Over the past four years, Aaron Schatz and his staff at Football Outsiders have applied the same principles of critical thinking to professional football that Bill James used to revolutionize baseball analysis two decades ago. Pro Football Prospectus 2007, their third annual NFL guide, analyzes every team and is loaded with research on everything from player development to on-field strategy. Today’s excerpt, the first of a three-part series, explains why no NFL team will ever emulate the 2006 Indianapolis Colts. Tomorrow’s excerpt uses Football Outsiders’ advanced stats to identify some surprise playoff contenders. And Thursday, Schatz explains why it’s so difficult to analyze NFL games and how the league itself may be standing in the way of a deeper understanding of the pro game.
On Thursday night, the Indianapolis Colts begin the defense of their Super Bowl championship by hosting New Orleans. Thirty-one teams will spend the next five months trying to beat the Colts. But unlike every other year in recent memory, nobody is trying to beat the champs by becoming the champs.
Conventional wisdom says that the NFL is a copycat league. Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl win kick-started the spread of the now-ubiquitous Tampa 2 defense. The 2001 Patriots showed how to build a champion with smart, low-cost free agent acquisitions. By 2004, even the guy who cleans wastebaskets at Gillette Stadium was a head coaching candidate.
The 2006 Colts, however, won the Super Bowl with an uncopyable blueprint. It would be nearly impossible to build a team with a similar roster, and even then it would be close to impossible to win a championship. You can’t plan on drafting one of the top quarterbacks in NFL history. It’s difficult to surround that quarterback with talented offensive weapons and keep all those players healthy every single year. You can’t count on a Super Bowl opponent stuck with a gaping black hole at the most important position on the field. And you certainly cannot expect that a unit as pathetic as the 2006 Indianapolis Colts defense will suddenly shut down opponents when the calendar turns to January.
Indy’s shocking defensive turnaround made last year’s championship possible. There would have been no opportunity for such a turnaround, though, if Peyton Manning did not virtually guarantee the Colts a playoff spot every single year. The entire Indianapolis franchise revolves around Manning, so it’s hard to remember that the Colts basically stumbled into him when he decided to stay at Tennessee for his senior season.
From 1998 to 2005, seven teams used the first overall draft pick on a quarterback. Unless Alex Smith makes a dramatic breakthrough in San Francisco this year, it is safe to say that only two of those teams actually got a top-tier, franchise quarterback out of the deal: Cincinnati with Carson Palmer and Indianapolis with Manning. The Colts and Bengals are now contenders every season because their worst seasons happened to align with the senior years of the two best quarterback prospects of the last decade.
When a team lucks into a franchise quarterback, it then has the challenge of surrounding him with worthwhile talent. Through a combination of smart scouting and serendipity, the Colts ended up with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne instead of busts Alex Van Dyke and Freddie Mitchell. (And though he wasn’t around last year, it’s worth remembering that Indianapolis also wisely chose Edgerrin James over Ricky Williams in the 1999 draft.)
The Colts’ strategy of building around frontline stars is also risky—with little depth behind the team’s frontline players, a single injury can be devastating. Last year, an injury to tight end Dallas Clark almost cost them the title. Originally, Clark was diagnosed with a season-ending torn ACL. In fact, he had a much less significant MCL injury that allowed him to return in time for the playoffs. It is not a coincidence that the Colts went 11-1 with Clark in the lineup and 1-3 in the four games he missed in December. During the AFC championship, with the Patriots’ cornerbacks blanketing Harrison and Wayne, Clark took advantage of the holes in the middle of the field, gaining 137 yards on just six receptions. While Clark’s backups, Ben Utecht and Bryan Fletcher, are useful players, neither one is in Clark’s class as a receiver. Had he missed the game, New England would likely have its fourth championship in six years.
Clark’s injury is a tiny blot on the otherwise flawless record of the Colts’ skill players. Peyton Manning has started every single Colts game since the moment he entered the NFL. Reggie Wayne hasn’t missed a game in five years. Marvin Harrison has missed just two games in eight years, and one of those was simply to rest for the playoffs. These players stay healthy through a combination of great conditioning, good luck, and the more-than-occasional dip out of bounds to avoid a tackle.
If the Colts did suffer a rash of injuries, they would end up looking a lot like another team with depth problems, the Washington Redskins. Washington has nobody who can compare to future Hall of Famers Manning and Harrison, but otherwise, the teams’ offensive and defensive starters are extremely comparable. Last year, the Redskins suffered a few more defensive injuries than usual, and the team completely collapsed. Why don’t most teams follow the Colts’ stars-and-scrubs model? They’re afraid they’ll turn into the Redskins.
Want to know what would happen if the Colts offense had a couple of injuries? Look at last year’s Colts defense. The Indianapolis D depends on defensive end Dwight Freeney and safety Bob Sanders almost as much as the offense depends on Manning and Harrison. The difference is that the hard-hitting Sanders can’t stay healthy. He’s the smallest starting safety in the league, and those hard hits lead to constant injuries.
Sanders played in only four games during the 2006 regular season, and the Colts gave up points by the bucketful. By the second half of the season, Indy was getting trampled on a weekly basis by everyone from Maurice Jones-Drew (not a surprise) to Travis Henry (reasonable) to Ron Dayne (incomprehensible). The Colts allowed 5.33 yards per carry during the 2006 regular season. This is not only the highest rushing average ever allowed by a Super Bowl champion (by more than half a yard per carry), it is the highest regular-season rushing average allowed by any NFL team since the 1961 expansion Minnesota Vikings gave up 5.41 yards per carry.
The Colts also allowed 360 points, the first team to ever make the Super Bowl after allowing more than 340 points. They also gave up a 64.3 percent completion rate to opposing quarterbacks, the first Super Bowl champ to allow more than 61 percent completions during the regular season. The Colts look no better when you look at the advanced stats we use at Football Outsiders. There’s no mistaking it: Indianapolis had an awful, awful defense.
The Colts made the playoffs, but nobody picked them to win it all. Despite the greatness of Manning, pundits believed the Colts would get trampled by opposing rushers. Instead, the Colts defense made a historically unprecedented turnaround, demolishing Larry Johnson and the Chiefs and baffling Jamal Lewis and the Ravens. The defense wasn’t quite as good in the final two games, but it was good enough for Manning to win a shootout with the rival Patriots, then pick apart an overcautious Chicago zone in the Super Bowl.
Whether it was the return of Sanders, increased intensity from the Colts defenders, or just bad game plans from the Chiefs and Ravens, it all combined—with a bit of luck and a pinch of Rex Grossman—to create an unprecedented championship run. But a team that defies probability one year probably won’t turn the trick two years in a row. The 2006 Colts are a dramatic outlier in the history of NFL champions. If a team gives up five yards per run and 22.5 points per game this year, it’s more likely to end up in last place than with its hands on the Lombardi Trophy. That’s true for all the teams chasing the Colts, and it’s true for the Colts themselves—no matter whom they have at quarterback.