Wilson's Word: Status quo is not enough

Even for a winning team like the Colts, bottom-line NFL reality reminds if you're not getting better, you're worse.

Where should we start after watching that? Sigh. Exhale. Take a breath. Make that a double, maybe more.

OK, that was the routine about five hours ago after the Dallas Cowboys took apart the Indianapolis Colts 42-7 Sunday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Thanks to everyone in Colts nation on social media for taking advantage of the opportunity to vent by suggesting song titles to describe such a deflating game. It seemed like a sensible cathartic outlet at the time. Sometimes, the ideas are spur of the moment. After covering this team 16 years, it’s no secret how fans are going to react to this.

We’re almost at the end of the NFL season, only one more regular-season trip to Tennessee to go. But it feels like this team’s fate is a given. The Colts, to be kind, haven’t played well down the stretch. No secret.

There’s a part of me that is inclined to remind that anyone who has paid close attention to how things have been going shouldn’t be shocked at the reality of a bad loss. They had to think this could possibly happen. If not Sunday, then in a few weeks.

Sure, most of us might have thought this game wouldn’t be so one-sided so quickly. The Cowboys scored four touchdowns before the Colts gained a first down? Really? We thought the Colts might give the Cowboys some semblance of a competitive afternoon, although to be honest, I had suggested to family and friends in the last few days that this one could get ugly. And there’s no satisfaction in being right about that.

There’s a couple points to clean up before transitioning back to the big picture.

Yes, inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman shouldn’t have expressed himself the way he did after making the third-down stop on running back Lance Dunbar. He knows he can’t take such a dumb penalty. And I’m guessing nobody feels worse about it. Knowing Jerrell, how typically understated he is, how he had to keep his football career alive while playing in Canada and bust his butt to make it in the NFL, a boneheaded mistake isn’t what he’s about.

That’s not excusing the penalty, but if he didn’t make it, I’m convinced the Colts would have still lost 35-7. It just cost the Colts an early touchdown. And the Cowboys were going to score enough this day. That seemed certain.

Some have also questioned why head coach Chuck Pagano would let punter Pat McAfee try a fake-punt pass on the next series. If you watch the replay, the Cowboys goofed. They didn’t even bother to cover Dewey McDonald. He was all alone. If he catches the pass, and he should have, that’s a first down. Instead, that turns into two touchdowns against.

If the drop doesn’t happen, maybe the Colts lose just 28-7. But I still think they were going to lose.

Do you see what I’m trying to get at? Don’t focus on a couple bad plays. The team played poorly in all phases Sunday. And it hasn’t been playing its best football when it matters most, so a bad loss was going to be inevitable against a strong team.

The expectation is that the Colts will beat the Titans next weekend, they’ll finish a third consecutive regular season 11-5. There are worse things in life. And while I’ve been critical of what’s been going on and agree with many that this team still has a ways go to compete with the elite, they will have a shot at home on Jan. 3 or 4 to knock off somebody in the wild-card round and gain some playoff experience.

Many have written that off as a sure loss. If they keep playing this way, yeah, that’s probably true. But sometimes the unexpected happens when none of us see it coming. Well, it seems to happen on a weekly basis around the NFL.

What seems a certainty, and what more are probably realizing now after this black eye, the Colts aren’t close to where they need to be to make a run at the Super Bowl. I’ve been saying since the New England loss that this is a good team, not great. I stand by that, even now, after such a humbling experience.

They’re going to have to regroup after the playoffs — and that could include another ugly outcome in New England or Denver if the Colts survive at home that first weekend in January. Don’t be shocked if that happens. But keep thinking about the future. Keep an close eye on how general manager Ryan Grigson, his scouting staff and head coach Chuck Pagano reshape this team for 2015. I’ve been thinking ahead to next year for a while now. While I know it’s difficult to tell fans their team doesn’t stand a chance, I’ve done my best to suggest to people that’s been the case.

It’s on Grigson and Pagano and others to clean this up for the future. They’ve been competitive for three seasons, they’ve won more than they’ve lost, but the bottom line is taking that next step.

Quarterback Andrew Luck needs a better offensive line. The Colts need to find a running back they can count on to have more of a balanced offense. They need more playmakers on defense, even if outside linebacker Robert Mathis returns to his old form. The Colts have to decide what to do with guys who just aren’t living up to their contracts.

There are tough decisions ahead. That’s why these guys in charge get paid well. They are entrusted with making more right decisions than wrong. If they don’t, well, fans don’t need another writer to state the obvious about the need to make more wholesale changes down the road.

In the NFL, you’re either getting better or worse. If you stay the same, unless you’re repeating as Super Bowl champions in Seattle, you’re worse. Because it’s all about making a run at hoisting that Vince Lombardi Trophy. That’s why that banner is hanging on the back wall of the team’s infield practice facility. You can’t miss it. And you shouldn’t. It’s a reminder of what this pursuit is all about.

Anything less, after three 11-win seasons (presumably) is unacceptable. That’s just the way it is. Don’t blame outside voices for raising expectations. We didn’t set them. It’s what everybody who gets paid to play and coach and manage in this game aspires to achieve.

I predicted before the season that the Colts weren’t there yet. I thought they would lose again in the second-round of the playoffs, just like last season. If in fact that’s true, just like Sunday’s loss, I won’t take any satisfaction in being correct. And if the Colts are one-and-done after the first weekend in January, the reality is still the same.

Weaknesses must be addressed. This team has to take that next step at some point. Or the time to change more things will be that much closer.

Sigh. Exhale. Take a breath, make that a double, maybe more.

The expectation still hasn’t changed. It didn’t after Sunday. It won’t after this season’s inevitable end.

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.

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