In real time, as the Indianapolis Colts played it too conservative on their final offensive possession and went three-and-out Monday night, I was reminded of how Stanford coach David Shaw botched Andrew Luck’s final college game in the Fiesta Bowl.
I couldn’t help but think of how that bowl game came down to overtime, and Shaw decided to have Luck hand off three times before turning to a freshman kicker, who missed the field goal. Then Oklahoma State drove in and won the game with a touchdown.
I remember thinking to myself, “I feel sorry for Luck.” How in the world could a coach have the best quarterback in college football and not use him with a game on the line?
Well, that doesn’t happen in the NFL.
But it did Monday night.
And while it’s not the only reason the Colts lost 30-27 to Philadelphia at Lucas Oil Stadium, it’s a reality that sticks with me as I shake away sleep-depraved cobwebs Tuesday morning.
In the interest of providing a wealth of content to try to drive more traffic to the ColtsBlitz.com site, you quickly moved on from that initial in-game evaluation of how ridiculously predictable the Colts were to run the ball twice, then let Luck try a third-and-5 pass with the Eagles coming after him.
You don’t think about that initial thought because the officiating seemed to be the most obvious topic. You’re one man with so much work to do, you keep at it past 3 a.m. in that Lucas Oil Stadium press box, filing three stories, posting a video, shooting a video of yourself that will run later Tuesday. Then you drive home and work until about 4:30 a.m. because a notebook needs to be filed on defensive tackle Arthur Jones getting hurt.
After waking up at 7 a.m. to take my daughter to school, you think about how the Colts lost again. Those terrible calls by the officials, first the no-call when wide receiver T.Y. Hilton was held, then that bad horse-collar call on LaRon Landry before the Eagles tied it up.
And the mind wanders back to play calling. Keep in mind, Colts fans, in the heat of the battle, there isn’t much time to check fan reaction on Twitter or Facebook. You expect fans to be upset about everything, and rightfully so, because the Colts should have won this game.
You return home to the Man Cave to get more sleep. A friend calls to wake you after 10 a.m. So you get up, still thinking about what you didn’t write from a few hours earlier.
The wife sees my condition as I stagger to the living room couch. Yeah, late night. And then we break down the game together. A former Colts season ticket holder who married a sports writer, she knows football. And she admits she was screaming at the television.
She inevitably mentions how she’s starting to believe what many fans are saying about how offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton needs to go. She mentions the backlash from other fans, how she almost tweeted her frustration about the plays called in that last offensive series. She tells you even the NFL experts are questioning what the Colts were thinking.
I had already done a little of that second-guessing in regards to letting Luck throw the third-and-9 pass that was intercepted when Hilton got held and didn’t draw the penalty. If you take the shot and it doesn’t work, in that situation when you’re one play away from a field goal to make it a 10-point game, I’m convinced it was a mistake.
I’m not going to knee-jerk react and say coach Chuck Pagano and Hamilton should lose their jobs. It’s only one game. Nobody is perfect. I pride myself in being the voice of reason, taking some time to think about the perspective that should be shared. And I still think Pagano is a good coach.
But then I think about that last series again. And it’s clear, even after just a few hours of sleep, that I’m doing a disservice to so many fans if I don’t acknowledge the play calls played a part in losing this game, too. The mistakes elsewhere contributed, sure, but that one last series just can’t get shaken from memory.
The Colts have one of the finest young quarterback talents in the NFL, yet they didn’t turn him loose with a game on the line, a game they needed to win.
There’s a time to play it conservative. Again, the Colts should have run the ball and settled for the field goal when ahead. But there’s also a time to let your quarterback do what he does best, even in a game when you ran for 169 yards.
When it’s tied at 27, I tweeted that the situation was set up for the Colts to drive to a winning score and not give the Eagles any time to score. But the Colts blew it.
And while coaches won’t admit they made a mistake, there’s no other way to look at how Luck was handled when the Colts had their last shot to pull this one out.
From the time we heard last preseason about this “Ground Chuck” approach to running the football on offense, the approach seemed too old school for today’s NFL, where the game has clearly shifted toward throwing the football. The Colts never did establish much of a running game in 2013, but made it to the second round of the playoffs because of Luck’s arm.
A year later, we’re still looking at the same situation. The Colts are 0-2, in part, because Luck didn’t get a fair shot with only one final pass. The Eagles put pressure on him, he stepped up in the pocket and fired a hard third-and-5 pass that missed Reggie Wayne.
And that was it. The Eagles did the rest.
We can dwell on officials’ calls, how the Colts’ defense couldn’t get enough stops to preserve leads, even in a game when the Colts’ offense had the ball for 36 minutes, 15 seconds to the Eagles’ 23 minutes, 45 seconds. You won’t win time of possession any better than that in a game this season. And nobody can argue that Darren Sproles just kills the Colts. Every time.
But in an NFL game that requires quick-thinking adjustments, the Colts thought they could play it safe on that final drive. Run, run, pass. Maybe the only other person who would have played it like that was Shaw, who has since come under more scrutiny for his conservative play calling that cost Stanford the Rose Bowl in January. Michigan State stuffed a predictable fourth-down run up the gut to win that game.
This won’t qualify as much of a news flash, but if the Colts are going to dig themselves out of this 0-2 hole, it will be because Luck leads them. He has the pass catchers to do it. But against the Eagles, wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and tight end Dwayne Allen were ignored. And Wayne, who had such an inspiring return a week ago with nine catches for 98 yards, caught just three passes for 28 yards. Luck’s 172 passing yards was the third-lowest total in his pro career, and he still threw three TD passes.
Pagano and Hamilton must face realities now. The defense won’t have Robert Mathis back and hasn’t generated a pass rush in two games. The Colts are going to need to outscore opponents, plain and simple. This insistence on running the ball showed promise for much of Monday night, but stubbornly sticking to it got you beat in the end.
If this team is going to accomplish anything this season, it will be because of Luck. We all see that. Let’s just hope Pagano and Hamilton figure that out soon.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.