarter with the Colts down 24-7, Eric Ebron picked up a false start to push the Colts into a second-and-15. Luck’s pass on second down was tipped, and his third-down pass fell incomplete. From there, the Colts punted, and the game was essentially over.

The Chiefs are better than the Colts, and they proved on Saturday why they got the no. 1 seed and Indy barely made the playoffs. But it still felt like Indy could have put up more of a fight.

Free Agency

No one is projected to have more cap space than the Colts next year, who, at $118.4 million in effective space, have more than $28 million more to spend than the next-richest team. There are 14 teams that don’t have $28 million to spend in total, so the Colts are flush with cash. Virtually every big name is on the table for the Colts: Le’Veon Bell, Jadeveon Clowney, Earl Thomas, Golden Tate—Indy can throw around some serious weight to get the players it wants. They could make a huge splash in the offseason. Hell, they could make multiple huge splashes and still have money left over. This could be fun.

The Draft

The Colts have all of their picks in addition to the Jets’ second-rounder, which they received as part of the Sam Darnold trade. That selection is the 34th overall pick, so while Indy’s first-round selection—which will be either 25th or 26th depending on if the Eagles win or lose on Sunday—isn’t too exciting on its own, but having a second-rounder that is itself nearly a first-rounder gives the Colts a decent amount of capital to continue building their roster.

Combine the Colts’ draft picks with their cap space and 9-1 finish to the season, and there may be no team better positioned going into the offseason than Indianapolis. The loss to the Chiefs stings, but it’s all sunshine going forward for the Colts.

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