Are the 2013 Colts better than the 1999 Colts were? Part 3: Specialists, coaching, management and intangibles

This is the third and last installment in a series comparing the Indianapolis Colts of 1999 to the team of 2013. To see part 1 (the offense), click here. To see part 2 (the defense), click here.

The enduring image of Mike Vanderjagt: frustration and disappointment. (Photo credit: Matt Kryger, The Indianapolis Star)

The enduring image of Mike Vanderjagt: frustration and disappointment. (Photo credit: Matt Kryger, The Indianapolis Star)

In their 2013 Football Outsiders Almanac (which you should definitely buy if you’re a real NFL fan), the Football Outsiders dudes write, “The total quality of an NFL team is four parts offense, three parts defense, and one part special teams.” They explain that their advanced statistics (which I don’t understand) suggest offense, defense and special teams determine how well teams perform in a 4:3:1 ratio.

I last took a math class in 1999, which happens to be the year of the Colts team I’m comparing to the current version and was a long time ago, so I tend to take people like the Football Outsiders guys at their word. As such, I will assign special teams their proper place as the least impactful of the three phases and compare only the specialists on the 1999 and 2013 teams. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of players like Joe Lefeged and Ratcliff Thomas (a special teams stalwart of the early Manning Colts; 50 points to anyone who remembers him), but those positions are difficult to compare and, ultimately, a small part of a team’s success. The majority of this piece will be devoted to the teams’ coaching, management and intangibles, plus some summary comments on the overall rosters.

As in the first two installments, I will use Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Approximate Value (AV) system to compare the specialists. All other statistics also come from Pro-Football-Reference.com, except where otherwise noted.

Kicker

1999 – Mike Vanderjagt – one season, AV 6
2013 – Adam Vinatieri – 17 seasons, average AV 3.1

In 1999, Vanderjagt was coming off a strong rookie season (27-of-31 field goals, including 6-of-9 from 50+) and looked like the Colts’ kicker of the future. It was a long time before Peyton Manning called him an idiot kicker, and even longer before he blew a 46-yard field goal and doomed the Manning-era Colts’ best team in 2005. In 1999, nobody had any idea what sort of roller coaster ride the Colts were in for with Vandy.

2013 Vinatieri couldn’t be more different from 1999 Vanderjagt. In addition to being a quiet, humble, likable player, he’s one of the best clutch kickers of all time and could one day become only the second player elected to the Hall of Fame exclusively as a kicker (joining Jan Stenerud). He has been good throughout his career in Indy, but he showed some signs of slipping in 2012, missing three of four kicks from 30-39 yards and going 26-for-33 overall (78.8%).

For a single kick, a single game or a single season, I would take 2013 Vinatieri over 1999 Vanderjagt in a heartbeat. But this series is about comparing where the roster was positioned in 1999 with where it is now and attempting to ignore hindsight, and a 29-year-old Vanderjagt coming off an 87.1% season has to get the edge over a 40-year-old Vinatieri coming off a 78.8% season.

Advantage – 1999

Punter

1999 – Hunter Smith – rookie
2013 – Pat McAfee – four seasons, average AV 2.5

Smith was a seventh round draft pick in 1999 coming off a decent career at Notre Dame. He would become a very good punter.  McAfee is one of the game’s best punters and is playing on the franchise tag this year. Aside from that unfortunate canal incident, he has been impeccable. Now if they could only get him signed to a long-term contract.

Advantage – 2013

Returners

1999 – Terrence Wilkins – rookie
2013 – Kerwynn Williams – rookie
–T.Y. Hilton – one season, one punt return TD

Terrence Wilkins led the 1998 Virginia Cavaliers with 165 yards on 17 punt returns, a 9.7 average, and had five kick returns for 117 yards, a 23.4 average, per Virginia’s website. He won a spot on the 1999 Colts largely because he earned the job as the top kick and punt returner. He would average 9.5 yards on 41 punt returns and 22.2 yards on 51 kick returns, scoring one touchdown on each.

Williams, a seventh round draft pick out of mighty Utah State, might have wrapped up the kick return job to start this season with a 39-yard return of the opening kick in Saturday’s win over the Browns. He had 2,272 yards on 91 kick returns at Utah State, a 25-yard average, with one touchdown. Hilton had 300 yards on 26 punt returns last year, an 11.5 average, with one touchdown.

Though all three guys are/were young and unproven at their positions, the edge has to go to the 2013 team, since Hilton is the only one of the three who has already proven entering the season that he can be an impact player as a returner.

Advantage – 2013

Head coach

1999 – Jim Mora – 12 seasons with the Saints and Colts, 96-87 overall record
2013 – Chuck Pagano – one season with the Colts, 11-5 record (team was 2-2 with Pagano on the sidelines)

Mora won two division titles in 11 years with the Saints and was 93-74 overall and 0-4 in the playoffs. He didn’t have a ton of talent to work with in New Orleans: his best quarterbacks were the immortal Bobby Hebert and a past-his-”prime” Jim Everett, and he caught only the tail end of Hall of Fame linebacker Rickey Jackson’s career and the front end of Hall of Fame tackle Willie Roaf’s. He did oversee the league’s top scoring defenses in 1991 and 1992. Mora joined the Colts for Manning’s rookie season and oversaw a 3-13 team.

(Interesting side note: Mora was replaced in New Orleans by some guy named Mike Ditka. Then the below happened.)

Oops.

Oops.

Pagano came to the Colts after a long career as a defensive assistant, most recently serving as Baltimore’s defensive coordinator in 2011. Pagano’s leukemia diagnosis during the 2012 season has been discussed at length and was the catalyst for a surprisingly successful Colts season. At this point, Pagano’s body of work as a head coach is limited to four games, plus a playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens, but by all reports he’s an excellent motivator. And he certainly knows how to deliver a moving speech.

In 1999, Mora had lost all four of his playoff games. This is cheating a bit, but he would prove a couple years later that he was not emotionally equipped to handle the ups and downs of a head coaching job. Pagano seems far more emotionally stable. He strikes me as a much better type to lead a football team.

Advantage – 2013

General manager

1999 – Bill Polian – 11 seasons with the Bills, Panthers and Colts, 98-77 overall record
2013 – Ryan Grigson – one season, 11-5 record

While serving as the Buffalo Bills’ general manager from 1986 to 1992, Polian built the sad sack franchise into a juggernaut, compiling a 69-42 record (58-22 from 1988 to 1992) and three straight Super Bowl appearances. Unfortunately for Polian, they lost the big game all three times, plus once more the year after he was fired. He then guided the expansion Carolina Panthers to a 26-22 record in their first three years of existence from 1995 to 1997 before hopping on the Colts train. Polian was notoriously stubborn and was surly with the media, but he was a master of the draft and knew how to build a team from the ground up.

Grigson has taken a very different approach to team-building than his predecessor. Whereas Polian focused on the draft and building from within and generally maintained a top-heavy roster built around homegrown talent, Grigson has attacked free agency aggressively and left no stone unturned in searching for new talent. Grigson’s methods have produced solid contributors like Cory Redding and Vontae Davis, as well as unconventional prospects like former Canadian Football League stars Jerrell Freeman and Caesar Rayford, African rugby player Daniel Adongo and ex-Army officer Josh McNary. It’s too early to say whether his strategy will work in the long run, and teams like the Eagles and Redskins can attest that building a roster chiefly through free agency often ends in disaster. But no one can accuse Grigson of complacency.

1999 Polian had already proven that he could establish and sustain success, while 2013 Grigson is still finding his way. Grigson might get to Polian’s level someday, but he has a long way to go.

Advantage – 1999

Intangibles

This is an unavoidably subjective area. In fact, defining what “intangibles” are is tricky in itself. I’m essentially talking about the aura of the team. Its feng shui, if you will. While it’s tough to pinpoint, you know a team with good intangibles when you see it. For example, the 2009 Saints had unbelievable intangibles and rode a wave of emotional momentum all the way to . . . actually, I don’t want to talk about it. Look up how that season ended yourself if you want to.

No one except the players and coaches can really understand a team’s mood, disposition and odds for success. But from my perspective, the 2013 Colts are in a far better spot than the 1999 team was.

The 1999 group had veteran leadership in Mora and Polian, but otherwise it didn’t have much experience with success. The Colts had endured a brutal stretch since relocating to Indianapolis in 1984: 91-148 overall, three playoff appearances in 15 years, an AFC championship game hijacking in 1996 when Kordell Stewart stepped out of bounds before catching the winning touchdown for the Steelers. They played in a run-down RCA Dome in a market that hadn’t fully embraced them. In short, they had no reason to believe they could become a winning franchise.

Of course, under Manning, the Colts would turn those trends around. They’re 151-73 since 1999, with 12 playoff appearances in 14 years and a Super Bowl title in 2006. They have a shiny new stadium in Lucas Oil Field, opened in 2008, and USA Today recently ranked their fan base the sixth-best in the league. Aside from a 2-14 blip when Manning missed the 2011 season, they’ve been a model franchise.

Such an extended run of success creates higher expectations.  From the fans to the front office to the coaches to the players, the Colts now expect to win. While Grigson has turned over most of the roster in the last two years, veterans like Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis are used to success and know how to prepare for it. Those expectations create pressure, and teams sometimes crumble under the responsibility of contending every year. But as difficult as it is to maintain that winning edge, it’s far more difficult to get there from zero, which is why the Browns have labored through mediocrity for a decade and a half. The current Colts have the advantage of working within a winning culture, built up over years of excellence under Manning.

Advantage – 2013

The final count for the “other” category: 1999 – 2; 2013 – 4.

Here’s a positional breakdown:

Position 1999 2013
Quarterback    X
Running back    X
Fullback/tight end*    X
Wide receiver    X
Wide receiver**    X
Tight end    X
Left tackle    X
Left guard    X
Center    X
Right guard    X
Right tackle    X
Offense total    6    5
Right end/rush linebacker    X
Defensive tackle    X
Defensive tackle    X
Left end    X
Outside linebacker    X
Middle linebacker/inside linebacker    X
Outside linebacker/inside linebacker    X
Cornerback    X
Cornerback    X
Strong safety    X
Free safety    X
Defense total    4    7
Kicker    X
Punter    X
Returners    X
Head coach    X
General manager    X
Intangibles    X
Other total
   2    4
GRAND TOTAL   12   16

*I adjusted how I compared the offenses in Part 1 in the interest of ending up with 11 starters. I picked Marcus Pollard (1999 tight end) over Stanley Havili (2013 fullback).
**Again, I changed how I compared these positions and broke the receivers into two spots. I would take 1999 Marvin Harrison over any of the 2013 Colts receivers and Reggie Wayne or T.Y. Hilton over anyone other than Harrison on the 1999 team.

As the numbers suggest, I think the 2013 Colts are better positioned for success than the 1999 Colts were. The 1999 team had the advantage of an outstanding offense built around Manning, Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James, a trio of young talents the current group can’t approach. But the 2013 Colts are deeper on defense and are operating in an environment that is more conducive to success, with a better coach and a more established winning culture.

Naturally, all of this could change in a year – or a week, for that matter. Injuries, ineffectiveness, lack of development, behavioral problems, lack of chemistry, and plain old bad luck can all derail a team in a hurry. The margin for error in the NFL is tiny, and a run of success success like Manning’s teams achieved is exceedingly rare. Manning, Harrison, James, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Dallas Clark, Bob Sanders and a slew of others all became outstanding players during those years. If the current group is to become anything close to what that team was, players like Luck, Anthony Castonzo, T.Y. Hilton, Dwayne Allen, Josh Chapman, Bjoern Werner and others will have to reach their collective potential and be complemented with more quality players who aren’t on the roster yet.

Still, looking at the Colts’ current state, they are at least as well-positioned to get to that level as the 1999 team was. And that’s good news for Colts fans.

(Photo credit: Greg Trott, Associated Press)

(Photo credit: Greg Trott, Associated Press)

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Ben Gundy

Ben is a displaced Colts fan living in Pittsburgh who has seen far too many replays of Nick Harper being tackled by Ben Roethlisberger.



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