Day: January 3, 2013

The Turnaround

I was a doubter, a hater, a shaker of the head. When Peter King and a few other NFL analysts said the Colts had a reasonable shot at the playoffs last August, I wondered what they had ingested that had so altered their judgement. This was a team that won 2 games last year! How in the hell did people think they would win 9-10 games and have a shot at the post-season?

We were all wrong, it turned out. The Colts won 11 games. They clinched a playoff spot with one week to play, then knocked Houston out of the #1 seed in the AFC in week 17.

I’m not sure I get it.

I do not consider myself a true stathead in baseball, but I do appreciate the arguments of the stathead community when measuring the performances of players and teams. With that in mind, I look at this year’s Colts team and think a lot of their success in unsustainable. In baseball terms, this year the Colts have had a great BABIP1, something that often doesn’t carry over from year-to-year. In other words, they’ve been lucky.

That said, it’s still be a remarkable year for the team. Andrew Luck was everything he was supposed to be, leading the team to seven fourth-quarter comebacks for wins, tying the single-season record. He was steady, smart, never panicked in the big moments, and filled a highlight reel with big plays. The best part is he can still get a lot better. Aside from the fourth quarter, his stats were pretty mediocre.

Some of his struggles were because of an awful offensive line. He spent much of the season scrambling around, avoiding pressure and trying to keep from getting drilled. Many of his interceptions were the result of throwing under extreme pressure.

Two things from that. A) Peyton Manning would not have survived a season behind that offensive line, making it even smarter that the Colts let him go rather than brought him back for one last shot at a Super Bowl. B), the team should absolutely follow the blueprint for the early Manning years and focus on improving the offense first. They need to shore up that line to keep Luck healthy and give him a chance to sit in the pocket. They need to supplement the receivers and backs he already has. There is a nice core in place, but the weapon needs weapons to maximize his abilities.

It’s difficult to draw too many conclusions from a single year, but I think GM Ryan Grigson is the right guy to continue to built the team. Almost every personnel decision he’s made has been perfect. Drafting Luck was a no-brainer. But he added Vick Ballard, T.Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, and LaVon Brazil in the draft. He picked up Darius Butler and Cassius Vaughn off the scrap heap. He found Deji Karim parking cars in Oklahoma. He traded for Vontae Davis. There’s no way he’s going to have that many transactions turn into major contributors each year, but Grigson clearly has an eye for talent and an understanding of how that talent will fit into the team.

But that’s next season. This Sunday the Colts have a chance to win a playoff game, something I didn’t expect to be possible until at least year two of the Luck era. It won’t be easy, but if they had to go on the road in round one, Baltimore is the team you would want to play. That doesn’t mean the Ravens won’t get their act together and slap the Colts around, especially with it potentially being the final game of Ray Lewis’ career. But it’s preferable to playing Houston for the third time in four weeks or going to New England or Denver.

It’s been a unexpected, remarkable season for the Colts. They may not be as good as their record shows.2 There’s every chance next year will be a step-back season where the breaks don’t go their way and they miss the playoffs before they begin a true run of excellence. But there’s no reason to apologize for their success this year, or think that they should just be happy to have a chance to play on Sunday. They’ve been surprising people all season. Why stop now?

  1. Batting Average on Balls In Play. 
  2. Perhaps they also weren’t as bad last year as their 2-14 record. 

Reading, Part 2

I finished 2012 with two books about two of my favorite teams ever.

Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever – Jack McCallum. This is a perfect accounting of the perfect team: the 1992 US men’s basketball team. The long-time Sports Illustrated NBA writer goes into the history of international basketball, how pros were approved to play in the Olympics, how the Dream Team came together, and then their epic two months as a functioning unit. Along the way, he drops in on members of the team to show where they are today.

It isn’t an exhaustive account, and that’s where I think McCallum chose wisely. He hits all the big issues surrounding the team. Notably whether Isaiah Thomas made the roster or not, the sometimes tense yet friendly Alpha Dog battle between Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, and some of the lingering issues (Clyde Drexler still thinking he was just as good as Jordan). If you loved the Dream Team, you’ll love this book.

The Boys of Winter: The Untold Story of a Coach, a Dream, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team – Wayne Coffey. The Miracle on Ice is 33 years old next month. Wow. And I still remember that night very well.

Coffey revisits the team’s history through the history of the legendary USA-USSR Olympic hockey semifinal match played on February 22, 1980. As the game progresses, he zigs and zags from the team’s selection, to Herb Brooks’ maniacal coaching style, to brief sketches of each player’s life. Like McCallum, he tends to be brief. I think this was a book that should be gone a little deeper, though. That said, it’s still a very fun read.

Especially interesting are the tidbits about what Lake Placid was like during those two weeks. I remember the images from ABC of the central part of the town flooded with athletes and spectators, feeling like a comfy winter party. I didn’t realize just how cozy things were until reading this.

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