A meltdown of this magnitude could ultimately define another disappointing Indianapolis Colts season.
What’s clear is that it won’t be forgotten; not for many years, if ever.
When Adam Vinatieri kicked a 36-yard field goal to give the Colts a 23-9 lead with 7 minutes, 12 seconds remaining Sunday night, more than half of a partisan Houston Texans crowd at NRG Stadium had seen enough and headed for the exits. Even some confident Colts fans clicked off their TVs.
They missed the Texans scoring two touchdowns in a span of 1 minute, 53 seconds, then stopping the Colts on a final drive in regulation and an opening possession of overtime before Nick Novak booted a deciding 33-yard field goal for a stunning 26-23 victory.
“We just blew it. That’s the only word I can see to describe it,” said Colts outside linebacker Erik Walden. “We had everything right in front of us and then in the last eight minutes, you piss down your legs.”
Instead of the Colts (2-4) pulling even with the Texans (4-2) for first in the rather weak AFC South Division, they arrived home in last place. Although each of the division teams have obvious flaws, these aren’t the same Colts who dominated the division with nine titles in 14 years. The Colts have now lost four of five games in the division dating back to last season.
“I didn’t come here for this,” running back Frank Gore told The Indianapolis Star’s Gregg Doyel, in reference to the running back signing a three-year deal with the Colts in 2015. “I came here to get into the tournament.”
Can the Colts recover from such a setback to salvage anything from this season?
“You have to,” Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said. “What else are you going to do? We’re all professionals. It’s disappointing. And it stinks, and it stings. But, there’s opportunities here. It’s right there, and you can’t shoot yourselves in the foot. You cannot leave points out on the field. You’ve got to be able to score touchdowns, and you can’t settle for field goals. I know we’ve got the best field goal kicker in the National Football League, but when you have opportunities, you can’t have penalties, you can’t have poor play, whatever you want to call it. We continue to shoot ourselves in the foot, and you can’t do that.”
Former Colts head coach Tony Dungy, now an NFL analyst for NBC, saw his coaching career end in the 2008 postseason after his team blew a late lead at San Diego and lost 23-17 in overtime. While the memory of a playoff loss sticks, too, it wasn’t faltering when ahead by 14 points in the final minutes.
Dungy tweeted about the challenge ahead for his former team.
Colts have some major work to do–psychologically–after melting down in the final 4 minutes last night. That will be a tough one to forget.
— Tony Dungy (@TonyDungy) October 17, 2016
Colts fans have had their psyches tested seemingly every week this season. Each game has been close, with a touchdown or less differential in the final quarter. The Colts blew the season opener at home after taking a 1-point lead in the final minute of a 39-35 loss to Detroit. The defense couldn’t hold. They trailed just 16-13 entering the final quarter of Week 2 at Denver, but allowed a pair of defensive touchdowns on an Andrew Luck interception and fumble for a 34-20 loss.
Even in the Colts’ two wins, the game-winning scores came in the final minutes on Luck touchdown passes to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. An argument could be made that the Colts, just 21 months removed from losing an AFC Championship Game, are two plays away from being 0-6.
NFL teams can’t endure when living on such an edge with a limited margin for error each week, especially when considering the Colts’ challenge in the next 10 games is against opponents with a combined record of 32-23. Five of those foes made the playoffs last year.
“We have to man up,” Gore said, “and if we’re going to play football, let’s play football. If we’re not, then we’re not.”
What can the Colts do? For starters, Gore proved that at 33, he can still run in a pass-happy offense. Gore’s 106 rushing yards snapped a dubious Colts streak of 55 games (61 counting the playoffs) without a 100-yard rusher. Ironically, the last time the Colts had a 100-yard rusher came in a 2012 loss at Houston. The Colts could stick to relying more on the run so the offensive balance makes playcalling more unpredictable for defenses.
The Colts also need to max protect more to give Luck time. He’s been sacked a league-high 23 times. Critics will suggest Luck holds the ball too long at times, but his speedy assortment of receivers can’t run deeper routes if their quarterback is under duress. Still, calling nothing but quick-strike plays just bunches up a defense and makes the opponents’ objective that much easier. The downside to having smaller, speedy receivers is they can be susceptible to press coverage and cornerbacks’ grabs within five yards.
But the team’s biggest weakness isn’t in an offense averaging 26.7 points per game, which ranks fifth in the NFL. It’s a defense that’s allowing 29 points per game, which ranks 29th. The Colts are also 30th in total yards allowed at 411.2 per game.
Outside linebacker Robert Mathis had his first sack of the season in the opening series, but the Colts didn’t sack struggling Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler again. An ineffective pass rush with just 8 sacks — just two teams have fewer — has been an ongoing problem for first-year defensive coordinator Ted Monachino. The Colts didn’t make any important offseason moves to bolster the pass rush, unless getting underachieving outside linebacker Trent Cole to accept a pay cut to return qualifies, and Cole ended up on injured reserve after playing just two games.
Although Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis did a solid job for much of the game in shadowing Pro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, other Texans stepped forward to make big plays. Aside from Davis, most of the other Colts have struggled to cover anyone.
The Colts don’t tackle well, either. Texans running back Lamar Miller made a half dozen defenders miss on a 10-yard touchdown reception. Texans tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz eluded three Colts on his game-tying 26-yard TD catch in the final minute.
“We’ve got to finish on defense,” said defensive tackle Arthur Jones, “and I take this personal, this loss.”
What should be most disconcerting about the Texans loss is this game didn’t follow the Colts’ previous script until the end. Unlike in the past, the Colts didn’t fall behind early; they’ve trailed by double digits at halftime in 28 games during the Pagano era. This time, they led 13-0 in the second quarter.
Even after the game went to overtime, the Colts won the toss and drove to their 47. On third-and-3, the Colts anticipated a Texans blitz and used tight end Jack Doyle and running back Robert Turbin to assist with protection. But Luck was still sacked.
General manager Ryan Grigson is a former offensive lineman at Purdue, yet he has been unable to provide a quality O-line that will give his three-time Pro Bowl quarterback the time needed to make plays. Joe Philbin, formerly Miami’s head coach, was hired as offensive line coach in the offseason.
Pagano was Baltimore’s defensive coordinator before being hired, yet the Colts have continually struggled on that side of the ball since he was hired in 2012. After last season’s 8-8 non-playoff season, 11 assistants were replaced.
Owner Jim Irsay, who has a Twitter account with more than 382,000 followers, has been besieged in social media to make changes. Fans and media have continually questioned Irsay’s decision, the day after last season ended, to give Pagano a four-year contract extension and add three more years to Grigson’s contract. The media, and even players, had anticipated changes were forthcoming, so Irsay’s faith in both, at the very least, came as a surprise.
Skeptics suggest this latest demise is another example of how the organization needs change. Irsay hasn’t tweeted since before the game on Sunday night. Nobody is immune to criticism. Some fans and media blame Luck, who became the NFL’s highest-paid player with a $140 million contract in July. Despite the fact that Luck is off to one of the best statistical starts of his five-year career with a 64.1 pass completion percentage, 1,721 passing yards and 11 touchdowns versus 4 interceptions, the team’s failures are inevitably tied to the guy making the most money.
“It’s hard to think about a record after losing this game,” Luck said. “We’ll learn from it and move on. We have to, it’s the NFL.”
But should this season continue to spiral out of control, Irsay will have to face many familiar questions about what’s wrong with his franchise.