There are rebuilding projects in the NFL that happen when a veteran-laden team is forced to scrap its long-term plan and move forward with a vastly different group of players. Vikings fans know all too well about that process. But perhaps never in the modern history of the NFL has a franchise gone through as much of a franchise implosion as the Indianapolis Colts.
No franchise had the sustained excellence that the Colts had from 2002-10. They won 10 or more games in each of those nine seasons and 12 or more in an NFL-record seven straight years. They were as dominant a franchise as the league has seen in the modern era. They only walked away with one Super Bowl title, but every season began with high expectations – and rightfully so.
However, when Peyton Manning went down with a neck injury that cost him the 2011 season, the Colts fell apart like few others. They didn't win their first game until mid-December and finished with a record of 2-14. Not only did Manning exit, but so did most of the veteran players on the team and the entire coaching staff.
New head coach Chuck Pagano is installing a new offense and a new defense with a group of players who have just one game together under their belts – a 41-21 blowout loss to Chicago in Week 1. They knew it would be a struggle to get back to respectability, but the light at the end of that tunnel is far from being in sight.
With Manning due a $28 million roster bonus, it was clear the Colts were moving in a different direction late last season and, when they locked down the first overall draft pick, they used it on Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. Viewed by many as the most polished QB prospect to come out of the college ranks since John Elway 30 years earlier, Luck is the player who is expected to lead the franchise for the next decade. But those around him are, for the most part, either new as well or non-starters moved into more prominent roles.
Gone is running back Joseph Addai, who had been the Colts' leading rusher the last five years. He has been replaced by Donald Brown, a former first-round prospect that the Colts intend to use as their primary running back. The wide receiver corps lost big-play man Pierre Garcon to free agency and may be without Austin Collie (who is listed as doubtful on the team's injury report with a concussion) and speedy rookie T.Y. Hilton (who is questionable with a shoulder injury). The only healthy, experienced receivers they have are Reggie Wayne and Donnie Avery and they will lean heavily on them. The same is true at tight end, where Dallas Clark was released and Jacob Tamme followed Manning to Denver.
Even the offensive line is undergoing a massive overhaul. The only starter who is returning from last year is left tackle Anthony Costanzo and he's only in his second season. With left guard Joe Reitz ruled out for Sunday's game, an O-line with extremely limited time working together will have yet another configuration Sunday.
As many questions as the Colts have on the offensive side of the ball, the defense is in equal flux. For years, the Colts ran a Tampa-2 defense that was brought in by Tony Dungy and retained after Dungy retired. The defense was predicated on speed and the pass-rushing skills of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. New defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has installed a 3-4 defense that has pushed both Freeney and Mathis to the standup outside linebacker positions. It's difficult enough for a team to make such a transition because it requires that players in the front seven all have different responsibilities, but the process has been made even more difficult in that Freeney – hands down the best defensive player for the Colts – and linebacker Pat Angerer have been ruled out of Sunday's game due to injuries (Freeney with an ankle injury and Angerer with an ailing foot).
The Colts would likely struggle this season even if everyone was on the same page and the team was moving forward with an experienced group of players and coaches. However, they're patching together a new offensive line in front of a rookie quarterback and installing a new defense with two of its key starters shelved on the sidelines.
Those struggles were on display last week at Chicago. The defense allowed 24 points in the first half and the offense had to abandon the run almost entirely. As a result, of their 63 offensive plays, 48 of them were passes and the Colts offense turned the ball over five times while holding it for just 24:22 of the game. It was a beating on both sides of the ball, as the Bears rushed 33 times and scored three rushing TDs and Jay Cutler lit them up for 333 yards passing and two more scores.
Coming off a season in which the Vikings won just three games, there is every reason to believe that they can dominate the Colts on both sides of the ball. The Vikings are in a rebuilding phase. The Colts are emerging from a Ground Zero scenario. The only advantage they will have is that they will be at home in front of their loyal fan base, but, as Vikings fans learned last year, a crowd can quickly be taken out of a game if the opponent succeeds early. The Vikings are road favorites (1½ points) for the first time in a year, but may be in line for a blowout win. By the end of the year, all the changes made in Indianapolis may bear fruit, but, for now, they look like a team in disarray that is feeling its way along as best it can – which should play into the Vikings' hands.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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