When a Team Loses, Blame the System, Not the Players’ Character

Another year, another home playoff loss for my beloved Indianapolis Colts. I’m hoping for a more creative playbook and a better roster next year, but I’m worried that the front office and coaching staff will stand pat again. I think that’s the difference between us and the Patriots.

Yes, I, a Colts fan, am finally willing to admit the Patriots are better, not just this year but over the last decade. It’s not for the usual reasons, though. Arch-Patriots fan Bill Simmons wrote an excellent article about Tom Brady and Peyton Manning’s rivalry in which he characterizes both as dedicated athletes doing their best to help their teams win. In other words, it isn’t an issue of Brady being clutch and Manning being a choker.

This Sports Illustrated Report Card represents the kind of post-game analysis that most bothers me. The Jets scored one more point than the Colts (a difference of 6%), but the writer gives Gang Green a 52% higher cumulative GPA and an equal or higher rating in every phase of the game. So when you win, it’s because everyone on your team is a winner, and on losing teams, everyone is a loser. For example:

Jets/Mark Sanchez: 18-31 (58%), 189 yd, 0 TD, 1 INT, 1 sack against #13 pass defense = B, “made enough plays to win”
Colts/Peyton Manning: 18-26 (69%), 225 yd, 1 TD, 0 INT, 1 sack against #6 pass defense = C-, “overall, his ability to come up small in the playoffs is nothing short of remarkable”

But if Nick Folk had missed that field goal at the end, everyone’s grades would be reversed.

You’d think one of these off-seasons Peyton would ask a maharishi about his postseason problem if it’s mental. After all, the ball is the same size in the playoffs. The rules are the same. He could call Matt Hasselbeck for help, since Hasselbeck just worked his magic against the Saints and previous Winning Winner Drew Brees. Wait, what’s that? Hasselbeck took advantage of a tactical weakness in the Saints secondary to win the game? “Never has a secondary seemed so incredibly susceptible to the double-moves the Seahawks consistently used with success.”

That’s more like it.

Sometimes luck decides games, and sometimes a burst of personal brilliance does, but strategy just isn’t discussed often enough. It seems like not enough writers understand it, so most major media sports stories are about who’s doing well, what someone went through to get here, trash talking between the teams, and so on. The fans get used to this kind of analysis, so that’s how they think, too.

But do they judge themselves by the same standard? When you fail a test, is it because in your heart you weren’t up to the challenge, or is it because you didn’t prepare enough? When a project of yours falls apart, is it because you weren’t clutch, or is it because there was an issue you didn’t consider?

All professional football players are impressive. The toughness and devotion required to play a violent sport for a living is something most of us can never match. How can you be tough enough to play football but not tough enough to play playoff football? If the players aren’t talented enough, that’s on the front office. If there isn’t a professional environment, so the coaches and players can’t get good work done, that’s on the front office. If the team is outsmarted during the game, that’s on the coaches.

Over the last decade, the Colts have had the most professional environment, and so they’re successful year after year. They can’t equal their regular season success in the playoffs because that’s when they have to play the more talented and more organized teams. Furthermore, in the playoffs, these teams can better prepare for them because there’s only one game on the horizon, not six. Besides the creative Saints, the Colts’ nemeses are the Patriots, who have strategic genius Bill Belichick and one of the best systems in the game, the Steelers, who have one of the league’s best organizations and best defenses, and the Chargers, who simply have their number. The Colts never switch into a higher strategic gear and surprise or outsmart those teams.

My favorite two football writers, Dr. Z and now Gregg Easterbrook, judge games strategically. It works: Dr. Z predicted the Giants would defeat the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl a few years ago, and Easterbrook predicted before the 2009 season that the Colts and Saints would play in the championship.

Here’s how Easterbrook has called it the last 12 months: on the strategic side, the Colts are impressive because they are so disciplined, trained, and precise. They practice the same things over and over and then do it so well you can’t stop it. The Saints, however, run an incredible variety of plays, showing new looks every week, and they play aggressively. In the Super Bowl, the Saints’ risks paid off, and the Colts’ conservative approach backfired, symbolized by Saints cornerback Tracy Porter predicting the throw Peyton Manning would made on 4th down late in the 4th quarter because he’d seen the play before, jumping the route, picking off the pass, and running it back for a game-ending touchdown. The Patriots are both tactically flexible like the Saints and disciplined like the Colts (cheating excluded): their team is stocked young and hungry players who follow orders and never make mistakes, and their coach is one of the game’s best strategists.

This year, the Colts continued to be predictable, only more teams are catching on. The run of Peyton Manning interceptions returned for touchdowns indicated that defensive players knew what he would do and jumped his routes. Of the seven failed third downs that ended Colts drives today, four of them were on 3rd-and-1: shouldn’t they be able to snatch one yard when they need it?

Furthermore, personnel became a problem for the first time in a while. There are stars all over the NFL who were passed over by several colleges and clubs before finally making it, and the Colts are missing out on these players while the Patriots are finding them. The Colts have whiffed on the last few drafts, which is why their team is called “aging” while the Patriots are “young.”

General Manager Bill Polian makes brash statements. Yet he blames others for the team’s failure. He pointed his finger at the offensive line for last year’s Super Bowl loss, and this year his scapegoat was the special teams. Is he holding himself to such high standards? ESPN’s Paul Kuharsky, who follows the Colts’ division, has suggested Bill Polian neglects the Colts’ weaknesses to spite media and critics by winning without resolving major issues.

That’s a heavy charge, but Polian is on notice. He’s so friendly with the owner that sometimes I wonder if the two of them are like Washington and Goldman Sachs deciding what’s best for everyone else. For example, Polian, with Irsay’s approval and Caldwell’s obedience, ignored unanimous player opposition last year and broke up the perfect season by forcing Peyton Manning to sit during the Jets’ game, killing the team’s morale and shaking its confidence in the coaching staff according to beat writer Bob Kravitz. I know what great work he’s done over the years, but he deserves even more intense scrutiny and criticism than the players do because the buck stops with him.

Speaking of which, injuries were also a critical factor this year, some say a virtual death sentence (albeit the team lost its first two games of the year, as well). 18 Colts players finished the year on injured reserve: in other words, they were knocked out and weren’t coming back. It’ll be interesting to see how far the Green Bay Packers go with the same number of players on the shelf. Manning has also alluded that other players on the team, like Jeff Saturday and Reggie Wayne, have been playing hurt.

Not all injuries are preventable, of course, but the training staff has to improve on that performance. Some staffs are better than others, just like some teams play better than others. The NBA’s Phoenix Suns have one of the best in sports (1 2 3), so pay them a visit. If you can build an excellent pro football training staff in Buffalo, you can build one in Indianapolis. There must be something more they can learn about keeping players healthy. Bob Sanders, for one, seems to have them flummoxed.

Hold everyone in the organization to the same standard as the players. If you’re willing to kick out excellent players like Ryan Lilja and Raheem Brock for occasional mistakes, you should be just as demanding of coaches, scouts, trainers, and assistants. It isn’t like anyone deserves to have a more stable life than the players. More often than not, continuity is best, but if improvements can be made, there are plenty of talented people who would love to work for the Colts. The team is dead. Long live the team.

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